TALKIN’ ‘BOUT MY GENERATION

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People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we g-get around (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-c-cold (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)…

 

I passed the author of those words in the street the other day. Babyboomer Pete Townshend (of the Who rock group, for younger readers) was looking characteristically mournful. I, only a few years younger than Pete, am feeling characteristically feisty as I mount a one-man fightback against the latest slurs directed at us both. I’m talkin’ ‘bout the current dismissive catchphrase ‘OK Boomer’, imported from the USA along with a barrage of boomer-baiting in social media and in the press*. I fully understand that this is in part a fully understandable backlash by younger people against the relentless criticism and condescension directed at them by their elders for years – vitriolic in the USA, slightly more measured in the UK, where the focus has been more narrowly concentrated on trying to market to ‘youth’, whoever they may be.**

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We boomers have to own the appalling voting record of many of our number, and we have to overcome our passive-aggressive bumptiousness. US humorist P J O’Rourke pioneered the uneasy self-deprecation that for a long time characterised our embarrassment about characterisation: ‘Once the Baby Boom had gone through all of its rudimentary phases of ideological development, from revolutionary pimples to Reaganite hip replacement, the true politics of our generation would be revealed. In America the reasonably well-off and moderately comfortable are the angry masses. It has to do with borrowing Mom’s car.’

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Our age demographic has nonetheless been unfairly maligned for far too long. It’s time now to forget the clichés and facile recriminations, move beyond intergenerational strife based on slogans and soundbites and to revisit some of the beliefs that we held to, and the ideas that we explored. I’ll be looking at how this might be achieved in my next post.

I have never really been comfortable with the labels adopted for categorising generations, age-groups and consumer cohorts. But I’ve been guilty of promoting them myself. I only heard today of the sub-division of the babyboom demographic, known in the US as ‘Generation Jones‘***, but back in 2014 I described another, then newly discovered tribe, one that emerged from the consumerist jungle before slipping back into obscurity…

 

Living life to the full: According to the report, Britain's over-50s are more active and outgoing than ever

 

‘Trend forecasters The Future Laboratory have promoted the term superboomers to define a new wave of consumers, key players in lifestyle markets. Now forming 24% of the UK population, rising to 33% by 2030, controlling 75% of the nation’s wealth, (with another £3 billion coming soon from pension cash-ins) the over-55 demographic is rebooting, redefining former notions of aging and retirement. Their enthusiasm for digital media, starting up new businesses (as encore entrepreneurs in the jargon), fitness and self-improvement – and later-life dating, too – sets them apart from the pre-babyboomer generations. Enriched by runaway house prices they are juggling their property portfolios in ways that agents struggle to keep up with. In fact, the message for the entire commercial sector is catch on and catch up, since, according to a 2014 survey by High50.com, only 11% of superboomers think brands are interested in them, while 95% are certain that advertising is ignoring them altogether.’

I had been one of the first to record the arrival, belatedly in the UK, of the millennial label. In 2007 I tried to define this new phenomenon for the readers of Business Life magazine…

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Millennials are the latest generation of young professionals. We’ve witnessed the rise of babyboomers and yuppies, then of the former slackers known as Generation X. This newest generational label (alternatively Generation Y or the Echo Boomers) refers to youngsters born between 1981 and 1999 and their coming of age has spawned a slew of articles in both specialist journals and popular media. Commentators are detailing how they differ from predecessors in their collective attitudes and describing how to manage them in the workplace. What is provable is that millennials are the most ethnically diverse, as well as the most digitally aware and empowered group yet to emerge. On their other characteristics, though, opinions differ sharply. In the UK some employers have castigated them as work-shy, semi-literate, needy and narcissistic while US behavioural ‘experts’ laud the millennials’ ability to multitask, their skill in balancing work and leisure as well as their supposed respect for elders and leaders, trust in institutions and allegiance to teams.’

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By December 2015 the MTV channel was declaring that Millennial, the term, and Millennials themselves were out of date. It had some novel proposals for the naming of the coming generation…

‘For those millennials looking forward to the day the baby boomers finally give up the ghost and hand over the keys to the world, MTV has some bad news. Millennials, with their social media narcissism and difficulty getting on to the career ladder, are yesterday’s news. The future, it seems, belongs to the next generation, one MTV has hereby decreed shall be dubbed The Founders, a name that, despite being a real word, is somehow very creepy, like the title of a supposed self-actualization men’s group your father would join in an attempt to get over your mother leaving, who before long would mysteriously have power of attorney over him. We can do better than that. Here are 10 better titles for the demographic cohort of tomorrow.

Generation Yawp

According to experts – and by experts, I mean marketing executives assuming expertise based on a desperate need to feel sure about anything in a rapidly evolving culture – post-millennials are driven to rebuild and redefine a society built around broken or corrupt systems of governance, hence (sort of) the name Founders. Unfortunately, these kids have also been plugged into social media since the moment they were born, which means for many of them effecting real and lasting change means posting their complaints in capital letters and retweeting with wild abandon.

MTV Presents: The Currently Desirable Demographic

This nickname doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it does get right to the point – namely, that giving each generation a handle is increasingly a cynical attempt to corral young people with disposable income into a singular, easily defined mass for marketing purposes, and in the case of MTV taking it upon themselves to name this crowd also a sad swing at retaining some fading cultural currency. Maybe we’ll shorten it to The MTVCDD?

