say what? how the internet is affecting the slang we use

For The Alphabetical Issue, 2013, Sam Wolfson investigates how emergent terms imbed themselves within the common verbiage...

by Sam Wolfson
Oct 28 2014, 4:35pm

The way in which language is recorded, understood and analysed has changed phenomenally since the internet dawned. Even 'omnishambles', a neologism created this year, was being shouted in parliament and splayed across the front pages of newspapers months before it even made it into the dictionary. So how do these new words spring to life and go on to embed themselves in our rhetoric? Sam Wolfson investigates from 2013's The Alphabetical Issue...

Fetch (definition 1): The word that really hot girl from Mean Girls was trying to make slang for cool, awesome, or good. (Urban Dictionary) 

The effect the internet has had on culture, communication and news has been so profound and permanent that even mentioning it feels like a cliché. But one area in which we're yet to realise the full force of the web, is the fundamental changes it's making to language itself. To understand, let's examine the plight of poor Gretchen Wieners, Regina George's sidekick in cult teen movie Mean Girls, and the girl who wanted to make 'fetch' happen.

Back in 2004 when Mean Girls was released, Gretchen was, not unfairly, told to stop trying to make the word 'fetch' catch on. The point her overbearing friend Regina was no doubt making when she struck down the word, is that the power of your popularity cannot force people to adopt a new vocabulary. Language is one of the most resistant things in the world, the last defence against capital, force and influence. Far greater forces than Gretchen Wieners have tried to force their words on people.

In the 19th and 20th century, Western governments tried desperately to create national standard languages in order to disenfranchise resistant groups. The French, through the Académie Française, tried to protect the French language from foreign impurities, literally banning words of foreign origin from the language. The British government tried to force estuary-English not just on the country, but around the world in the colonies. Control over the language was a central feature of oppression, the theory being that by installing the correct English you could marginalise dissent. Dictionaries became prison guards - erasing any dissenting words from the language.

Everywhere this was attempted, it failed. In the banlieues of France, impoverished communities fused French and Arab words with the rules of Pig Latin to form Verlan. Initially used by street gangs to avoid the police understanding their conspiratorial intent, it has now become the language of resistance for French youth unimpressed with the government's conservative policies. In Britain, a plethora of pirate radio stations emerged to fill the airwaves with alternative dialects.

However, while slang, local dialects and post-colonial literature, all served to reinforce identities, elites retained control of the official language that slang was opposed to. The Oxford English Dictionary remained the gold standard of the English language; 'BBC English' was, for the most part, the dominant vocabulary of the media. If elites couldn't stop people speaking their own language, they would chastise them for doing so. Everyone from Pierre Bourdieu to Jeremy Clarkson agree that young people, in particular, damage their own social standing by refusing to speak the Queen's English. At least, that was the way things were.

The way in which language is recorded, understood and analysed has changed phenomenally since the internet. Where once slang was used to build boundaries along region and background, a small number of websites have made it possible for slang to transcend those divisions. During the Arab Spring, the words "Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam" (the people want to bring down the regime) were scrawled across walls and shouted from the street, uniting disparate struggles in countries thousands of miles apart. It was the slogan, tweeted by a few hundred, hollered by a by a few hundred thousand, that defined the drive towards self-determination.

On, kids from Slough analyse and debate Rick Ross lyrics, unpicking and sharing layers of meaning that, only a few years ago, would be limited to a tiny number of those in the know. To a layman, the opening lyric to Frank Ocean's Pyramids - "Set the cheetahs on the loose" - seems inconsequential until you realise it's referencing Cleopatra's pets, infidelity and the famous strip club Cheetahs, all topics that the song later touches on. People have recently started adding American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky speeches and State of the Unions to the site, where they are critiqued with similar enthusiasm.

"Barry O drops his first major track of 2012. It features cameos by Jackie Bray and Bryan Ritterby, and a shout out to the dead homies Steve Jobs and Ronald Reagan. And like any good rapper, Obama embeds subliminals at his opponent, presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney." (Rap Genius) 

Arguing whether the Joey Bada$$' line, "God bless ya when the semi wet ya" is about a shooting or a sex act, or whether Suga Free's lyric, "And I see orange stars, green clovers and blue diamonds" is about ecstasy or Lucky Charms, might seem unimportant, but they're taking lyrics that would only have been understood by one community and bringing them to the world.

Elites meanwhile, have never been more powerless in their attempts to influence vocabulary, whether it be the prime minister's failed attempt to make "calm down dear" sound like laddy banter rather than a sexist slur or the quiet retraction last month of an absurd law that made offensive language illegal. Most embarrassing in recent memory is the efforts of the Industry Trust, the British film industry body, trying to popularise the expression "Knock-Off Nigel" by associating pirating films with other frowned-upon practices such as "scrounging drinks", "nicking food from the fridge" and being "a grubby little creep", as if kids in the school playground would start chastising each other for not tipping the dinner lady.

