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A lesson in the latest slang, courtesy of Mrs. Thompson's middle school students.
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March 11, 2008
When I started these columns in 2003, I wrote one called Squatchetery, the U-M term in the 1890s for something pleasing. The following month I wrote a sequel called phat, a twenty-first century synonym for squatchetery. In those columns (reprinted at this link), I imagined a conversation between undergraduates who, a century apart, could barely communicate with each other in the slang of their own day.
Now I discover that Mrs. Thompson's class at Jefferson Middle School in Midland has no need for squatchetery or phat. They have dank. "Dinner was dank tonight! What's for dessert?" Dank (like a lot of slang) has its roots in taboo or at least disreputable usage, but we can assume that the Midland middle schoolers know nothing of that. They probably think they made it up.
Mrs. Thompson (LSA, '85) writes to say that her eighth graders are "having a blast" writing a Teen Dictionary and it's full of good things. (What do you bet that Mrs. Thompson says "have a blast" and her students don't?) And they're willing to write it even though there's a POS—"parent over [one's] shoulder," a term from instant messaging.
Nothing dates someone quite so vividly as adjectives that celebrate in the way dank does: awesome, cool, dawg, yummy, hella tight, tough, bad, sexy, tasty, zingy, rare, fine, super, stupendous.
What's your favorite slang? Do you still use outdated terms from your youth? Share your words and memories at our Letters page.
Isn't it wonderful that these kids in Midland are so trusting of their teacher that they let her in on the secret world of teens! At Michigan, I'm glad to say, Mrs. Thompson learned to be curious about English rather than censorious of departures from what somebody says is "right."
Here are some extracts from the Teen Dictionary created by her class.
- mack: flirt. "Even though Joe is in eighth grade, he likes to mack on all the seventh-grade girls."
- peace out: good-bye. "Peace out, Mrs. Thompson. Class is over."
- pwn [pronounced like "pone"]: to outperform someone to the point of humiliation. "Dawg, I totally pwned you at Gears of War last night."
- tight: excellent. "My serves were so tight tonight, I'm sure I'll make the team."
- wak: crazy. "This dictionary is so wak that I don't think my grandma would understand any of it."
I suspect that grandma would get quite a few of their entries, but young people don't discover much historical depth when they first learn their language. Chill out "relax" and hit on "flirt" are certainly known to grandma, though she might not want to admit it. Dis (< disrespect) "insult" and homie "friend" are certainly known to mom. Spill (< spill the beans) "to tell a secret" has been around since great-grandma's day.
The teen dictionary has an entry for rock "to be excellent": "Dude, you rock at science. You've had 100% on every test." And here's an ad, dated 1969, from the newspaper in Van Wert, Ohio: "Bored? Uptight? In a box? Weekend bowling really rocks!" That wouldn't have happened except for rock and roll which dates to (at least) 1954.
What makes English so dank is that we can tease out the layers in it as a geologist might do with a core of sedimentary rock or a papyrologist might do in unwinding a scroll.
Whether or not Mrs. Thompson's students will grow up to study the history of the earth in rocks, or decipher ancient texts remains to be seen. But they will certainly grow up with a love of the English language.
Richard W. Bailey is Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. His latest publication (co-edited with Colette Moore and Marilyn Miller) is an edition of a chronicle of daily life in London written by a merchant in the middle of the sixteenth century. This electronic book incorporates images of the manuscript, a transcript of the writing it contains, and a modernization of the text for easy reading. Thanks to the University of Michigan Library and the University Press, the work is freely available to all: http://www.hti.umich.edu/m/machyn