When proper names become slurs – and Karen, Ben and Chad can rest assured, it’s nothing new
I spoke last week to Ellie Muir of the Independent about the way in which certain given names have recently been appropriated in popular culture and the media for use as labels, catch-all stereotypes – or slurs. One focus of Ellie’s piece is the use of the name Karen on social media and as a meme to evoke an over-assertive, unreasonably demanding or hypercritical white woman (memorably epitomised as ‘an antivaxxer soccer mom with speak-to-the-manager hair’). Karen is a Danish version of Katherine dating from the Middle Ages and adopted by English speakers from the 1940s. Originally a Black US nickname for a stereotypical white woman perceived as overbearing and entitled, Karen was most popular as a baby name in 1965 in the US, so would typically denote a Generation X female, it went viral in 2017.
In the USA in the early 80s Valley Girls and college students used to refer to their sporty, macho ‘jock’ contemporaries as biftads, inspired by the fact that many of them were nicknamed ‘Biff’ or ‘Tad’. Much more recently the online incel community of frustrated, embittered, uncharismatic males has used Chad to denote a successful alpha male who is popular with women (his black counterpart would be Tyrone).
In the UK names like Sharon, Tracy and Mandy were earlier employed to evoke stereotypical working class, vulgar females or chavs (notably in the sitcom Birds of a Feather and in Viz comic), while from the 70s through to the early 90s, Rupert, Tarquin and Nigel were used to mock supposed toffs or ‘posho’ males and are sometimes still heard today. Kevins or Kevs were uncouth, uncultured young British males from the end of the 70s until the end of the 90s, causing much amusement when the same name became cool and fashionable in the US and France in the 80s. Wayne was used in the same way. Around the same time London youths looking for dates referred to girls as Becks (this was pre ‘Posh and Becks’ as nicknames of a Spice Girl and her footballer escort by the way) because so many North London Jewish girls were called Rebecca or Becky. In the mid-2000s teenage girls thought to be too earnest, awkward or just unpopular were dismissed as Megs, the name possibly inspired by the daughter of the same name in the TV animated comedy Family Guy. Some older London males nicknamed middle-aged females, especially if deemed to be frumpish or charmless, Noras or Dorises.
Fads, Fashions, Lifestyles and Vibes – thirty years on
During 2022 I wrote several times about the new terminology that has been generated by younger generations’ (younger Millennials and so-called Gen Z or Zoomers) online celebration of an accelerated series of Fads, Fashions and Cults (the title of my book on the same topic published back in 1993). I was bemused, but not surprised that my articles and posts received little attention. Those over 40, even if active online or otherwise in touch with the wider culture, seem to pay no attention to what their children and grandchildren are saying, or perhaps just view their activities on social media as trivial, frivolous and ephemeral*. It’s slightly absurd that someone of my advanced age should be trying to record and comment on youth-based popular culture, but, just as back in the nineties, only a few fashionistas and influencers and a handful of style journalists manage to achieve any sort of critical perspective on the high-speed succession of poses, performances and pastiches that plays out on 21st century cyberspaces (and incidentally in teenagers’ bedrooms and college dorms too).
At the end of the year, however, I was asked to contribute to a major press review of these same phenomena, and discussed them with the MailOnline’s science reporter, Fiona Jackson. Fiona had picked up on recent mutations in slang and online jargon, in the novel use of emoji and punctuation, and changes, too, in the accents and intonations used on platforms such as TikTok – in particular the voice affectation known as ‘vocal fry.’
It’s interesting that Gen Z is seen as having a particularly exotic or impenetrable vocabulary, baffling and irritating parents, teachers, journalists and anyone too old to keep up. Inventing new words and changing the meanings of old ones, though, is something that each generation does (see UK millennials with their MLE – Multiethnic London English) and is a natural part of language. Accent is another essential component in curating and projecting one’s identity. ‘Vocal fry’ or ‘creaky voice’ first got noticed and was fiercely debated in the USA in 2015. The low, raspy growling voice tone favoured by female US celebrities has since been imitated by some younger people in the UK, and by British ‘influencers’ online, but not to the same extent. What I have noticed is not specifically vocal fry but something newer and more complex: a UK accent favoured by fashionable younger females which mixes a sort of high-pitched, lisping breathless ‘girly’ delivery with a lower-pitched drawl that can slide in and out of American intonations. Something like this is now prevalent, particularly on TikTok which is where Gen Z goes to influence and be influenced.