But the greatest irrelevancy to the formation of language, are the old institutions, which decide which words we could use. Last month, the Oxford English Dictionary announced its words of the year, which will be added into the dictionary. 'Dumbphone', the brick you get when your iPhone falls down the toilet, 'flexitarian', a vegetarian with poor self control and 'omnishambles', the word coined by Peter Capaldi's character, Malcolm Tucker, in The Thick Of It. The OED spoke of the solemn decision it has to make deciding what words are and aren't part of the English language. Which is fine, except that 'flexitarian' first appeared in nutrition books and articles in early 2003, it was added to Urban Dictionary in 2004 and had its own Wikipedia page by 2007. By the time the OED added it, the term felt hammy and dated. These days vegans are all saying, 'tofuify' anyway.

Tofuify: Unintentionally happens when adding cold soymilk to hot coffee, which creates curdles and little tofu-y bits. (Urban Dictionary) 

Even omnishambles, a neologism created this year, was being shouted in parliament and splayed across the front pages of newspapers months before it made it into the dictionary. At last count it has 350,000 results on Google.

At the centre of this revolution in language is the Urban Dictionary, the website that was started by in 1999 by Aaron Pecker, a college student who wanted, like hundreds of people before him, to record the words he and his friends would use. It began with an entry for 'The man'.

The man: The man is the head of 'the establishment' put in place to 'bring us down'. He is assumed to be a male Caucasian between the ages of 25-40 and is rumoured to have a substantial amount of acquired wealth. (Urban Dictionary)

The website snowballed almost immediately, with millions of words added within years. Today it's among the top 500 most visited websites in English speaking countries, astonishing for a site that offers almost no goods, services, search, social networking or porn. In the twelve years since its inception, Urban Dictionary has changed the way that words are recorded and used irrevocably. Users submit their own words and definitions, which are then voted up or down by other users, with the best voted definitions appearing at the top. Over 100 million votes have been cast on Urban Dictionary.

This democratic reference has had an awesome power on the nature of slang, taking words and neologisms used by a few friends and turning them into internationally understood terms. Jokes between friends, like 'brinkmanshit' (When two or more parties have entered separate bathroom stalls at nearly the same time and deliberately delay moving their bowels so as not to be the one to break the often awkward and intense silence) are seen by thousands.

At university, a boy from Cornwall once said to our group of friends that he wanted us all to come and visit his hometown. There, he said, he would be the expert, showing us what caves to climb in and which cliffs to jump off, whereas normally he feels like the novice, scribbling down things we say in conversation and then going home to look them up on Urban Dictionary. It was a sweet thing to say, but from another perspective, it shows how easily Urban Dictionary can ameliorate differences in dialogue and stop slang being the preserve of the few. By the time we graduated, he was talking like Meek Mill in a hotbox.

But that democratic principle also changes slang from something that defines your background to something that can be shared and debated. Words which have multiple meanings, to take one example the popular London slang 'peak', have new definitions added all the time with the top voted definition changing with trends. 

Peak (definition 1): When something is peak, it's a cuss that makes your opponent upset and can't bring comebacks.
512 up, 284 down

Peak (definition 2): It can refer to an excellent or top quality situation/object/event/person. Curiously, it can also refer to a very negative situation.
242 up, 149 down

Peak (definition 3): Bad luck, gutted. When some shit goes down that is bad on your behalf, peak for you. When something bad happens to a mate, peak for them.
26 up 10 down (Urban Dictionary)

Most of the people voting will be far removed from the community where the word originated, but as new people go on Urban Dictionary to see what the word means, a secondary or other meaning can overtake the original. What does all this, Gretchen Wieners might ask, have to do with 'fetch'?

It means that you can make 'fetch' happen, you just need to be a little less focused on what it means. Take some inspiration from Danvers High School in Boston. In 2009, the principle sent a letter to parents telling them that the word 'Meep' had been banned. The students responded in kind, with 'Free Meep' T-shirts, mass meepings and, crucially, adding countless definitions to Urban Dictionary, all of them different. As the story gained media attention, students brought in new meep based phrases, 'Jesus mept' and 'meepover' among the best.

The word, which most likely meant nothing to begin with, had become a global craze, with people using Urban Dictionary's clever merchandise function to buy T-shirts, mugs and underwear emblazoned with the term. The students at Danvers High School had made meep happen in a big way. But in doing so they were prepared for new people to adopt and hijack its meaning.

Similarly, as the Arab Spring progressed, the original chant began to adapt. In Palestine people graffittied "Ash-sha?b yur?d inh?? al-inqis?m" (the people want the division to end) on the West Bank barrier. In Syria, loyalist groups have taunted insurrections by shouting "Ash-sha?b yur?d Bash?r al-Asad" (the people want Bashar al Asad). The phrase had lost the intention of its originators, but its power continued.

So, Gretchen Wieners, go forth and make 'fetch' happen. Put it on a T-shirt. Hashtag it. Chant it on the streets. But be careful what you wish for, because it's not just the popular girls who are going to be saying 'fetch'. Once the internet gets hold of it, it's fair game. 

Fetch (definition 1): The word that really hot girl from Mean Girls was trying to make slang for cool, awesome, or good.

Fetch (definition 2): A slang word for sperm, spunk, cum, jizm. (Urban Dictionary)


Text Sam Wolfs
[From The Alphabetical Issue, No. 313, Pre-Spring 2013]

Sam Wolfson
the alphabetical issue