‘Snatched,’ ‘yeet,’ ‘flex,’ ‘bae,’ ‘finnah,’ ‘scratch.’ What do these words mean and how do we learn them in the first place?

Image by Andrea Marie Tan
Image by Andrea Marie Tan

A class of anthropology students under the direction of Dr. Christine Schreyer have embarked on a new survey that aims to learn more about the use of English slang among UBCO’s student population.

Students between the ages of seventeen and seventy were asked an array of questions relating to their use and understanding of frequently used slang. The words were chosen beforehand by the students and systematically grouped based on the generations that produced them. Though the students have yet to fully analyze the data, some trends became evident fairly quickly.

“We found out that people who were generally seventeen to nineteen didn’t understand the slang words from people who were sixty to sixty-nine,” said Dr. Schreyer. “But sometimes they did, so we asked them if they knew this word, how did you know it, to find out if people learn slang from family members, from the media, etc. There are all sorts of ideas about that. It’s about learning how people learn slang from generations other than their own.”

What is certain is that people learn new words through socialization: reading, watching television and movies, listening to music, talking with family members and friends. But what is less clear are the patterns of socialization that structure this learning. Often individuals from the same generation will experience disparate levels of familiarity with the same slang words. Stephanie Morrison, a student in Dr. Schreyer’s class, encountered this phenomenon when surveying younger students.

Stephanie Morrison - Photo by Andrea Marie Tan
Stephanie Morrison - Photo by Andrea Marie Tan

“For example,” said Morrison, “the phrase ‘go postal’-- personally I didn’t know what that meant. But some younger people than me knew what that meant, and that was a little surprising [because] that was one of our older-ranged phrases.”

Dr. Schreyer noted that some of the slang words that made their way into the surveys were ones that have become generally disliked by large numbers of people, such as the word ‘snatched.’ This transition from fame to infamy that words such as ‘bae,’ ‘selfie,’ or ‘finna’ undergo is another sociolinguistic topic ripe for research. Morrison compares the reputations and lifespans of these slang words to those of popular memes on social media, where ideas and turns of phrase trend for a few weeks before descending into obscurity.

“There are definitely words that have a peak and then die off,” Morrison said. “They might be added to the dictionary, but they may have thirty seconds in the spotlight and then die off, because there are always new words being generated.”

But some words, on the other hand, simply grow obnoxious from overuse.

“I hate the word ‘bae,’” said Morrison. “I cringe at that so much.”

But a dislike for particular slang words is one thing, while wholesale resistance to the ever-changing nature of the English language is something completely different. Dr. Schreyer calls this narrow, traditional conception of English “prescriptive.” One of the most widespread examples of such traditional thinking takes the form of resistance to the use of the singular and gender-neutral pronoun ‘they,’ which, for Dr. Schreyer, “is completely acceptable.”

Colloquial language is a vital part of everyday human connection. A single piece of slang can reveal unique and nuanced information about an individual that other forms of communication cannot. But the question is: just how much can be revealed? Dr. Schreyer and her students are asking this very question.