The Boston Globe
Talk amongst yourselves
While teens still 'marinate,' slang travels faster these days with help of the Internet
By Taryn Plumb, Globe Correspondent | October 4, 2007
Much like a condiment, "gnar" can punch up almost any sentence.
Eighteen-year-old Casey Aylward employs the throaty derivative of "gnarly" in instances where everyday adjectives can't quite describe his shock, distaste, amazement, or admiration.
Example? The Groveland teen referred to a stylized skateboarding trick he witnessed recently with "That was gnar!"
"Gnar is its own entity," mused Aylward, standing on the Hampton Beach strip, shaggy thicket of brown hair corralled by a backwards baseball cap.
Other colorful expressions in his cache include "bunk," for disgust, "dank" in cases where "awesome" might normally apply, and "smash" for contentment.
"It's more or less just coming up with your own stuff," he said from behind mirrored sunglasses reflecting hordes of pedestrians, right hand flicking a half-smoked cigarette. He and his friends "take expressions that have been around for a while and make them our own."
Walk up to anybody anywhere - whether it's Hampton Beach's main boulevard, a swarming city street, or even a white-collar office building - and you'll get a notebook-full of slang. Everyone, the teen crowd especially, has a reservoir of witty, inventive, and sometimes crude sayings - so much so that it might seem like lingo has overrun formal American English. In some cases, it has, with terms such as "dis" and "phat" finding their places in modern dictionaries.
But while it's tough to quantify whether slang is, in fact, more prevalent these days, it's clear there's a growing effort to create, share, catalog, and foster it.
A Web search of "slang," for instance, yields an ecosystem of sites, covering anything from 1960s flower child lingo to Japanese jargon. The giant of those is urbandictionary.com, a wellspring of slang that contains more than a million entries - with at least 2,000 new ones a day - and allows users to vote on and contribute their own unique phrases. Since its launch in 2001, the site's popularity has skyrocketed, according to Alexa.com, a company that tracks Internet trends; site traffic has grown 7 percent in the past three months.
In addition, there are the traditional and continuing drivers of slang: hip-hop, linguistically creative TV shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and hundreds of books, such as "Knickers in a Twist: A Dictionary of British Slang."
Noting its prevalence, some scholars and philologists - thought to be the traditional defenders of proper English - even call slang an essential component of speech.
"It enriches language," said Rod Kessler, a professor of English at Salem State College who pointed out that Geoffrey Chaucer used some risque slang in his landmark work, "The Canterbury Tales."
"You show creativity when you use slang. It's colorful, picturesque, imaginative, and shocking."
Poetic, too, says Michael Adams, an English professor at Indiana University Bloomington and author of the book, "Slang: The People's Poetry." For instance, slang is inherently metaphorical, he explains - take the perennial favorites "what's up" and "cool," which ultimately have nothing to do with gravity or temperature. Also, "it allows people to be inventive," he said. "Everybody has the capacity to make it up."
Madeleine Revill and her friends certainly do.
Their unusual way of speaking involves playfully clipping the endings from words - a technique they call "abbrevs."
The abbrevs most frequently peppering the Middleton 16-year-old's speech include "presh," "essench," "whatev," "ridic," "awk," "totes," and "obvi." To decode: precious, essentially, whatever, ridiculous, awkward, totally, and obvious.
As for using them in a sentence: Someone with "ish" ("issues") might create an "awk" (awkward) situation because they're acting like "a sketch."
"Why do I abbreve? It's just fun. People laugh at it," said Revill. "It sets me and my friends apart from other people. It's our own language."
Aylward and his crowd have similarly improvised their own dialect.
If they want to get going, for instance, they say "let's hit it" or "let's get hustlin'."
If they see a good-looking girl, she's "slammin" or "brutal." (Those with less luck in the beauty lingo department get hit with "haggard.")
If they're talking amongst themselves, they use "son" or "bro."
They occasionally pull out some retro terms, too, including "rad," "solid," "tubular," and "peace out."
"We try to keep it real sick," said Aylward, taking a cigarette break from his job emptying quarters from arcade games and loading piles of candy into claw machines at Hampton's Funarama.
Alyward's "bro," 19-year-old Ryan Jackson of Merrimack, N.H., agreed, "We try to bring West Coast back, with a lot of vintage slang."
Stratham, N.H., 16-year-old Ellie Willis's supply of maxims is also of the Cali persuasion.
"The cheese" refers to money, and "emo" is a qualifier for overly sensitive people, she explained as she prepared slushies and sugar-sprinkled gobs of batter at Blink's Fry Doe on the Hampton strip. And if she's bored? "I'm gonna commit."
Given that expanse of tastes - and the fact that slang comes and goes rather quickly - it's difficult to pinpoint trends or determine which phrases are ragingly popular and which are stale. "Cool can't be universal," noted Adams. "That's against the whole purpose of slang." Which is, he explained, to test social limits. "Slang is an instrument of rebellion."
While most teens didn't put it so bluntly, many did defend their freedom to speak as they choose.
"I don't want people telling me I can't say what I want," Kelly Sunderland, 18, who lives in Pepperell but "chills in Bedford."
"The way people talk shows how different they are."
Her most flavorful phrasings have to do with coming and going: For the former, she'll "post up"; for the latter, she "dips."
She admitted - none too regrettably - that her mother often responds to the way she talks with quizzical looks.
Naturally, though, not all adults are flummoxed by today's barrage of sometimes-indecipherable teen lingo.
John Walsh, a 41-year-old from Hampton, for instance, said it's important for each generation to have their own idiom. He compared language to branded clothing, noting, "It gives teenagers a way to be part of a group."
In some cases, adults, too. Greg Revill of Salem, for his part, found his daughter's pruned manner of speaking so catchy that he adopted a few phrases, including "whatev," "awk," and, for extreme instances of weirdness, "awk city."
"Color in any language is good," he said.
Madeleine shares that mindset. "If everyone talked the same way," she said, "everyone would be the same."
And that, as Aylward might say, would be gnar.