Virals

Let’s admit that within 10 years the chief connotation of the word “viral” will have nothing to do with biology and will primarily stand for what is steadily becoming the pinnacle of human achievement and state of being that is every post-millennial’s greatest desire.

Adelians

Adele sold almost 4m albums in the last few weeks, so it might be nice to name the next generation in her honor to mark what might be the last occasion that so many people agreed on anything.

Ferals

This name depends on whether literally any one of the current Republican presidential candidates manage to pull out a win next November and become what will surely be the last leader of the free world.

The Atlantians

And this one depends on how the climate change conference currently under way in Paris turns out.

iHosts

This one depends on whether Apple ever works out the kinks in those crummy wristwatches and moves on to what I suspect must be the next stage in their ultimate plan for us all.

The Duck and Cover Kids

Unless someone with political power ever gets it together and does something about the ease with which a deluded maniac can buy a gun and transition into a domestic terrorist.

Netflix/Chillers

For those not in the know, a “Netflix and chill” session means getting together to enjoy some streaming content prior to fornication. Many post-millennials may well be part of the first generation spawned through such a practice.

The HMA

In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, an old sailor is forced to bear the burden of an albatross he killed at sea by wearing it around his neck. As the Baby Boomers continue to die off, leaving irreversible environmental damage, systematic racism, endless war in the Middle East, and various financial disasters in their wake, post-millennials might want to adopt the slogan that every one of their grandparents deserves to have carved into their tombstone – Hold My Albatross – as a rallying cry. This one is unlikely, but you Baby Boomers … was embracing the Eagles and the Grateful Dead not enough? You couldn’t just ruin music, you had to take the whole world down, too?’

Like superboomers and many others, whether frivolous and facetious, or coined with deadly serious intent (I’ll be listing some in my next post), these labels instantly and ignominiously faded from the radar.

 

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*The OKBoomer media storm is summarised in an article from November 2019. What interests me especially is how, when zoomers, millennials, centennials and generation z rounded upon the hapless boomers, the cohort which is still dominant – generation x -once again escaped censure…

https://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/can-baby-boomers-and-generation-z-be-friends-ok-boomer

** The passing of the OKBoomer memes and hashtags and the surrounding furore was (I think prematurely) announced, also in November 2019…

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/11/obituary-ok-boomer/602656/

*** members of Generation Jones have been sharing with me, on Twitter, their experiences of being the junior partners of the first boomers…

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_Jones

…And, one month on, Dr Anna Dixon comments from King’s College London on the intergenerational blame game…

https://www.kcl.ac.uk/news/blaming-baby-boomers-for-intergenerational-inequality-gets-us-nowhere

In March 2020 Newsweek joined the boomer fightback…

https://www.newsweek.com/2020/03/13/ok-millennial-boomers-are-greatest-generation-history-1490819.html

A FRESH START – the lingo of the local(e)

I helped with the preparation of a language guide designed for UK students starting out on their courses this week. Based on a survey and on contributions from across the country the lighthearted but comprehensive guide highlights the dialect differences and the local slang expressions that freshers may encounter when they move to a new area to begin their studies.

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With over 495,000 UK students set to depart for three years in a new university town, online learning platform, Quizlet (www.quizlet.com), has worked with local councils, poets, and language experts, to help students learn, understand, and use regional slang relevant to their new university town homes, through curated online study sets.

Working with institutions including the University of Bristol, This Is Edinburgh, Manchester Voices, and Liverpool City Council, Quizlet hopes to encourage students to learn the regional slang and dialect of their new home, in order to help build relationships between undergraduates and the local community, with a parallel survey of Quizlet’s student users revealing that 23% visit their university town only once before moving, and 11% never visit at all.

With essential phrases hand-picked by local experts, Quizlet is hosting regional slang study sets, covering the 20 biggest undergraduate populations as defined by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (www.hesa.ac.uk).

The study sets include over 160 dialectic words and phrases in total covering locations from Devon to Dundee, and Exeter to Edinburgh.

Example phrases include:

· ‘Antwacky’ means ‘Old-fashioned’ in Liverpool

Use in a sentence: “Your furniture is antwacky” / “Your furniture is old-fashioned”

Provided by Liverpool City Council

· ‘Gannin’ yem’ means ‘Going home’ in Newcastle

“I’m gannin’ yem on the train” / “I’m going home by train”

Lisa Matthews, Northern Poetry Library poet & author

· ‘It’s dark over Albert’s mother’s’ means ‘It’s getting cloudy’ in Manchester

“It’s dark over Albert’s Mother’s this afternoon!” / “It’s getting cloudy this afternoon”

Dr Erin Carrie, Project Manager of Manchester Voices

· ‘Half-soaked’ means ‘Slow-witted’ in Birmingham

“He’s a bit half-soaked he is” / “He’s not very clever”

Matt Windle, Birmingham Poet Laureate 2016-2018

· ‘Ginger’ means ‘A fizzy drink’ in Glasgow

“Gie’s a bottla ginger” / “hand me that bottle of pop”

Stuart Paterson, BBC Scotland Poet in Residence 2017-2018

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The full list of phrases and downloadable study sets can be found at:

http://www.quizlet.com/en-gb/content/british-slang

Richard Gregory, VP of International at Quizlet, comments: “Many of us will remember how nerve-wracking those initial university days are. Dozens of faces and names to remember, all in the backdrop of a new city. We created this resource to try and mitigate those university jitters: teaching students about their new surroundings through the important pillars of language and culture. The relationship between students and the local population can sometimes be a challenge, and that’s why all these language experts wanted to get on board to help us bridge linguistic divides.”

