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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

I’m aware

(2010’s | teenagese | “I know that,” “there’s no need to tell me that”)

I dip a nervous toe into kids’ lingo every now and then. I used to have a few kids in my life — they are all adults or near-adults now — but I don’t talk to them enough to get much of a read on the latest vocabulary, though they’re very nice if I take the trouble to ask. “I’m aware” is a young person’s term. I haven’t heard anyone over twenty-five say it, and I don’t expect to until my nephew turns twenty-six. We used to say, “I’m (well) aware of that,” which had a somewhat similar sense: You don’t have to tell me that. Now the kids have lopped off the prepositions and conjunctions and use it unadorned. There’s quite a group of shortened set phrases derived from longer ones; I’ve covered lean in, give back, and others.

I haven’t encountered “I’m aware” much, so my sample size isn’t large enough to make generalizations, but that won’t stop me. When I have heard it, I’ve heard a defensive (or, as lovely Liz from Queens suggests, protective) tone, a way of acknowledging that there’s something to be discussed while shutting down the possibility of discussion. Maybe it’s none of your business; maybe we’ll revisit the subject later. It could be a college student responding to needling from elders about an inadequate social conscience, or a high school student to a friend’s reminder of relationship difficulties. It’s not like “I know, right?” which has a certain lift, a hint of jubilation. “I’m aware” is darker than that. More rueful than joyful, more closed- than open-hearted. That’s how it differs from “I get that,” which in other ways it resembles. But “I get that” is intended to prolong the discussion by admitting that the other party is making a legitimate point.

What is the difference between “I’m aware of” and “I know”? At first I thought not much, but as I dwelt on the matter I concluded that awareness brings a little more life with it, more alertness, more intensity than mere knowing. Reminds you of “beware” — there’s a reason for that — whose purpose is to grab your attention with a warning. To be aware of something is to know it AND be alive to it. Most of the things we know are useful from time to time but don’t change our lives. Which is part of why “I’m aware” means more than “I know, I know.” If it seems strange that an expression that signals greater consciousness also signals an unwillingness to engage it, it shouldn’t. That heightened importance is what makes it hard to talk about. If it’s a subject the speaker has no reservations about, they don’t say “I’m aware.”

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