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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: teenagers

forever (adj.)

(1990’s | “permanent,” “interminable,” “endless,” “unstoppable”)

“Forever” has long done time as a noun, an adverb (“forever young”), even an interjection (forever and ever, amen). What was left? Adjective. And it is coming to pass, led by three expressions detailed below. We shall see whether we can make a verb of it.

“Forever war,” familiar to anyone who has been following the news lately, apparently got its start as the title of Joe Haldeman’s science fiction novel (1978). According to LexisNexis, it took more than twenty years for the expression to gain currency in political commentary; it started appearing in the aughts, the decade in which we launched two prolonged, costly, unsuccessful wars in the name of a third, the war on terrorism. Its recent popularity, owed largely to Joe Biden, is spawning spinoffs; Eric Alterman gave us “forever warriors” and “forever nonsense” in the title of a recent column.

“Forever family” is first spotted in LexisNexis in the late eighties, attributed to foster children hoping to land in a stable environment. Here it has a wistful, aspirational sound, softened further by its connection with children in difficult straits. “Forever home,” which seems to have trailed it by a few years, is very similar, used for both children and pets who would benefit from adoption. Recently it has taken on another meaning, analogous to the old expression “dream house” — where a family intends to settle down. In the early seventies, Lady Bird Johnson used “forever home” to mean “childhood home,” not a particular dwelling so much as the place or region one can always go back to, a perfectly logical interpretation that has not stood the test of time.

Those three are established in everyday language. So far, “forever” hasn’t adopted many other nouns. The term “forever chemicals” (in polluted groundwater) seems to be spreading slowly, like the chemicals themselves. I’ve seen “forever prisoners” and “forever commitment.” The Forever Project in New Zealand devotes itself to mitigating the effects of climate change. The Forever Purge, a film about a white supremacist uprising, has done well at the box office this year. The adjective seems poised for greater things as we tremble on the verge of a forever pandemic.

“Forever” has a strong religious echo, yet earnest teenagers use it all the time, too (as in “BFF”). The word may at times denote the full span of eternity, but more often we use it to mean “as long as you or I live.” In “forever war,” it doesn’t even mean that — more like “taking an unreasonably long time to end.”

Lex Maniac has worked a whimsical vein lately, so here are more things “forever” could modify beyond death and taxes: beta version (I’m looking at you, Google), interim coach or other official (sometimes they hang around for a while), speech, movie, line, or wait (it works better in front of one word than in front of several). Then there are more serious possibilities: friend, pension, budget deficit, shortage. Some things do last forever, or come so close they might as well.

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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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food court

(1980’s | businese (real estate) | “dining area”)

Why “court”? It’s more like a dining mall, but in the early days food courts were found only inside of malls, and a mall within a mall would have caused confusion. And why “mall”? A mall was a wide pedestrian boulevard, often grassy, and it never had anything much to do with commerce — though shopping malls did typically have wide central corridors that one walked along. I haven’t done the research, but it seems to me that “mall” and “court” were adopted for these bastions of plebeian retail because of their grand associations with aristocracy, elegance, and luxury. Not that there’s anything particularly elegant or luxurious about your standard food court, yet “court,” with its echoes of royalty, lends the enterprise a touch of class. A more plebeian explanation is that the word conjures up a big open space, like a basketball or tennis court. Or it’s where you go to judge the food.

One chronicler of the food court lays it at the door of James Rouse, a developer who responded to Levittowns by creating the planned community Columbia, MD ten years before he opened Harborplace in 1980 in downtown Baltimore. (I grew up between those two landmarks, in the heart of Rouseland.) For a developer, he wasn’t that bad, according to the New York Times obituary. It’s not clear if the phrase “food court” is due to Rouse; he may be responsible for “shopping mall.”

Pioneering food courts stirred in the seventies, and by the mid-eighties they were de rigueur, and not just in newly constructed malls — older malls were forced to renovate in order to add them. The term followed quickly, arising in both Canada and the U.S. by the late seventies (the oldest hit in LexisNexis comes from a Toronto paper in 1979). The term came straight out of the oddly buoyant language of developers, but food courts themselves were symbols of adolescence then, understood as places for the disaffected young to get away from their parents and pretend they were adults. The emphasis on fast food (they were sometimes called “fast-food courts”) made them popular with kids. They turned up next on college campuses, heralding a revolution in campus food service. Adults had to get used to eating in them soon enough when they invaded hospitals, airports, and office buildings.