How connected do students feel to their university homes? To coincide with the regional language study sets, Quizlet polled over 1,030 students (aged 17-24) across the UK, to understand perceptions towards university towns:

A tenth of students ‘never’ visit their university town, before moving

44% of respondents said they had visited their new home ‘twice or three times’ before moving, while 23% admitted to having visited just ‘once’. Just 22% of students said they had visited ‘multiple’ times before moving, while 11% had ‘never’ visited their university location before making the move.

Nearly half of students don’t use or understand any local dialect words

Students can be reticent to use local dialect words in their new home, with 51% stating they ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ use and understand local dialect or phrases, but the other 49% said they ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ do.

Students believe locals generally perceive them positively

62% of students believe that local residents have a positive view of them, with students in Cambridge perceiving the most positive relationship (78%). However, 38% of students feel that local residents are ‘negative’ or ‘indifferent’ to them, with students in Durham expressing the worst relationship (65%).

…Although the majority ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ socialise with locals

28% of students asked stated they ‘rarely’ had social interactions with people outside of their university, while 16% stated they ‘never’ socialised with residents. This is in comparison with the 34% who said they ‘sometimes’ spoke and made friendships, while 22% would say they ‘often’ socialised with locals.

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I thought it might be interesting to compare the language listed in this new guide with the expressions I recorded at King’s College in London nearly two decades ago. For the curious my article from all those years ago is here…

Student slang as she is spoke – your passport to the in-crowd

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Tony Thorne 

Among all the guidance notes, union leaflets, maps and schedules that make up the Fresher’s welcome pack there is one aspect of student life that will almost certainly not be covered. No institution, however enlightened, is likely to provide you with that vital accessory, the key to unlocking the mysteries of undergraduate existence, the passport to instant social acceptance by your peers; a glossary of the very latest student slang.

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Like any other group leading a self-contained existence outside the social mainstream, students have evolved a private language through which they can label one another, celebrate their shared pleasures, and keep the rest of the world at arm’s length. For at least two centuries the argot of Oxbridge and the public schools enriched the English language (respectable words like ‘mob’ and ‘(omni)bus’ probably started out as student witticisms) Wodehousian

On North American campuses where life is more highly ritualised, with initiation ceremonies, sorority and fraternity-house customs, popularity contests and the rest, there is a vast and ever-changing vocabulary of status

It’s interesting to compare the way the two nationalities talk about the same staples of student existence; for instance ‘aardvark’ in Britain is hard work, while in the US ‘aardvarking’ is engaging in sexual fumbling; ‘we’d better leave’ is rendered as ‘Let’s bail’ or Let’s book’ in the US, ‘Let’s chip’ or ‘Let’s duss’ over here. Boring misfits -the butt of witticisms on both continents are known as ‘lorgs’ in the US, ‘nargs’ in the UK, while an attractive American male is is a ‘jordan’, his British equivalent a ‘smacker’. It used to be that we imported our more fashionable terms from the US – ‘groovy’, far-out’ and ‘fuzz’ in the Sixties, and ‘nerd’, ‘wimp’ and ‘geek’ a decade later, for instance, but a large proportion of today’s vocabulary comes from Black British and Caribbean speech; ‘mampy’ and ‘butters’ (ugly), ‘roasting’ (sexually frustrated) and ‘bruck’ (ruined) are among the best known.

Home-grown rhyming slang is also alive and well and new examples are being coined all the time.’Claire Rayners’ are trainers, often worn with a pair of Steve McQueens, If a piece of work is too easy it’s a ‘Glen’ (-Hoddle; a doddle)’, but perhaps in any case you don’t give a Kate Moss. If you want to borrow a ten-pound note to buy some ‘Richard’ (Gere-beer), it’s cooler to demand an Ayrton (Senna) or a Pavarotti (tenor – get it?), but promise to return it ‘Christian Slater’ and not too ‘Terry Waite’.

Some of the buzzwords and catchphrases used by British students are peculiar to just one university or college, others are invented and swapped among micro-groups made up of just a handful of friends, but there is another large core of expressions which are used and understood with minor variations right across the country. At King’s College London, students have been donating examples of their current argot for the last three years to a research project that will eventually yield a new dictionary of ‘youthspeak’

It’s often assumed that slang is something ephemeral, but it isn’t as simple as that:
words do come in and out of fashion, particularly the words that bestow approval, the successors to yesteryear’s ‘fab’, ‘ace’, ‘brill’ are ‘wick’, ‘dare’, and ‘dope’, but many are recycled and some oldies -‘cool’, ‘sorted’ and ‘shag’ are examples – seem to linger year after year. One remarkable feature is the number of words that mean the same thing: there are hundreds of words for drunk, including ‘gurning’, ‘wazzed’, ‘mashup’, ‘ratted’, ‘faced’, scores to denote idiots (‘chief’, ‘choad’, ‘hole’, ‘smurf’), and dozens of synonyms for exciting, such as ‘kicking’, ‘slamming’ ‘blamming’ and ‘storming’.

The picture of student life that emerges from the King’s survey is a happy disregard for work (almost no slang refers to books, lectures or libraries), and a very pronounced dedication to all things hedonistic.