In the US now 63% of people aged 13 to 17 use TikTok weekly, a rate that now tops both Snapchat and Instagram. TikTok is also the go-to environment for the celebration of youth fads, fashions and lifestyle trends, not to mention the parodies, mash-ups, spoofs and in-jokes which are central to its video performances. Older people trying to keep up or simply to comprehend what is happening on TikTok or understand what Gen Z is saying and messaging should however beware: I have a suspicion, shared by a few other commentators, that many of the fads, fashions and trends they celebrate (they call them ‘vibes’ or ‘aesthetics’) are not really taken seriously at all by most of them, are passing fancies or simply spoofs perhaps designed to mock the tedious concerns of outdated millennials. Fashionable new ‘looks’ like so-called ‘goblin-mode’ which has, unusually, been noticed and publicised in the mainstream, have been appearing and disappearing on Gen Z platforms with a bewildering speed (see ‘cottagecore’, ‘blokecore’, ‘hag chic’, ‘frazzled English woman’, etc.).
Gen Z, as they come of age and begin to access power and influence in mainstream society, will inevitably affect the way we collectively behave and of course communicate. But there is an interesting phenomenon that those like me who try to track slang and new language have to face up to. That is that it’s quite impossible to predict exactly how language is going change. No so-called linguistic authorities have ever been able to guess how technology and society is going to mutate, or how fast, or which aspects of human behaviour will come to predominate in the future – even in the near-future. Gen Z may settle down into family life and work and become distracted by adult responsibilities, just as we once-radical Boomers, muted, tortured Gen X and much misunderstood millennials have done before them. Or perhaps they will not, and will manage to realise the boomers’ dream of staying radical, innovative and young forever? How their destiny plays out will dictate what they say and how they say it (and they will have to find ways to negotiate their obsessions and describe their changing environments), but I, for one, don’t dare to hazard any more than that.
*She’s much younger than 40, but journalist Marie le Conte struck a contrarian note in the New Statesman, suggesting that we shouldn’t be interested in Gen Z’s predilections…
Its finger still on the pulse of the zeitgeist, the Mail followed up with a warning to older generations that Gen Z disapprove not only of their language and their emoji use, but of their gesturing too (unsurprisingly the hand-signals castigated are all part of my own sad repertoire)…
Earlier in May I talked to Dillon Thompson of Yahoo News about slang and its online incarnations. Dillon was exploring the ways in which slang and new language both affect the way we interact in an accelerated digital age, and the way in which digital environments such as TikTok and Instagram and Twitter and the internet-based rituals, gestures and poses embraced by Generation Z in turn might influence the sort of language we – or some of us – are creating, adopting and using.
Dillon’s article, with new insights and with contributions by me and from US linguists Sunn m’Cheaux and Daniel Hieber is here…
Following fashions is an exhausting task. And has become more exhausting still.
I have been recording the fads, fashions, cults and trends that energise popular culture, and the labels by which they register themselves on our collective consciousness, for more than thirty years. With the advent of the Internet and messaging the lifestyle innovations, aesthetic novelties and personal badges of allegiance are nowadays free to go viral, go global, and in many cases to disappear, virtually instantaneously. I talked to Olive Pometsey of The Face magazine (itself an iconic vehicle for the propagation of new ideas and images) about the latest, accelerated, overheated iterations of micro and macro-identities competing on online platforms. The equally frenzied quality of much comment and analysis is perhaps conveyed by the notes I made before we spoke…
Olive’s excellent article is here…
A crowdsourced, online, free-for-all, 24/7 source of slang, catchphrases and new terminology is my friend Aaron Peckham‘s Urban Dictionary. As the Face article was going to press this was its phrase of the day…
Coined by trend forecaster Sean Monahan, a vibe shift describes the emergence of a “new era of cool.”
Fashion is a realm that experiences frequent vibe shifts, especially with the arrival of a new decade. Gone are the days when frosted tips and low-rise jeans and Abercrombie & Fitch were in.
We’re in the midst of a vibe shift right now with the widespread lifting of Covid-19 protocols and restrictions. We’re going out again and adapting in new ways to our environment; some will survive the shifting tides, and some won’t.
Yeah I’m in my vibe shift right now. You won’t catch me in the club now that things are opening back up again. I’m all about going to the Home Depot, renovating my home and hearth, yknow? Once I tried topless gardening things changed a lot for me.
Those once-thriving subjects, Cultural Studies and Media Studies, which I used to teach in the 1990s, are nowhere to be found in today’s educational landscape, and the cultural practices we used to analyse are these days ignored by most commentators, the subcultures (and microniches, hyperlocal communities) if they are mentioned at all are dismissed by older cohorts as trivial, frivolous and ephemeral. I doggedly persist, in solidarity with The Face, Wire, Dazed, i-D, TikTok, nanoinfluencers and microcelebrities, in finding them fascinating and significant.
