I spend a fair amount of my week reading the writing of teenagers. Often, I’m encouraged. While high school students don’t always have the command of English vocabulary or the mechanics that we see in professional writers, many of them have a way with words that keeps the language fresh and exciting.
My students’ slang is particularly rich. In recent years, I’ve been treated to essays about “sus VSCO girls” who exist only “to spill tea.” To be sure, these essays are hundo p fire; though some might be a bit too savage for their own good, I still find myself enjoying them, hollering “YAS” and suddenly discovering that I’m dead.
These word choices might not work in the wider academic world, but if we take audience into consideration, they certainly do. These students are writing for me and for their peers, typically. (The fact that my students don’t have a broader audience for their writing, by the way, is a failure of mine that I discuss during my recent appearance on Donielle Albrecht’s The Independent Educator podcast.) I often don’t understand the slang, but I’m a lover of language and would be remiss if I didn’t do my etymological homework.
To me, this seems only fair. If I’m going to ask students to be attentive to the language in everything from Shakespeare to Jesmyn Ward, then I should do them the courtesy of trying to understand the way in which they have taken my native tongue and innovated it. Why, after all, is the outdated vocabulary of Henry David Thoreau any more worthy than the newfangled vocabulary of the lyrical linguists that sit in my classroom every day?
I started to really think about all of this last year when I noticed that a group of students who ate lunch in my classroom would often walk into the room and encourage each other to “spill the tea.” After hearing this several times, I had to ask what the heck they were talking about.
“Tea is like gossip, Mr. Hebert,” one of them said. “You can spill tea or you can sip tea. Your choice.” She then returned to her group of friends and I was thrust back into my thirty-something irrelevance, the bald and bearded guy over in the corner marking papers or watching reruns of Jeopardy!
But I didn’t do either of those things. Instead, my mind went to work on this new idiom, and quickly I came to see the brilliance of the metaphor! As I looked at these juniors, spilling tea all over my classroom floor, they changed shape right before my eyes. No longer were they students in school uniforms, sitting in a circle on the floor and discussing the latest episode of American Horror Story. Instead, they looked a bit more like lords and ladies from Downton Abbey, a bunch of dowager countesses, perhaps, sipping their tea, trading the latest “news.”
While this slang is often based on abbreviation—sus and v, for example—much of it falls into the more delightful category of figurative brilliance that lends it a luster I rather like. Chads, Stans, and Karens, all belong to this group, as do VSCO girls and tea and metonyms like fit. They have a vibrance that takes me aback, causes me to attend to the image, to think about the ways in which we humans freely associate across time and space, bending phonemes to fit the mood and moment.
No, we dowager countesses who grade academic writing will not accept this type of slang in formal essays…at least not yet. But James Callahan, the sociology professor who created a document of the most used Gen Z terms in his classroom, is certainly on to something. If we are going to continue to engage with English, then we must accept—as Chaucer and Shakespeare must be doing right now in their graves—that languages are fluid things. Words change. They come and go. Sometimes, this is in fashion, but now it is not, and then later it just might come back.
Will we be using sus and tea forever? I’m not hundo p, but I’ll trust the kids to let me know when these terms no longer slap.
Two Brief Notes:
- If you would like James Callahan's brief dictionary of slang, he's made it available via Google Docs: Generation Z Dictionary.
- I do think it's appropriate for me to apologize to Generation Z. I fear that I may have destroyed all of these terms merely by using them. Ah well...keep inventing!