To boost the confidence of the uninitiated, here is a shortlist of current expressions, culled from the study at King’s and donations from students at several other institutions in the Southeast. Understand them – but stop and think before you drop them into the conversation; there’s nothing more shame-making than a newcomer desperately trying to be hip. And the wrong word in the wrong place can result either in roars of derision or a hideous strained silence – as you mumble “I’ll get my coat.”

 A QUICK GUIDE FOR THE UNINITIATED

Arm candy…a fellow student borrowed as an escort for a social function

Catalogue man….an unfashionable, Alan Partridge-style male

Cheesy, grievous, rank…awful

Chirpsing…flirting or chatting up

Gazing…relaxing

Jawache, grab, snork…to kiss

Oof…a stunningly attractive female

Pants…disappointing or unlucky

Pukka, rated…excellent

Shtenkie…disgusting

Mullered, spannered, twatted…the worse for wear after drinking

Throw a bennie…become enraged or lose control

Tough, uggers…extremely unattractive

Trust, squids, bollers…money

Vamping, flexing…showing off

This article first appeared in the GUARDIAN newspaper in September 2000

 

 

…PUNCTUATED BY RUDENESS

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Articles published earlier this week reignited debate about punctuation – one of the favourite subjects for online peevers and pedantic Twitterati. The articles seemed to be suggesting that traditional punctuation, or some of its components, could now be misinterpreted or convey quite different meanings to those originally intended.

The articles in fact were focusing on the full-stop or period as used in messaging apps, in particular on WhatsApp. Younger users of the platform reported that a full-stop at the end of a message indicated aggression, grumpiness or passive-aggression, as opposed to the neutral finality signalled in more traditional contexts.

And this  – context – is the key. The young devotees of messaging apps are unconcerned with the formal written English demanded in the case of essays, business letters, reports, even mainstream journalism. Their interactions are happening somewhere else and intended to achieve something else, too. My 20 year-old son tells me that his messaging environments simply make traditional usages redundant – and worse, if applied they cause misunderstandings in tone and affect.

Mentioning this on Twitter provoked this response: ‘I’m Gen X — part of the generation that invented the internet. As the late Rutger Hauer said, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” My cohort literally invented all internet and messaging and texting traditions. Some spotty oik’s opinion is non-salient.’

Some other older internet and phone users were equally indignant, fearing they were being required to adopt the sloppy or unconventional habits of callow youth, but if we’re having to message across generations (which probably happens rarely anyway) we/they won’t make the same assumptions/impose our conventions on one another, surely?

Like all instances of language in use the language of messaging is context-sensitive and depends on interlocutors’ intentions, assumptions and reception of the ‘utterances’ in question. We adjust our conventions to accommodate – if we can, so we should indeed worry about full-stops, but only on WhatsApp, Facebook Messaging or Instagram.

The crucial point is that the electronic communications we are considering, although they have to be typed, are not examples of writing as we know it, but of something else. Messaging is effectively a verbal imitation of the very rapid to-and-fro of informal speech and that’s what it tries to render with its novel disregard of commas, colons and semi-colons, ellipses (the … that I am addicted to) and its innovative play with capitals, full-stops and exclamation marks. The notorious initials and acronyms – LOL, SMH, POS and the like –  were invented in order to cope with accelerated exchanges, although my children tell me that this abbreviation style is ‘very 2012’ and ‘so over’. Like many grownups I came to it much too late and was humiliated on national radio for thinking SMH meant ‘same here’, as mischievous young informants had told me (for the uninitiated it means ‘shaking my head’ in disbelief or exasperation). I do still use IMHO (in my humble opinion) when pontificating on Twitter. If feeling particularly passive-aggressive, IMVHO.

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Because neither conventional writing nor sparse message-speak can convey the tone and import of this kind of conversation,  emoji are required to compensate for body language, tone of voice, etc. Emoji can to some extent contribute the missing tonal and affective dimension to digital text but there is still no easy way to flag sarcasm, for example (I never ever come across ~*~sparkle sarcasm~*~ punctuation, or the 2011 attempt at a sarcasm font using back-sloping italics).

The two recent articles that triggered the latest debates were from the BBC website:

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-49182824

…and the Telegraph:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/family/life/full-stop-onwhatsapp-cutting-weapon-choice-use-wisely/?WT.mc_id=tmg_share_tw

…but the first article based on actual research to raise this issue actually dates back to 2015:

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/shortcuts/2015/dec/09/science-has-spoken-ending-a-text-with-a-full-stop-makes-you-a-monster?CMP=share_btn_tw

…and Binghampton University usefully summarised the topic in 2017:

https://phys.org/news/2017-11-punctuation-text-messages-cues-face-to-face.html

 

 

I talked on BBC Radio about the full-stop and the punctuation age-gap and a vox-pop carried out by the BBC in Derry confirmed that, at least in that city, younger messagers and texters were all familiar with the new conventions and with the misunderstandings that could arise.

Finally, there was a chance for me to pontificate again in an illuminating discussion last week, one of many on Twitter, on older people’s preferences for punctuation:

…a subject nicely spoofed by the Daily Mash a year ago:

Man throwing semicolons around like confetti

I ventured to Love Island…as you do

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Many TV shows have promoted and propagated catchphrases and slang: ‘Luvly jubbly’ from Only Fools and Horses, ‘Cowabunga’ from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for example,  but probably the first reality TV series to lodge words and phrases in the British consciousness was T.O.W.I.E – ‘The Only Way is Essex‘ – source of ‘wel jel’, ‘reem’ and more. Love Island, now in its second series, also features a similar demographic – young adult, not necessarily highly educated, extrovert, fit (in both senses) and narcissistic.

