Teentalk comes and goes

Posted June 28, 2009, at 7:01 p.m.

A 1926 book, Fowler’s “Dictionary of Modern English Usage,” had some salty comments on “vogue words,” which aptly apply to some of the words that are dear to present-day teenagers.

“Cool” is a favorite, a general expression of approval that sprang into use a generation ago and keeps its popularity with no end in sight. “Awesome” has come along more recently, and it, too, seems due for a long life. Same with “totally.”

No one seems to know why some words never lose their appeal while young folks would practically die of humiliation if caught using a word like “swell,” which had its heyday long ago. “Phat,” meaning good, and “right on” as terms of approval have gone out of fashion.

Only a few old timers can recall the short-lived expression “Ah, nertz,” a contrived variation of “Oh, nuts,” which young folks used furiously for a few months in the 1930s but then got sick of it. Two regional words for good, “dope” in California and “skookum” in Oregon, are long gone.

No discussion of teentalk would be complete without mention of a four-letter word, used incessantly by many teenagers, often in the participial form, but rarely uttered in polite society and almost never in most newspapers and magazines. A rare exception is The New Yorker, where, ever since Tina Brown took over, they have seemed to have a house rule requiring its appearance at least once on every page.

As an adjective or an adverb, this word has lost its literal sexual meaning. In young people’s usage, it could be translated as “Amazing!” or “Would you believe it?” or sometimes simply “very.” For example, “Look who just walked in. It’s Martha [the word] Stewart.”

Why do they talk that way? Partly it’s the shock value, but that’s wearing off with the constant repetition. Partly, it’s a lazy way to emphasize their point.Also, the word “very” has long since lost its punch. Some of them substitute “frigging” or “freaking,” but most of them prefer speaking out. They seem to yearn for emphasis.

Will frigging and freaking and the word itself die out as the young ones tire of it and grownups complain? Not likely, considering the way terms like cool and awesome have hung on for decades.

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