The idea of restaurants and specialty food stores in shopping malls was not new in the seventies, but gathering several of them around a large open seating area was an innovation that demanded a new expression. The malls I went to in my youth didn’t have food courts, but they had drugstore lunch counters and Orange Julius and Baskin-Robbins. I don’t remember fast food restaurants being common in malls back then, but I didn’t get around much and they may have been. (My beloved Gino’s on Frederick Road wasn’t part of any mall, I’ll tell you that. Now it’s a McDonald’s.) Some chains — Sbarro’s, Panda Express — really took off with the advent of food courts.

I find them more than a little repulsive, personally. The open space — bare except for nondescript tables and chairs and people who don’t want you anywhere near them — always feels hostile, and there’s nothing I want on any of the menus. Then there’s the indignity of figuring out how to punch the order into a machine that doesn’t work half the time. Whatever I order, it’s cold by the time I find a seat, and it wasn’t all that good when it was hot. Plastic furniture, plastic cutlery, and the food . . . Everything predictable and disposable. That’s partly why food courts are becoming passé after a thirty-year reign, as “food halls” supplant them. It’s the same idea, only the restaurants on offer are more varied and quirky (and pricier — this is about consumption, after all). “Food hall” makes more sense as a name, “hall” being a word for large open area with action at one end, but “food court” should remain in the language for at least another generation or two.

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(2010’s | teenagese | “engaging,” “relevant,” “familiar,” “accessible,” “personable”)

“Relatable” is one of those expressions thrown up by our younger contingent. (Other examples: “take a chill pill,” “peace out,” “sketchy,” “stoked,” and possibly “love handles” and “no pressure.” “Based off of,” “I know, right?,” and the “because + noun” construction have swept the under-18’s decisively in recent years.) Teachers report periodically new words or phrases bubbling up in the classroom, and “relatable” had its moment somewhere around 2010 and has become widespread since. I certainly did not know the word in 2010, and probably not for three or four years after that. It’s tempting to blame such eruptions on social media, but consumable popular culture for teens has been omnipresent for decades and did not always require Instagram or Tumblr. Once the kids adopt an expression, it has a strong chance of entering the language, because the rest of us spend so much time talking about what they’re up to and what it bodes for the rest of us (ill, generally). Also because some day those kids are going to take over the world, or at least this corner of it.

The teenagers didn’t invent this one, mind you. “Relatable” was available in the early 1980’s, especially in writing on film and television; it meant roughly “agreeable” or “comfortable” — more accurately, “characteristic of something most Americans can identify with” — doubtless descended from “relate to” as used in the sixties. The new sense of the word has hung around ever since, so the teenagers of 2010 had had many opportunities to learn it. The old meaning, “capable of being told,” has grown rare, and we are left with the inescapable fact that “relatable story” means something much different from what it did fifty years ago.

Every teenage addition to our vocabulary calls forth a phalanx of teachers and professors to bewail it, and “relatable” has been written up in The New Yorker, Slate, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among other places. (Ben Zimmer provided a non-judgmental history in the New York Times.) The good professors have a number of reasons for objecting to the term, all of them cogent and stoutly defended. Use of the word proves students self-centered, closed-minded, unwilling to try new things or broaden their horizons. But let’s not forget that the older generation always says as much about the younger, often with justice. It is true that most kids don’t want to do a lot of work to absorb their lessons, and therefore they prefer everyday language, stories, and characters they can understand without effort. But plenty of these same kids will grow up and open out, and it’s no use pretending that this is some unprecedented defect never encountered before millennials stuck a trembling toe into adulthood. Grousing about the rising generation is as old as civilization, at least.