As a linguist studying slang, I’m used to having to listen to and interact with criminals, social deviants and other ‘unsavoury’ characters, but one of the most painful experiences of all for me is the obligation to watch reality television. This is not mere linguistic snobbery – though that is certainly a factor – but, if I am honest, because I would never even in my youth have been selected to take part in these beauty contests cum dating games on account of my physical shortcomings. Nevertheless, I have been dutifully tuning in to Love Island recently and trying to come to terms with examples of what linguists call a ‘restricted code’, that is a limited vocabulary and limited grammatical repertoire of made up of simple structures and colloquialisms. This can reflect the limitations of speakers’ communication skills and literacy-levels, but does of course result from the very restricted environment in which participants are placed and the simple, repetitive actions and interactions they have to perform.

You might say, uncharitably perhaps, that the contestants on Love Island are also infantilised by being coerced into playing out simple and repetitive relationship games for the benefit of a voyeuristic audience. The words and phrases which result, and even the intonation and tone of voice that emerges is a weird mix in which the young ‘stars’ alternate attempts at complex formulations when describing psychological pressures with frivolous slang when flirting or teasing, all delivered in the rushed and breathless accents of toddlers.

Psychologists talk about the act of ‘mirroring’ whereby people imitate subconsciously the speech, gestures, mannerisms of others, either to ‘honour ‘ them (if they are seen as high-status or admirable) or to show solidarity and empathy. There is a neuron in the brain that triggers this mimicry in sharing emotion, reinforcing relationships and bonding. Mirroring is contagious like yawning and, again, inside a closed and comparatively claustrophobic environment, its effects are intensified.

The slang used on Love Island may be part of what linguists call a ‘stigmatised’ variety of language – i.e comprising linguistic features that are disapproved of and usually considered substandard in normal society,  but slang is at the same time what linguists call a ‘prestige variety’ within the in-groups or subcultures where it originates and where it is exchanged, in other words it confers status on the user and excludes the outsiders who aren’t cool enough to understand it and deploy it convincingly. So for the island community slang helps to reinforce identity and for their fans provides an opportunity to identify with them and emulate them.

The Radio Times has supplied a helpful glossary of the words and phrases in question:

https://www.radiotimes.com/news/tv/2019-06-06/love-island-glossary-slang-words-meaning/

Despite all my misgivings I agreed to speak to journalist Ralph Blackburn about the programme. Ralph had been intrigued by the way the contestants increasingly adopted one another’s language mannerisms just as their vocabularies seemed to reduce as the series progressed. His article appeared today in the Daily Mail:

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-7112087/Why-Love-Islanders-forced-copy-language.html

 

Love Island villa

 

The Sunday Times has also investigated language use on the show, and reactions from some schools to it:

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/like-it-or-not-they-cant-stop-saying-it-on-love-island-zc8dtpkfs

Finally, for a different perspective, on Love Island as a media and pop culture phenomenon, here is Charlotte Rogers‘ article in Marketing Week:

Charlotte Rogers: Love Island may be a ratings hit, but it’s a brand risk

 

KNIFE CRIME AND GANG SLANG

 

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How could an obscure, elderly linguist have anything relevant to contribute to the debate now – belatedly – taking place on knife crime in the UK? It is many many years since I hung out, ineffectually feigning menace, with a gang of suburban mods (in the days when ‘bovver boots’ were the only dangerous item of subcultural paraphernalia), many years since I taught in an inner city London school and watched as younger teens gradually became disaffected and detached from family life and adult society. Much later I investigated and wrote about the successive waves of tribal youth culture – hippies, neo-teddy boys, punks, new romantics, rave aficionados, hiphop enthusiasts and the rest – who occupied the space reserved for ‘folk devil’ in the periodic ‘moral panics’ that the grownup public, with the help of the media, has always indulged in.

I was always interested in the outward signs and symbols, the accessories and the poses that these groups used to design and to project their identities, simultaneously signalling their belonging and their rejection of outsiders. I was more than anything interested in the special language that they used, generally characterised as ‘slang’, to communicate with one another and to baffle and dismay their perceived enemies – parents, teachers, the forces of social conformity in general.

 

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It’s only by deciphering and understanding this sort of language – or rather these languages – that we can hope to enter the world of peer-groups, in-groups and gangs, to come to make sense of their rituals and obsessions, their thoughts and feelings. I have collected the slangs of adults and of younger speakers operating in all sorts of contexts, publishing a succession of dictionaries and articles over the years and teaching and broadcasting about these and other ‘nonstandard’ and controversial areas of language such as business jargon, fashion and lifestyle buzzwords and the ‘weasel words’ of politicians.

 

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I wrote last year about the distressing, frightening language used by members of street gangs who identify with the Drill music genre, and on this site you can find my updated dictionary of the terms they and their followers and imitators use, terms which many other quite innocent and uninvolved young people will be familiar with, but which are alien and incomprehensible to most adults. There are links to news articles accompanying the Drill Dictionary, and other articles on youth slang and so-called MLE on this site too.

https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/04/19/a-drill-dictionary/

The phenomenon of Drill, to a lesser extent of Grime music and the gangs who use their style of rap and hiphop songwriting and recording, is so closely linked to the knife crime ‘epidemic’ that is being discussed as I write, that the connection can’t be downplayed or ignored. Today’s gangs, with their territorial disputes, drug-based economies and hypermasculine culture of bragging and ‘dissing’ differ from earlier incarnations in that they declare their allegiances and flaunt their activities semi-publicly online, using messaging, social media platforms and video recording.