Just a few days after the Face article appeared, the MailOnline announced the latest look for Summer 2022…
Just over a year since I defended Meghan Markle‘s speaking style*, the Daily Mail returned to the subject with the latest interview given in his new US home by Prince Harry, in which, along with dropping several ‘truth bombs,’ he was perceived to be modifying his natural accent to sound more American. I once again pointed out that what linguists call ‘accommodation’** or ‘convergence’, the phenomenon whereby participants in a conversation alter their pronunciation and intonation to sound more like their interlocutors, is something quite natural and unsurprising. I have found my own natural rhythms and tones subtly changing when spending time with speakers of Australian or North American English, and the posh-sounding Brit who morphs into a cockney or northerner when the plumber or builder visits is a stock target of mockery on social media. In the case of the royal family, wits remarked long ago that Prince Charles and Princess Diana‘s incompatibility could have been predicted by listening to their differing accents – the former’s clipped, tense, military-sounding while his bride attempted a more muted, classless diction with glottal stops and ‘Estuary English’ vowels.
The Mail’s article, in which they mercifully didn’t distort what I told them (though ‘new wave’ should read New Age), is here…
At the very end of September this year came another example of a UK school seeking to police its students’ language and to ban the use of slang and colloquialisms. I have been writing about youth slang since 1990 (there are numerous articles on this site, accessible by entering slang, youth or MLE in the search box) and about such interventions for more than a decade: this time I spoke to the Guardian‘s Social Affairs Correspondent Rob Booth and his article is here…*
September 2021 also saw the fruition, or culmination (portentous words) of a long-term project of mine dealing with the same topic: the rich, creative, controversial use of highly informal language by younger speakers. I have collected the multicultural slang, traded among younger people and used especially in urban centres across the UK. I have listed authentic examples of this language variety gathered from conversations, messaging, fieldwork interviews and donations and stored these in the Archive of Slang and New Language which I have curated at King’s College London.
Looking for a way to make this data available to the widest possible readership – whether students, teachers, researchers, fellow lexicographers or simply individuals fascinated by language change and novelty – I decided against traditional publishing in hardcopy in favour of putting the material online and so was gratified when, a year ago, the University of Aston’s Institute for Forensic Linguistics agreed to host an extract from the Archive, an up-to-date Glossary of UK Youth Slang, in its Forensic Linguistics Databank. This lexicon, very modest in its format but unique in the UK and I think in the wider Anglosphere, has just been made accessible. I hope it will be helpful for interested parties and I urge anyone consulting it to comment, criticise and, above all, send me additions for inclusion in future versions (rights to the content are restricted, so please don’t circulate it or republish it without full acknowledgement). I am constantly updating and expanding this and other datasets of nonstandard and socially significant language as well as teaching and broadcasting about them.
I am very grateful indeed to all the collaborators, colleagues, students, parents, youth workers and many others who have helped me to record and analyse this exciting, inventive, sophisticated and technically innovative language – and to celebrate it rather than decry and stigmatise it in doing so.
* Rob Booth’s Guardian article was rewritten very slightly and republished by the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. I think the last word on my contribution to the subject, and indeed my career, should go to the anonymous poster of a comment following the Mail‘s piece…
I first encountered codeswitching when as a very young boy I watched the movies of Satyajit Ray, the Indian auteur whose dialogues featured Indian families interspersing their conversations in Bengali with words and phrases in English. In those days the technical term for this, the concept too, was rarely if ever treated by linguists, let alone understood by the wider, overwhelmingly monoglot UK and US publics.
Codeswitching, which is actually commonly practised, usually in less formal settings, in many different societies and multilingual communities, did subsequently become the object of enquiry by language experts, and theories were generated to account for the phenomenon and to analyse its various manifestations (you can find a summary of these on Wikipedia).
More recently in the United States a particular manifestation, that of African American citizens moderating their language to cope with different speech environments, has helped ‘codeswitching’ to begin the crossover from technical terminology into everyday conversation. More recently still, in the last two weeks, the word has featured in a political and cultural cause celebre…
‘She didn’t grow up in the Bronx. She moved out when she was 5. Saying she grew up around the language is misleading; it’s the very reason why it was so cringe-inducing to hear her say it. There was no flava, no swag, no essence. She didn’t pull it off.’
‘From Westchester and Boston U who has never before been seen on any video (and she got lots of those!) speaking in this weird, constrained accent that was a person’s idea of what they should sound like. Leftists don’t get a pass on their racism.’