“Relatable” doesn’t always mean likable. When used to talk about everyday situations, it is more likely to connote awkwardness or embarrassment than triumph. You can find collections of mottoes, truisms, and slice-of-life stories all over the web that advertise themselves as relatable. Maybe my sample size isn’t large enough, but I came away with the distinct impression that the most of them have to do with unpleasant contretemps that we try to get past without humiliation. We are all supposed to sympathize and see ourselves in others’ tales of woe, or the nuggets of wisdom acquired from them. Any pleasure we take in such misfortunes is rueful. But we are also to take away the unstated conclusion that those who encounter the same predicaments or feel the same way about etiquette as we do make up the only world that matters — our experience is universal, and everyone else’s? — well, we’ll make room for that around the edges, if we feel like it. “Relatable” is seductive to the extent that it assures us that our group is the center of the universe.

Thanks to that inspirational teacher and observer of the language, Lovely Liz from Queens, for pointing out that this expression needed an airing. I hope I pass.

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no pressure

(2010’s | teenagese? | “(there’s) no hurry,” “take your time,” “don’t be alarmed”)

This has become a fixed phrase recently, within the last ten years, I’d say. I learned it from teenagers, who probably picked it up from one song lyric or another, if Google is anything to go by. It’s been a hit recently for Justin Bieber, but as I understand it, all of his songs are hits. The phrase has become an interjection, most often used to comment on a pending proposal or assignment. It is related to “pressures” (“identifiable sources of stress”), but it is bound more closely to a more general kind of pressure (see below). It no longer needs the structure supplied by verb or modifier; “no pressure” stands on its own.

Even though some athletes and other performing artists thrive on it, pressure is nearly always unwelcome. It involves coercion and/or stress, and it’s hard to resist when it comes from above. “Pressure” used this way goes back several generations in discussions of salesmen; there was an old joke about the low-pressure salesman who rang the doorbell and said to himself, “Nobody home, I hope.” That joke made sense because high-pressure sales tactics were well established and thoroughly resented. Other fields in which “pressure” was routinely used to refer to wielding influence in order to get one’s way were diplomacy and sports; the word had been common for years to talk about situations where the game was on the line. Or there were just the boss’s demands that a job be done on time, or a teacher constantly reminding students that they need to push themselves harder to get into a good college. “No pressure” — in its simple form — attempts to relieve the hearer by assuring them that they will not be hurried, chivvied, or bullied. Unless, of course, it’s used ironically to mean “This is a daunting project,” or “It’s all riding on you,” or “The fate of our relationship hinges on your answer.” That usage will become more common over time, as the stress economy continues to take more out of workers while paying them less, but the forgiving form is still there when you want to convey “I’m not making any demands,” or “Make the decision at your own pace.”

Just for fun, I reviewed the alphabetical entry list to find expressions of similar tone and meaning — intended to soothe or relax the hearer — and didn’t find any good analogues. “No harm, no foul” has the same general tone but is used in much different contexts. “Lighten up” or “take a chill pill” have related meanings, but they are insults, not a soft answer. Plenty of terms go the other way: “burnout,” “gut check,” “hype,” “race to the bottom,” “zero tolerance.” We are producing more expressions to report on the ways we grind down our fellow human beings than expressions that ease their minds. That’s an ominous sign.

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(1990’s | advertese | “pre-teen,” “person at that awkward age,” “kid”)

A word we owe to advertisers. It bubbled up in the late 1980’s, mainly in marketing publications, although it appeared in the mainstream press now and then, most notably in a USA Today series inaugurated in September 1989, “The Terrible Tweens.” (Royal Caribbean seems to have been an early adopter, offering both “Teen” and “Kid/Tween” programs on their cruises by the end of the 1980’s.) It took a few years to mature, but the word was solidly established within ten years and has become widely recognized and understood.