 

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I’m not of course suggesting that all the disturbing messages being exchanged by the gangs are accurate or sincere, or that the knifings and shootings they boast about have all really taken place. But I would propose very forcefully that anybody who is trying to analyse or engage with their behaviour must analyse and engage with what they themselves are saying and the language they use.

My own take on this is not just that of an interested outsider. For a decade now, and increasingly over the last five years I have been helping the police forces who are trying to control street crime and the lawyers who are defending those accused (nearly all of them teenagers). My task as a language analyst and an expert witness is to translate and comment on the slang terminology found on confiscated mobile phones, obtained by surveillance and electronic intercepts, or used in the course of live interviews. I’ve found that the officers in question and the legal representatives are dedicated, unprejudiced, painstaking and privately appalled at what they witness day-to-day. They may become familiar with the exotic, distressing language they are exposed to, but they require an expert objectively to interpret and assess the written or recorded evidence they work with, if necessary, too, to stand in court and testify on their or their clients’ behalf.

 

Image result for knife crime

 

There are now a number of experts on the ‘multiethnolects’, the new urban speech patterns prevalent among younger speakers that mix elements of native and minority languages. Professor Paul Kerswill and Professor Jenny Cheshire were the first to name the phenomenon as MLE – multicultural London English – and have written extensively on it. There are also expert forensic linguists, such as Professor Tim Grant of Aston University, who employ linguistic methods in the analysis of criminal language, enabling them for instance to identify authorship and authenticity of anonymous messages and online communications by paedophiles and others. My own claim to expertise is that I am one of very few who focuses on up-to-date slang and on items of criminal vocabulary (the deliberately secret languages known as ‘cryptolects’), rather than the scientific analysis of longer sequences of speech or text.

In looking at recordings of gang member’s conversations, for example, it’s crucial to know that a burner is a handgun; dotty means shotgun, Rambo, ramsey, shank or nank is knife. When looking at jottings in a teenager’s notebook or listening to a hardcore Drill track recorded by a gang associate it’s essential to identify trap as a term for selling drugs or the location where it takes place, plug as a drug source, dip as stab, op as enemy, duppy as kill, dasheen as run away. The same words, catchphrases and slogans are shared across London and into other UK centres: the same mindset with its obsession with respect, its reverence for violence and indifference to suffering seems to apply everywhere.

 

 

Among the voices raised in the latest debate, Akala’s stands out as representing real experience of, and sympathy for the victims and perpetrators. I only feel that he underestimates the levels of violence tolerated and celebrated, the extent of the ill-gotten wealth and the technical sophistication of the gangs of today. Rappers routinely claim that their lyrics are a fictional reflection of an imagined street life, a poetic evocation of rage and intensity rather than a call to arms, but the words written by young knife-carriers that I have had to translate are exactly the same words used by the rappers. In some cases the rapper is the perpetrator – the killer himself. The young people living in the postcodes most affected by knife crime are of course dealing with the new reality every day, as explained here.

 

 

Beyond the gangs young people are speaking and writing and broadcasting about the pressures and oppressions of urban lifestyles. A good example is the short film on the inner city life, Drawn Out.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OEuq5szR7I

 

And in March 2020 London school students dramatised the issue on stage.

 

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/mar/06/this-is-our-reality-as-teenagers-students-take-gang-culture-to-the-stage

 

Knife crime is intimately bound up with gang slang and vice versa. To try to understand the killings and the woundings and their perpetrators and victims without understanding what they themselves are saying makes tackling the hugely complex problem much more difficult.

As a footnote, I have had a lot of very interesting and constructive feedback (suggestions, criticisms, donations of new terms) arising from this article and from my broadcast on the same subject on Voice of Islam radio. I also discussed all the issues involved with Rob Booth, Social Affairs Correspondent of the Guardian, who has published several insightful articles on innercity stress and street crime. His piece is here…

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/mar/29/ching-wap-ox-slang-interpreters-decipher-texts-for-court-evidence

From October 2019, news of a case that I was not involved with…

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7538633/Drug-gang-leader-jailed-police-use-rap-translator-prove-threatened-shoot-rivals.html

 

**Please do contact me if you can supply examples of street slang for my databases. Contact me too if you need to interpret street talk or criminal slang yourself, or if you would like me to contribute to projects in this area.**

Finally, as proof that Akala is right and that press stories on gangs are nothing new, this from 1958…

A DRILL DICTIONARY

By their keywords shall thee know them?

Image result for drill music

The latest in a long series of moral panics (the term used by sociologists since the 1970s) exploited by the UK press and now subject of rancorous political debate, the issue of knife-crime and killings by street gangs, mainly in London, is genuinely concerning and is only now receiving the attention and analysis it demands. A side-effect of media interest is that the language used by the gang members and by the music genres that celebrate them is being recorded – haphazardly and not always accurately – for the first time. The musical genre in question is UK Drill, a successor to the ultra-hard-edged Trap Rap (from The Trap, slang nickname for the local area where drugs are dealt) that appeared first in Chicago in the 2000s. Drill (the word can signify shooting but has many other slang senses) has been adopted and adapted by hyperlocal urban communities in the poorer parts of London and, despite their claims, doesn’t just evoke the harsh realities of life on inner-city estates, but often glamorises it and seems to promote an ethos of territoriality, boastful masculinity and murderous retaliatory violence.