‘It’s “cultural appropriation.” It satisfies EVERY SINGLE definitional predicate thereof: She is not Black, not poor, and left the Bronx at age 5. She was pandering for political purposes. Not a debatable point.’
The accusations relate to American political Wunderkind and bugbear of the Right, Latina Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was accused of pandering to a new constituency and assuming a fake identity in a speech to a predominantly black audience – accusations she rushed to refute, telling her critics to ‘step off’ – African American vernacular for ‘get lost’:
Some members of the US public did voice their support
‘I think it’s just that most Republican house/Senate members have never talked to anyone except rich white men so they never have to switch’
‘Switching’ or ‘shifting’ is related to what linguists call ‘accommodation’ – altering your speech to match or to empathise with your interlocutors*. It can be simply intended to make communication faster, clearer, or it may be adopted consciously or unconsciously to establish a bond or to affirm solidarity. I certainly find myself doing it – but maybe I’m not typical as I’m a linguist. I do it and have heard it done not only with BAME interlocutors but when more neutral British accents are brought closer to those of Scousers, Geordies, Scots and, still in English, with Jamaicans, Americans and Australians. I think for obvious reasons we are more likely to engage the ’empathy’ mechanism when the conversation is in a more heightened, charged, socially sensitive setting – this of course would apply if we are more conscious of diversity, identity, inequity issues. I also have to talk a lot with younger people who are speaking street slang and MLE in their natural environment and when I do my intonation certainly shifts and I use more informal vocabulary and even slang – I modify the style of my speech in order to accommodate. They probably upscale their style for me too.
Whatever the reason for style-shifting I would say that it should generally be considered a positive rather than negative habit. In the stratified class-conscious British context it would only be questionable if it was condescending, as with a posh person adopting a ‘working class’ accent when talking to tradespeople – which I have to admit I do all the time and which Sunday Times columnist India Knight expounded on back in 2001 (thanks to Stewart McNicol for the reference):
Style-shifting is a positive part of being multilingual or rather ‘heteroglossic‘ – the philosopher and literary theorist Bakhtin’s term for being able to speak in multiple voices for creative effect and in recognition of multiple contexts. The problem is that most monolingual Brits and Americans can’t do it and don’t do it. Of course the adoption of other voices can be overdone or done inappropriately. Some people have accused style-shifters of ‘appropriation’ but it depends on the speaker’s intention. If it’s to claim the other’s identity to exploit it – Australian rapper Iggy Azalea stood accused of faking a ‘blaccent’ last year – it’s bad. If it’s in order to form a bond it can be laudable. The TV comedy Phone Shop brilliantly satirised white men speaking multiethnic street slang, as did Sasha Baron Cohen’s character Ali G more than a decade earlier. DJ and hiphop enthusiast Tim Westwood has been getting away with it for years.
Following the latest brouhaha I talked to London journalist and specialist in BAME-related issues Faima Bakar about code-switching and her report for Metro is here:
In search of a personal take on the issues dealt with here, I spoke to a young academic researching at my own institution. Farhaz Janmohamed told me…
‘I do find the idea of code-switching fascinating… I’ve been doing it all my life. From pronouncing English words with an Indian twang when conversing with my grandparents, to incorporating slang terms when messaging one of my primary school classmates who is currently in jail for gang crime. I’d imagine my most natural speaking style is that which I use when talking to my immediate family, with whom I’ve grown up and am most comfortable. And of course the style of language I would use in a job interview or an email to my lecturers at King’s College London might not be my most natural. It’s certainly interesting to consider motivations for code-switching.
If your natural style of speaking brings you privilege, why would you need to change it, and what does it suggest when you do? Perhaps in my case, my motivation for code-switching could either be to make myself more understandable, e.g. when adjusting my accent and grading my language when speaking to elders in my extended family, or to enhance my image – my ‘face’ – in the case of speaking to somebody who was involved in gang culture. I suppose it can be gratifying to appear trendy in how you speak – in my experience, the coolest kids in school used the latest slang, often acquired from peers or artists in UK rap and street culture. As language itself in that genre of music is regarded as much more essential than in others where there is much more emphasis on melody or vocal ability, there is probably a greater need for rappers to impress listeners with creative lexis in their lyrics.’