The origin of the term appears uncomplicated. The resemblance to “teen” is obvious (it’s why we don’t call them “twixts”), and the reference to the time be”tween” young child and teenager is catchy. It was defined as “those between 8 and 12 years old” in the Washington Post (January 24, 1988), which is, I suspect, about how the term would be generally understood now. Maybe 9, maybe 13, but since tweenhood may be a state of mind that need not correspond with precise ages, we should expect a little fuzziness. Some definitions showed more variation in the beginning; for example, a report on McDonalds’ advertising strategy (November 9, 1988) explored its practice of marketing to subgroups including “‘tweens’ (9-to-16 year olds),” while an article in Adweek less than six months earlier gave a range of “10-15.” U.S. News (April 1989) confidently gave “9 to 15.” You could get pretty much any endpoints you wanted, but the core of prepubescents and beginner pubescents remained constant. The traditional preference for 12 or 13 as the beginning of the teenage years seems to have reasserted itself, and there’s much less tendency to incorporate full-blown teenagers into tweendom nowadays. Sometimes the word was spelled with an initial apostrophe in the beginning; sometimes you saw “tweenage” or “tweenager.” It’s a good thing the variant didn’t catch on, or we would all be heartily sick of hearing about Justin Bieber, tweenage idol.

We may see this term simply as the product of the advertiser’s restless, relentless pursuit of the bottom dollar. Whenever defenseless spending money is discovered in a sub-group of the population, the sharks of commerce circle, seeking to engross a healthy chunk of it for themselves. Somebody found out that pre-teens — some of them, anyway — had a certain amount of money, so they had to be defined, categorized, converted to data, and appealed to. Just another demographic in an ever more precisely demarcated consumer universe. Pre-teens’ embrace of social media has lately given the youngsters a new kind of consumer power (and new ways to get into trouble).

The word soon elbowed its way into the parents’ lexicon, adding one more milepost to a track stretching from colic and the terrible twos to empty nests and fledglings returning to fill them. It’s one more group to worry about, one more place the wheels can come off the cart — according to a world view in which childhood and youth are recognized as a succession of traumas. If we hope to understand our children, we must learn about the special characteristics of tweens, their developmental stages and kinks, their symptoms and syndromes, and how not to ruin them utterly (hint: anything you say or do may doom them to a bitter, ineffectual adulthood). The same urge to dissect ever more finely, to understand ever more minutely, is at work among parents as it is among advertisers.

In 1988, Polaroid (Polaroid!) offered its Cool Cam to the youth market (PR Newswire, February 19, 1988), “designed especially for trendy ‘tweens'” (defined here as “the latest demographic label for the 9- to 14-year-old set”). The “tween,” understood as another subgroup of the youth population, was very new then. Nowadays cascades of carefully orchestrated opportunities to spend money confront tweens at every turn, including a fashion designer for tweens who is herself a tween (she promises “blood, sweat, and glitter”). They have money, they have Twitter, and they know how to use them. The rest of us had better stand back.

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peace out

(2000’s | teenagese (African-American) | “I’m heading out,” “see you later,” “so long”)

According to Connie Eble in Slang and Sociability (1996), this expression was “made popular by rap.” The book was published by a university press, so it must be true. I’m inclined to agree, actually. The phrase certainly spread from African-American youth culture, not that that was coterminous with rap culture by any means, but it was a black thing, a city thing. It started to turn up in print in the nineties, mainly in the music press, but didn’t really trickle into mainstream white culture until after 2000. (I recall my hip brother-in-law using it well before then.) It went with a gesture originally, as I recall — a chest thump followed by the two-finger salute.

There’s a mildly interesting discussion of the phrase here. I’ve been meditating on the question of whether “peace out” has specific overtones — any contexts in which it is more likely to appear — or if it’s best thought of simply as a neutral “I’m leaving.” In my inner ear, I hear it in a serious voice, at the end of a portentous statement, or uttered following expressions of militancy or menace. It still means “I’m leaving,” but it also shades toward “amen” or “power to the people” in those cases. What it doesn’t mean is “pax vobiscum,” and I don’t think it ever did.

One on-line authority (we’re all authorities on-line) opines that the origin of the phrase is a combination of “peace” used as a greeting and “out” as in “over and out.” Much as I dislike plausible etymologies, I have a hard time arguing with this one. Occasionally you may see it used as a verb (“I’m peacing out now”), even a transitive verb (according to, it can be used to mean “kill”), but it seems overwhelmingly used as a farewell.