Image result for London knife crime headlines

So far only very few reporters have managed to penetrate the groups whose members occupy and fiercely defend their microzones, fighting for control, too, of economies based on drug trading. The rappers emerging from the same postcode- or estate-defined enclaves compete and feud electronically, dissing and threatening their rivals in their lyrics – and in a few cases have actually been implicated in killings or woundings on the street.

In May 2018 the Metropolitan Police intensified attempts to ban videos associated with the music genre and the gangs caught up in street violence:

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/drill-music-stabbings-london-youtube-violence-police-knife-crime-gangs-a8373241.html

Since beginning this project I have managed to engage with some members of this subculture and find out more about their values and the way they encode them. In the meantime I have begun to assemble a lexicon of the most significant key terms they use, in a slang which mixes US hiphop argot and Caribbean expressions transposed to or reinvented in London (harking back to the Yardie gang culture of the 1980s). So far just a glossary, my list is far from complete, so please help me add more items if you can, or correct my mistakes. Here is this work in progress as it stands, now updated for May 2020, followed by some relevant links…

125 – scooter

Active dependable associate

involved in gang activities

Ahk, Akhibrother, friend (from Arabic)

Ammcannabis (abbreviation of Amnesia, a potent strain)

Back outdraw (a weapon)

Baggedcaught by the police

Baggingstabbing in the lower body

Bally, Balibalaclava

Bandoabandoned property

Bangerhit, successful song

Bapthe sound of  a shot or gunfire

 – to fire (a gun)

Barslyrics

Beefdispute, feud

Bellsbullets

Birded off, birded up  –  imprisoned

Bitzone’s neighbourhood

drugs weighing more than 7 grams

Blamshoot

Blowleave, escape

‘take off’, achieve career success

Booj, bujheroin

Bookie, bukisuspicious

Bora, borerknife

Boxprison

Bozzleader

excellent

Breeze offleave town, disappear

Bruck, brukbroken (down), broke

Bruckshotsawn-off shotgun

Buj – obnoxious person

Burnergun

Burstshoot

Cabby – cigarette containing cannabis and cocaine or cannabis and crack mix

Cakecrack or cocaine

Canprison

CBOcriminal behaviour order

Cheffed (up)stabbed, killed

Chetemachete

Chingknife

to stab

Chingingchilling and hanging out

stabbing

Codes‘postcode areas’, zones where gangs dominate

Cornammunition

Crashraid, invade

shoot

Crashing cornshooting your gun

Crocannabis

Cunchout-of-town locations where drugs can be sold

Cuttinleaving, running away

mixing or adulterating illicit drugs

Dashthrow

run (away)

Dasheenrunning away, fleeing

Diligentadmirable, brave, cool

dependable associate

Ding dongdispute, brawl

also dinger, dinga, dingcheap car

Dippedstabbed

Dipperknife

Donrespected person

Dottie, Dottyshotgun

Doughnutidiot

Dunkill(ed), punish(ed)

Drawn outinvolved in gang culture, under pressure from street crime

lured, rendered vulnerable

Drenchedstabbed

Drillershooter, gang member

Drillingattacking, aggressing, invading

Dumpyshotgun

Duppykill, dead

Elizabethmoney

Endzone’s neighbourhood

4-doorsaloon car

Fedspolice

Fielddanger-zone, combat area

Fishinglooking for victims

Flashedstopped, pulled over e.g by police

Fooddrugs

Fryshoot (at)

Gassedexcited

Gemweak person

Glidedrive into enemy territory

GM(fellow) gang member

Go cunch/countryleave the city to sell drugs in rural/seaside locations

Gotattacked, robbed

Grubbyauthentic, tough (neighbourhood)

Guvprison officer

Gwopmoney

Hand tingpistol

Hittergunman

Iron  – gun

Jakespolice

Khalablack person

Khalas!  – ‘that’s enough’, stop!

Ketchupblood

Kwef – violence

Kweff, Queffkill with gun or knife, harm, attack

Kwengcut, stabbed

Layersprotective clothing

Legginescaping, running away

Lenggun

Let ripfire a bullet or discharge a firearm

Linkcontact, source for drugs

Lurkstalk a victim, prowl around

Machinegun

Mac(k)automatic firearm, Mac -9 or Mac-10 small machine gun

Mainsclose companions

streets, neighbourhood

Mashgun

Maticgun

Matrixedplaced on the London Met police gang database

Mazza, Mazzaleenmadness, crazy situation

Mentsmental, crazy

Moistdisgusting, pathetic

cowardly, weak, afraid

Moplarge gun

Nankknife, stab

Needcannabis

No facemasked, with identity concealed

OJ‘on job’, productive and successful in street activities

On roadoutdoors, active in the streets/neighbourhood(s), eg engaged in selling drugs

On tagfitted with an electronic surveillance device

Ootersshooters

Oppsenemies

Opp-blockenemy territory

OT‘out there’ or ‘out of town’, away on business, dealing in country locations

Oxrazor, blade

Pagan, paigonuntrustworthy person, enemy

Paper, papesmoney, cash

Patchterritory

Pattyslow-witted, ‘clueless’ or deluded person

(white) female

Pavestreets

Pebs, pebblespellets of heroin, crack or steroids

Pedmoped

Penprison

Pepperspray with shotgun pellets or bullets, shoot

Plug –  a contact for drugs

Plugginghiding drugs in rectum

Poleshotgun

Popopolice

Posted uphanging around, positioned to sell drugs

Preeto check out, assess (a person)

