Social Media Broke Slang. Now We All Speak Phone. (2024)

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The irony: Online is where we most need the identity cues that idiosyncratic language used to provide.

By Dan Brooks
Social Media Broke Slang. Now We All Speak Phone. (1)

Social Media Broke Slang. Now We All Speak Phone. (2)

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It was on the social-media platform some call X that I first encountered the slang term tea, an expression that originated in Black drag culture to mean “gossip” or “secret biographical information”—as in, “She said she didn’t get fillers, but her boyfriend spilled the tea.” Tea was common parlance on Twitter by at least the Trump administration. At some point in the past year, however, people started saying body tea, a noun phrase meaning “physical hotness.” This usage was apparently derived from a misreading of the influencer Queen Opp’s remark: “Her body tea, she’s super thick, she’s super pretty.” Queen Opp elided the verb to be from a declarative clause, which viewers seem to have misinterpreted, taking “her body [is] tea” to mean “[she has] body tea.” Body tea as a noun has since become so popular that it threatens to eclipse the original usage. An expression that once had a narrow meaning within a specific subculture has drifted toward meaning “good”—a flattening that is the final destination of all slang terms that spread too far too fast.

As a middle-aged heterosexual, I shouldn’t know any of this stuff. While I think of myself as cool and relevant, objectively there is no reason I should understand any slang term that originated after the final season of Workaholics. But I live under unnatural conditions—conditions dictated by social media and its delivery system, the smartphone. Like most internet users with access to X, Instagram, TikTok, and so forth, I routinely spend two to 22 hours a day competing in a metered popularity contest that rewards, among other things, whoever can deviate the furthest from standard English and still be understood. If the slang that emerges from these deviations excludes anyone, it should exclude me. And yet I comprehend it with terrifying clarity.

Because social media gives me access to conversations among people of all ages, from every place and subculture, I am exposed to a virtual fire hose of slang. The discourse that produces new slang is not only publicly available online, but also amplified based on its ability to attract attention from outside its original context. We all stand before this fire hose now, and some of it gets in our mouths. The situation has created a language crisis, in which Americans of all types and backgrounds use expressions of every provenance, destroying the power of slang to perform its basic function: to signal membership in a group.

The incentives imposed by social media to develop and use slang are, of course, not new. Middle schools, skate parks, barracks, gay bars, locker rooms, and various music scenes have operated on the slang-for-esteem model for generations. But these milieus differ from social media in one crucial way: The wrong people cannot get in. In real life, I do not learn how teenagers talk, because whenever I drift by, they fall silent and glare at me. On social media, there is no such exclusion. Thirty-five-year-olds hear the slang of teenagers, college students are privy to the language of the urban underclass, and advertising consultants learn how to talk like self-diagnosed anxiety shut-ins. As a result, how someone talks is no longer a reliable indicator of where they’re coming from. The irony is that social media—the disembodied online spaces where what we post becomes the entirety of who we are—is where we most need the identity cues that slang used to provide.

These cues are an essential part of life offline, if only at a subconscious level. If I’m in a crowd and someone addresses us collectively, I immediately start assessing that person’s background and orientation based on whether they say “ladies and gentlemen,” “you guys,” or “y’all.” These assessments depend on a whole mess of associations and shifting cultural currents of which I am imperfectly but also instinctively aware—associations that are felt more than considered but nonetheless specific and up-to-date.

Read: The most fun way to learn a language

The valence of any given expression is constantly changing—for instance, the dramatic shift since 2008 in what kind of person says “folks.” Folks was a word used almost exclusively by older rural people until the Obama administration, when the president used it relentlessly. Folks subsequently became so popular with politicians, HR supervisors, and others who professionally reassure the hoi polloi that it is now, perversely, one of the strongest signs of membership in the professional managerial class. When Obama said “folks,” he sent the message that, although he was a graduate of Harvard Law School, a senator, and the kind of hyper-ambitious professional who becomes a candidate for president, he was also a salt-of-the-earth type who spoke the language of farmers and Dolly Parton. He was folksy.

One term for this kind of implied message is exformation. The word has different definitions in different fields, but we will define it for our purposes as David Foster Wallace did in a July 1998 essay for Harper’s Magazine: as information conveyed about the speaker that is not explicit in the content of the speech.

Exformation communicated by slang is a way for strangers to efficiently understand whom they are talking with and where they’re from, based on whether they use double negatives or say “man” versus “bro,” “that rules” versus “that owns,” “pot” versus “weed,” “cool” versus “lit.” Exformation is also a way to announce your identification with other people. When I see old friends from whom I have been separated by time and distance greater than I imagined I could bear, and I say, “What’s up, slu*ts?,” I could be taken to mean, in the literal sense, that I am greeting them and condemning their past sexual behavior. But at the level of exformation, I am conveying a whole parcel of unspoken ideas about our relationship, our shared cultural consumption, and my perspective on it. The basic premise of exformation is that there’s what you say and there’s how you say it, and they are in scope and function as the ground is to the sky.

Read: Why AI doesn’t get slang

Social media, however, has standardized our language to the point that exformation has become endangered. For the past 10 years, the English language’s wealth of previously exformative, subcultural slang has dispersed into a single, universal argot that is simply Phone. Hence the destruction of tea as a useful expression. It used to be a fun word that implied knowledge of a whole social realm to which most of us are not privy, and then it became a built-in Twitter GIF that told you only that the person using it knew what the GIF button did. Now anyone who uses tea in conversation might give you information—but exformatively, all they’re telling you about themselves is that they’ve been racking up a lot of screen time.

In the absence of distinctive subcultural expressions, social media has become full of empty slang. The locution the way, used at the beginning of a declarative statement—for example, “the way I never thought I would be 46”—makes that statement less formal and therefore less intense but otherwise adds no informative or exformative meaning. The comparably empty “It’s giving [noun/adjective]” at least turns a sentence fragment into a complete thought—allowing me to respond to a photo of the Tesla Cybertruck with “It’s giving DeLorean” instead of simply blurting out “DeLorean!” like a caveman—but in a potentially insidious way that encourages us to think in vague, unspecified connections, at the level of vibes.

Read: The origin of vibes

Vibes, it seems to me, is the worst offender in the category of slang expressions that help us think less instead of more, a cliché that releases the pressure on language and keeps vaporous thoughts from coalescing into anything solid at all. Everyone online says “vibes” now—college students and corporate bureaucrats and The New York Times (and The Atlantic!) alike.

This mass outbreak of exformation-free slang is a problem because it deprives people of a previously reliable way to know whom they’re talking with and how to treat them. If I hear someone make a remark about the first Velvet Underground album with which I strongly disagree, I am more likely to respond kindly if I know they come from a background different from my own. If a stranger on Twitter says that Nico had pitch problems, I am much more likely to tear into them if they speak the way I do, because I assume they have the cultural experiences, education, and resources that brought me to my own extremely correct opinions. When everyone talks like me, I make the mistake of believing that everyone is like me—and therefore falls into the category of people whom I cut the least slack.

The slangs that I grew up with—the skater expressions I adopted even though I never ollied, the Spanish lingo we learned from Blood In, Blood Out and were just worldly enough to realize we shouldn’t use, the East Coast and SoCal expressions that kept new kids at our school from successfully buying drugs—all these clues I spent years learning to interpret have burned up in the wildfire spread of Phone. The crisis in American slang is that we grasp what everyone is saying so well that we think we know one another, when in fact we understand less and less.

Dan Brooks is a writer based in Missoula, Montana.

Social Media Broke Slang. Now We All Speak Phone. (2024)

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