By Douglas Quenqua in The New York Times:
Last week, if you wanted to use the latest slang to tell a friend he was cool, you could have called him “Obama,” as in: “Dude, you’re rocking the new Pre phone? You are so Obama.”
This week? Best not to risk it.
The sudden shift in meaning has nothing to do with the fortunes of the president, regardless of what the health care debate may do to his cool factor. The fault rests entirely with what has happened to the life span of slang, which seems to shorten with every click of the mouse.
“Obama” was one of the most noteworthy new entries in “U.C.L.A. Slang 6,” a recently released compendium of student colloquialisms.
And the word’s very inclusion in the dictionary signifies that its street cred has evaporated.
“I think that word has completely left us,” said Pamela Munro, the U.C.L.A. professor who edited the latest edition of that dictionary, which is compiled once every four years.
What’s a hipster (hepcat?) to do? Keeping up with the latest slang is at once easier and harder than ever. The number of slang dictionaries is growing, both online and off, not to mention social networking media that invent and discard words, phrases and memes at the speed of broadband. The life of slang is now shorter than ever, say linguists, and what was once a reliable code for identifying members of an in-group or subculture is losing some of its magic.
The Internet “is robbing slang of a lot of its sociolinguistic exclusionary power,” said Robert A. Leonard, a linguistics professor at Hofstra in Hempstead, N.Y., whose slang credentials include being a founding member of the doo-wop group Sha Na Na, formed in the late 1960s. “If you are in a real inside group, you are manufacturing slang so that you can exclude the wannabes.”
And that becomes harder, he added, as the whole world has access to your language.
Part of the problem is that electronic media are making it too easy to compile dictionaries like “U.C.L.A. Slang 6.” While slang dictionaries have been around in one form or another since the 18th century, they now number more than a dozen in print, to say nothing of online resources like UrbanDictionary.com and slangsite.com that are updated hundreds of times daily.
“It used to be that the guys who did all the slang dictionaries would take years just to track it down,” said David Crystal, a linguist who has written more than 30 books. “Now, with the Internet, you just put something up on Facebook and say ‘send me in your slang terms,’ and in a few days you have hundreds of examples and the ability to check it out with other readers.”
Urban Dictionary, which is 10 years old, may be the ultimate example. It is a sprawling, chaotic collection of street talk, all of it user-submitted, giving everyone access to the meaning behind the coded lyrics of someone like Lil Wayne.
Slang is meant to be “something that keeps groups together and keeps people out,” said Aaron Peckham, who began the site when he was a freshman at California Polytechnic State University. But the slang on Urban Dictionary is “from every group you can imagine, so it’s helping people understand each other.”
In July, the Urban Dictionary attracted 15 million unique users and 1,000 new words a day, Mr. Peckham said.
But widespread understanding is the opposite of what slang is about. Indeed, it is accepted wisdom among linguists that once a word actually shows up in a slang dictionary, it effectively ceases to be slang.
What does that mean for language in the age of Urban Dictionary? Will it be the end of slang? Hardly, says Jonathon Green, author of “Chambers Slang Dictionary” and other books about neologisms. “I think slang is the salsa, the great hot sauce on our language,” he said. “I think apart from losing its power, it keeps reproducing itself. There are now 2,500 words for ‘drunk.’ Soon there will be 3,500.”
In the past, slang has proved resilient, if only because it recycles itself almost as quickly as it wears out. Mr. Green said that, when he was a hippie in England in the 1960s, “the language that we were using was in fact the language of 1930s black America, though very few of us were aware of this.”
Back then, “it took 20, 30 years to cross the Atlantic,“ he said. “The difference now is it takes 20 to 30 hours.”
Tracking a word’s arc from hip to lame is notoriously difficult, especially because different social groups grab hold of different terms at different times. But Professor Leonard cites “pwned” (rhymes with owned) as a relatively recent invention that is already falling out of favor with the gaming crowd that coined it. “It comes from the mistyping of ‘owned’ on some computer game,” as in “I just owned you,” he said.
And the site Gawker recently tried without success to ban the phrase “I’m just sayin,’ ” which has become ubiquitous on blogs and Twitter as a way of defanging — disingenuously, perhaps — a potentially confrontational statement. In a sign of just how quickly such phrases are now being co-opted, CNN recently unveiled a segment called “Just Sayin,’ ” in which an anchorwoman offers a common-sense opinion about some curious cultural phenomenon, followed by the passive-aggressive catch phrase.
“These words that once might have marked you as a member of a certain group or social set, as soon as they get into circulation, they spread very quickly and lose their specialness,” said Gabriel Snyder, Gawker’s editor in chief.
Indeed, banning tired slang has become something of a regular feature on the site, a reaction to the rapid pace at which insider terms become worn out.
So is slang in danger of losing its cool? Not exactly, says Ms. Munro, the U.C.L.A. linguistics professor.
People who learn slang secondhand, she says, will tend to use it incorrectly.
“I feel that your grandmother would have a real hard time sounding like Lil Wayne,” she said.