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Slang Over The Decades

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I’ve never been an avid user of slang. Though a certain amount has crept into my vocabulary over the years, I don’t call everyone ‘dude’ and I don’t think I’ve ever said, “My bad.” I don’t know why I don’t latch on to slang, and I don’t know why other people do. Our word choices and speaking styles are personal, often subconscious things. I didn’t make a conscious decision not to say, “Far out,” in my teens. The phrase just didn’t roll off my tongue comfortably. Weird, since I’m still a *bit* of an aging hippie and “far out” is considered a hippie phrase. But I don’t want to analyze my own oddities. I want to take a look at how slang has changed over the years. 

Here are some words and phrases that were and/or are popular slang: 

In the 1920s, anything considered the height of excellence was referred to as the cat's pajamas.

In the thirties, we got the word gig as slang for a job. That slang is still around, though it is now mainly used by musicians. This decade also gave us I'll be a monkey's uncle, as a way of expressing disbelief.

The 1940s brought cool and smooch, which are still used to varying degrees today.

With the fifties came hipster, a word defining a trendy person or someone in the ‘in crowd’. This decade also gave us the phrase Big Brother is watching you, referring to the government.

In the sixties, we had a kind of Cultural Revolution that brought a whole new way of speaking for some people. The word hippie, derived from the earlier decade’s hipster, came to define a type of person as well as an entire movement. A male hippie was often referred to as Daddy-O and life was groovy.

The 1970s, the decade in which I became a teen, gave us an intriguing array of slang. We have the phrase catch you on the flip side, and the title of workaholic. A high-energy person became a spaz and running away, particularly from the police, became booking it.

With the 1980s came a whole new collection of words and phrases. Gag me with a spoon was said when a person found something disgusting. A nerd became a dweeb, and gnarly was reserved for things one step up from cool.

The nineties gave us still more choices. We have diss for showing disrespect, and homey for a close friend. We expressed agreement by saying word, and we lost the ‘L’ and ‘R’ in alright, instead saying a’iight.

Despite the relative ease in which slang can define a generation, with the first decade of the 2000s we can’t even agree upon a shortened title for the decade. Unlike past decades that we refer to as the seventies, eighties, etc., this one doesn’t offer us a simple title. Names for this decade that have been tried and failed include: ohs, oh-ohs, double ohs, twenty ohs, and the noughties. While we might never settle on a unified name for this decade, we had no such problem getting slang to take off. This decade brought us rents as a reference to parents, peeps for our groups of friends, and newbie for the person new to a group and/or situation.

Our current decade - are we calling it the tens? - is still new. The younger generation is working furiously to find new slang to define their decade. One word taking hold is ill, which is replacing sick, which replaced cool, to define something great. We have salty to describe a bad attitude. Flying your freak flag is a good thing, and someone calling you fly is a huge compliment.

I don’t always understand where slang words and phrases originate or why they take off the way they do. The reasons why some words take hold and linger for decades, while others are here and gone in a few months, also escape me. Though I might not use much slang or understand the origins, I am fascinated by the phenomenon. In this age of the Internet, I think it’s easier to get slang to take off. Pop a word or phrase on Facebook, get enough of your friends to repeat it, and before long we could be creating our own slang. That could be a fun experiment. 

Do you keep up with the trends and speak in slang? What is your favorite slang word or phrase?