(1990’s | teenagese (African-American) | “tip of the hat,” “nod,” “big hello,” “thank-you”)

Unlike “peace out,” which strikes me as a little menacing sometimes, a shoutout is always favorable. Whether it’s a greeting, an acknowledgment, an allusion, an expression of gratitude, or some combination, it’s always friendly. You never use a shoutout to shout down someone, or to outshout them. The word itself is infectious, with its cute little echo, and the thing itself makes everyone feel good; that’s probably part of the reason the word has become so popular. It still sounds like a word of the young, and anyone over 25 sounds awkward when they use it — not that that stops us — but that will not remain true as the originating generation ages.

The term started to appear in African-American publications some time around 1995. Early in 1988, George Bush had a combative interview with Dan Rather which caused quite a stir (it helped Bush overcome the “wimp factor” that had dogged him for years as his presidential campaign got rolling). Newsweek’s coverage was titled “The Great American Shout-Out.” There it seems to have meant “shouting match.” The title was undoubtedly influenced by the Great American Smoke-Out, already a national event by the mid-80’s. That appears to have been a one-shot, though, unrelated to our common usage today. I can’t resist quoting a columnist for Vibe magazine extending an “army-sarge shout-out” to everyone he had written about in 1996. I guess the idea was that the acknowledgment was especially loud or generous. It’s such vigorous phrasing I wish it had caught on. That’s the only time I saw it, alas.

I’m treating the term as one word although the hyphenated and two-word forms are still often seen. The shift is happening under our feet and is no doubt inevitable. “Shout out” is not often used as a verb, but it can be. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland used it in last Monday’s briefing: “First let me shout out to the State Department interns in the back of the room” (a greeting or welcoming gesture in this case). Maybe that’s just more grown-up cluelessness, but it shows up as a verb often enough to merit notice. Newsday’s Glenn Gamboa used it absolutely transitively in an article on the 12-12-12 benefit concert, citing “Billy Joel’s reworking of ‘New York State of Mind’ to shoutout Breezy Point and Oceanside.” I’m not sure how common such usage has become, but it would surprise me if it doesn’t soon take its place alongside the noun.

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take a chill pill

(1990’s | teenagese | “cool it,” “take it easy,” “pop a downer”)

Maybe this still counts as slang. All the citations in LexisNexis before 1990 cite the phrase as an excrescence of teen lingo, whose purpose, as we all know, is to baffle any adults within earshot. At this the expression seems to have failed resoundingly; even at its origin, it doesn’t seem likely to have mystified anyone. The older generation back then was already thoroughly familiar with “cool it,” and the idea of cold temperatures for slowed-down or relaxed behavior is right out of Chemistry 101.

“Chill pill” used as a noun may refer to a pharmaceutical that calms you down, like Valium or Xanax (that’s what we took in the good old days, anyway). But the full formulation is fully metaphorical, depending as it does on the substitution of “chill out” for “relax.” (You didn’t hear “chillax” back then; I never heard it before the new millennium, but maybe I wasn’t hangin’ in the right circles.) I recall another emphasis, though; “take a chill pill” could be used to mean “don’t be uptight” rather than “don’t be manic.” In other words, you may have a problem with what we’re doing here, but you need to get over it. Squelch your qualms. Rather than applying to actions at a particular moment, it took aim at a larger set of attitudes.

I had the sense that this phrase had pretty well disappeared, but LexisNexis shows a rate of increase over the last two decades that appears to reflect something more than a proliferation of indexed sources. While it hasn’t penetrated formal discourse much (Mr. Secretary, I strongly suggest that you consider ingesting a chill pill), human-interest writers use it all the time. And the august New York Times (January 1, 2010) used it in a review of a book about the evils of prescriptive grammar: “the grammatical doomsayers had better find themselves some chill pills fast.” That is, they’d better take a deep breath and calm down, and get off their high horse while they’re at it. That, is seems to me, is how we use the phrase today; the definition given above (“downer” or “trank”) has pretty much disappeared, eclipsed by the metaphorical. (And while I can imagine a desperate astronaut in a 1950’s science-fiction movie popping “chill pills” as his out-of-control craft barreled toward the sun, that definition has never been in play.)

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