On a much lighter note, and lest we forget, Henry Hitchings reminds me to reference former England managers Steve McClaren‘s spectacular act of linguistic accommodation back in 2008…
In August 2020 The BBC released this podcast with personal accounts of codeswitching in the workplace, and the role of MLE…
*After this post and John McWhorter’s article appeared there were useful conversations on Twitter about which technical terms in linguistics most accurately described what AOC had been doing. US based sociolinguist Kelly E Wright commented, ‘I would consider what AOC is doing as style shifting, in a Sociolinguistic sense. To me, code-switching is intrasentential.’ She added, ‘From my theoretical background, I would characterize accommodation as happening on fine grained, lower levels. Slight vowel fronting or raising. Point being, not at the level of metacognitive awareness…We notice a recognizable, and also “foreign” (to us or to the speaker in our percept) speech pattern. That means there is much more than textbook accommodation going on.’ I noted that I had favoured ‘styleshifting’ in my commentaries but that ‘codeswitching’ had now become part of the ‘public conversation’/’sociocultural narrative’ and that ‘accommodation’, whether conscious or not, might be an appropriate term in cases of class-influenced accent moderation in a UK setting.
Three years later, in a UK work environment where accent discrimination is rife, the notion of codeswitching has expanded further, as DrSalina Cuddy writes in The Conversation…
The second and main component (the first, the glossary, was posted here previously) of Chris Nott‘s design project for the Royal College of Art is this book on the complex urban language variety known as MLE, Multiethnic London English.
This unique document brings together the authentic words of London youth, interviews with me and with other commentators, press articles and more technical language notes. It will fascinate lovers of language, those interested in sociocultural change and, although the features described are not exclusive to younger speakers, anyone involved in teaching about youth culture, popular culture, style and music.
Chris has agreed to make the entire work freely available* and it can be accessed below. The design project is in its original unedited form. For anyone needing corrected pages, I have interviews and quotes in Word format that I can provide on request.
I’m sure these experts are scrupulous in not doing anything illegal but I think, in the case of hyperindividualised and hyperlocalised profiling, the subjects (who presumably don’t know they have been identified) will probably feel comfortable about it if their names have been retrieved from lists they have subscribed to, possibly less so if they have been traced from other sources like electoral rolls, phone directories, library memberships.
In marketing there’s the assumption that a member of a group will conform to a stereotype of that group’s consumer behaviour – an assumption that is potentially patronising if not controversial. And when we look in close-up at actual instances, what precisely can we predict about, say, LeKeysha LLoyd Muhammad’s buying patterns and preferences? Especially if they are trans and have an address in rural Idaho?
Ethnic name profiling of course has a potentially bad reputation when used by government or law enforcement or by employers* in covertly vetting prospective hirings. As US human rights lawyer Bill Quigley commented:
‘One of the draconian consequences of 9/11 is racial profiling. Bollywood Muslim actor Shah Rukh Khan became the latest victim of what some call “flying while a Muslim” after he was singled out by US airport authorities allegedly because of his Muslim surname “Khan”. “I was really hassled at the American airport because my name is Khan,” he said. The other recent Indian victim was former president of India. On April 24, 2009 in a clear violation of protocol, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a Muslim, was frisked by the staff of American airliner Continental Airlines.’
As a linguist and lexicographer who once worked as a designer, I have long nursed the idea that an iconic reference work, especially one which celebrates and explores creative, exotic and subversive forms of language, could – should – also function as a work of art.
In 2013 I had the privilege of helping Chris Nott in the preparation of his graduation project at the Royal College of Art. Chris designed a glossary of, and a guide to MLE – Multiethnic London English – that functions as document and documentation as well as being a unique art object.
Chris, now working as a design specialist in the studios of Brody Associates, has given permission for this artefact to be shared for the first time. It consists of a glossary and a separate guidebook (which highlights the words from the glossary too)
Please do consult it, dip into it, read it from virtual cover to virtual cover, or, better still, print it on to high-quality paper and savour its tactility. Place it on a lectern under a strong light. Use it to teach your students, to inform your friends.*
The contents of this reference work, which includes contributions from other lexicographers and linguists, are still topical, relevant, revelatory three years on. The visual elements and format remain unique.
The samples of language and the commentaries presented in the book move our thinking beyond ‘slang’, beyond older notions of race and class, to consider the post-ethnic realities of a UK subject to what theorists now call Superdiversity, in which, especially but not only for younger speakers, complex questions of identity are bound up intimately with language, style and symbolism.
For me what is also essential in treating slang, dialect or jargon is to go out into the streets, the clubs, school playgrounds and workplaces and record the actual words of their users, words which might never otherwise appear in popular or academic publications.
MLE, Multiethnic London English, now sometimes referred to as Urban British English or Interethnic Vernacular was the designation given to a developing social dialect, featuring a slang vocabulary and new patterns of pronunciation and accent, that came to notice at the end of the 1990s and has since influenced the speech of younger speakers in particular beyond London itself.