Properexcellent, admirable

Psmoney

Push, pushabicycle

Put in a spliff killed

Rack – quantity of money, £1000

Rambolarge knife or machete

Rams, Ramsayknife

Reppromote or publicly declare for (one’s area, gang)

Ride out for (someone)to defend, even if guilty

Riding dirtygoing out armed and/or in possession of drugs

Roadstreet-smart, active in street culture

Rustyantique firearm

Score kill or injure an enemy

Scoreboard, scorecardlist of enemies killed, injured or defeated

Scramgun

Scrumattractive female, sex

Shankknife

Shavedinsulted, humiliated

Shoutsgreetings, acclaim

Skate, skeetrun away

Skengknifegun, weapon

Skududurapid gunfire

Slammerprison

Slewruin, defeat

Slidingdriving into enemy territory

Smokekill

disappear

Snitchinformer

Spinnerrevolver

Spinnerspetite females

Spittingrapping

Splash, splash up, splash downstab

Squirtspray acid (over someone)

Stepping on toestrespassing on or attacking enemy territory

Stickgun

Stickydangerous

Stonesbullets, pellets of crack

Strallygun

Strapgun

Striparea where drugs are traded

Swimmingstabbed

Swordknife

Tec, tek, tekkyhandgun, Tec-9 semi-automatic pistol

Ten toesrun away, escape, invade, on foot

Throwing up signsmaking gang-related gestures with fingers

Tinggirl

gun

Trapneighbourhood, ‘ghetto’, area where drugs are sold, temporary location for dealing drugs

Trappinghanging out, selling drugs or waiting for buyers to contact

Trey, trepistol

Tum-tumgun

Tweedcannabis

24sall day

Wapgun

Wassstupid person

Westonhandgun

Wooshshoot

Worksybusy, diligent

Yatgirl

Yaycrack

personal style, skill

Yuteyoung person or young people on the street

I’m keen to add more authentic terms and for my list to be corrected or commented on by those in the know. I’m very grateful indeed to all those who have already contributed, in particular Josh Jolly,  Creative Director for PressPlay Media, Farhaz Jensen and Nelson Bayomy and to the many students and Drill and Grime aficionados who have donated language.

You can find a dictionary of multi-ethnic London slang and other examples of so called MLE (Multicultural London English) here on my site. I have extensive files of youth language, available to researchers, journalists, etc. on request, and here are some more street slang terms from the UK Rap and Grime milieu, many also used by Drill aficionados:

https://genius.com/15983458

https://pigeonsandplanes.com/in-depth/2013/08/british-rap-slang/draw

And from the mouths of the Drillers themselves:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZnGZRWUHGh4

The only useful information on alleged links between drill and crime comes from commentators with a street-level perspective:

http://www.gal-dem.com/uk-drill-music-london-gang-violence/

https://pigeonsandplanes.com/in-depth/2018/01/uk-drill-sl-harlem-spartans-67-essay

Belatedly aware that Drill is worthy of attention (‘demonic’ was The Times‘ characterisation), the mainstream press began to investigate:

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/drill-music-london-stabbings-shootings-rap-67-abra-cadabra-comment-government-a8305516.html

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/apr/09/uk-drill-music-london-wave-violent-crime

One successful attempt to get inside the world of the gangs reveals the frustrations and futilities of life in ‘the bits’:

http://www.channel5.com/show/inside-the-gang/

As does this short film:

And here, from Dazed magazine, is a small selection of some real peoples’ views (they resolutely absolve the music):

http://www.dazeddigital.com/politics/article/39960/1/knife-crime-young-people-east-london?utm_source=newzmate&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dazed_daily

In June this important piece, from youth worker Ciaran Thapar in the New Statesman:

https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/music-theatre/2018/06/treating-drill-rappers-terrorists-colossal-mistake

Here are some examples of the music, with very strong language:

…Compare and contrast all this with Drill’s older brother, Grime, as testified by Jeffrey Boakye:

http://www.gal-dem.com/hold-tight-conversation-jeffrey-boakye/

…And here, from June 2018, a timely review of all Black UK music genres from Yomi Adegoke:

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jun/01/grime-afro-bashment-drill-how-black-british-music-became-more-fertile-than-ever

View at Medium.com

In October 2018, Channel 4 TV commissioned a music video in which drill music is combined with language used by British politicians:

https://www.channel4.com/news/what-do-drill-musicians-make-of-mps-violent-rhetoric-watch-the-music-video

Here is an update on the subject from the Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/feb/06/dont-censor-drill-music-listen-skengdo-am

In July 2019, from the Telegraph;

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2019/07/11/youtube-will-keep-drill-rap-videos-platform-despite-links-gang/

And in August Irena Barker reports in the Guardian on a scheme using drill with a positive spin:

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/aug/21/knife-crime-drill-music-tackle-gang-culture-young-people

More from Ciaran Thapar, also in the Guardian, on rappers OFB:

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/sep/06/uk-drill-rappers-ofb-no-one-helps-us-round-here-music-is-the-only-way?CMP=share_btn_tw

In October 2019 the slang words themselves were highlighted in the sentencing of a rapper:

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7594837/Drill-rapper-banned-using-drug-related-slang-words-performing.html