From a Teen’s Perspective: The secret gift of slang

by Dylan Lanier on April 10, 2023

“Language is not a genetic gift, it is a social gift. Learning a new language is becoming a member of the club,” said Canadian psycholinguist Frank Smith. This quote aptly summarizes today’s topic: language, and more specifically, how it builds community.

And since this column is “From a Teen’s Perspective,” we’ll be focusing on how teenage language — oft regarded as unnecessarily convoluted or just plain weird —serves a vital purpose in our communication and generational identity.
I see three prominent ways in which teenage language diverges from the modern lexicon: slang, emojis, and pop culture references.

Let’s start with the definition of slang. The Mirriam-Webster dictionary gives two. The first, “language peculiar to a nonstandard group.” The second, “an informal nonstandard vocabulary composed typically of coinages, arbitrarily changed words, and extravagant, forced, or facetious figures of speech.”

In our case, we’ll use both. Teen slang is a “nonstandard vocabulary” specific to our age group filled with derivations of common words and new terms all together.

Our slang can understandably sound absurb. For example, we say “spilling tea” instead of “gossiping” and sometimes refer to delicious food as “bussin’.” Most of these terms have obscure or entirely arbitrary origins and were proliferated through social circles and social media. In this way, slang becomes a reflection of your integration within teenage culture; a second language in which fluency strengthens connections. Knowing the lingo means being a part of the current trends in our communities.

It’s a great feeling to meet new people or open up TikTok knowing you possess the key that gives meaning to a unique form of communication shared solely by your generation (minus a few parents who think they’ve caught on).

Emojis can be an equally vexing yet nuanced part of teenage language. Given my generation’s unprecented ease at which we can communicate when we’re apart, it makes sense that we would develop a texting language more complex than just words.

Of course, you have your standard happy 😀, gross 🤢, or nervous 😬, but other expressions aren’t as simple. The laughing emoji 😂now means cringy while the crying emoji 😭 represents actual laughter. The skull emoji 💀means “yikes” and the snot emoji 😪 feigns offense. Similar to slang, emoji communication is constantly evolving, and the meanings of individual emoticons are subject to change.

Hard to keep up with? Certainly. Does it always make sense? Definitely not.

However, emojis succintly express the nuanced feelings that can be hard to describe with just words. They can be added onto sentences to qualify your tone or stand in as complete messages all by themselves. Just as we motion with our hands while we talk, emojis offer a way to enhance our ideas and add more expression to our words. Understanding your friend’s emoji usage means understanding their mood along with their words, improving our communication and our empathy.

Pop culture references clearly distinguish one generation from the next. These days, many teenagers quote from popular shows or TikTok sounds in everday conversation. Unless you’re actively catching up on the latest teenage content, you might not be able to decipher our comunication. In this way, being able to understand and employ these references represents how in-tune you are with teen culture and builds a sense of familiarity and shared experiences between teenagers.

As with every generation, today’s teenagers have developed their own forms of communication. We have built a unique identity in part from these shared idiosyncrasies, one that connects us to each other and establishes the idea of a broader teenage community whose members aren’t so different, after all.

From a Teen’s Perspective is a weekly column contributed by Menlo-Atherton High School Junior Dylan Lanier, who has lived in Menlo Park since he was two.

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