One of my favorite screwball comedies is 1941's "Ball of Fire," starring Gary Cooper as a smart but socially befuddled professor and Barbara Stanwyck as a sassy, very sexy strip-tease dancer and gangster's moll. It is a romantic comedy with some of the sliest sexual innuendo ever snuck by a censor. It also has a preposterous story line.Cooper's professor is working with seven other professorial types on an encyclopedia. They've been working on it for years and years — if you're going to catalog everything there is to know and you want the result to last forever, you naturally take the time to get it right. Then Stanwyck, on the lam from the cops who want to use her to get to her gangster boyfriend, shows up and decides to hide out a while at the professors' brownstone, which shakes up their staid world. The professors are startled by her speech, which is sprinkled with 1940s-era slang. Cooper decides their encyclopedia would be greatly enhanced if it included a section on this wonderful vocabulary of terms real people used every day.
That's the silly part. The slang included things like yum yum (kisses), moula (money), skedaddle (get out of here fast) and ameche (the telephone, because Don Ameche played Alexander Graham Bell in a movie). In the movie, such phrases are supposed to make one's speech breezy and hip. But seen today, it's horribly outdated slang. The idea of putting it in an encyclopedia as something timeless and important for all time is just ludicrous. The professors have let the show girl's sexy charms seduce them from their noble calling.
The chase after the latest hip jargon may be a preposterous idea, but, alas. it is not out of date. Even today, when social media and other digital revolution phenomena toss out trends in the morning that are thrown away in the evening, publications regularly publish stories trying to clue adults in on what the youngsters are saying these days.The latest offering is "A guide to all those weird words your teen is using" in USA Today a few days ago:
I’m fairly hip, though my teenage daughter would beg to differ. Still, translating the latest "slanguage" in 2017 is no easy feat.
Teens these days drop so many "lits," "fams," and "wokes," that you never know if they’re giving you a compliment or secretly planning to set your house on fire. It’s partly the natural evolution of language and part byproduct of text messaging and social media.
Note that several of these words — woke, squad goals, to name a few — have roots in black culture, with specific meanings and history. There's an active debate on whether using these words, if you're not black, is a form of cultural appropriation that co-ops black culture to seem cool (think fashion, music) while ignoring historic racism. Read in before you speak — and the Internet has plenty to offer here.
Be suspicious of the usefulness of any article beginning, "I'm fairly hip."
The article goes on to list 20 of the most popular slang words and phrases. Some are interesting ("lit" is something that is hot and happening, "thirsty" is desperate for attention) to the vulgar ("AF" is "as fxxx," as in, "I'm tired AF" or "I'm as hungry AF") to the just plain weird ("Hundo P" is, like, totally awesome, man).
My advice for everybody is to forget all about this. If you try to use these slang words and phrases to let young people know you're with it, they'll just regard you as pathetic, which is what you will be. Besides, slang being what it is, they will all be passe by day after tomorrow anyway. So you will seem pathetically eager to be hip, but hopelessly out of touch.
It will be interesting to see what effect the Internet and social media will have on the shelf life of slang. The logical assumption is that words and phrases will come and go even faster. But you could also make the case that some of them will be memeified and live on forever as cyber-slang.
So let the kids have their secret language. All of us have had a version in our misspent youth (wow, far out, man, can you dig it?). Some words have achieved a lasting place in our vocabularies (cool, neat) but most have gone into the memory hole. Don't try to horn in on the secret club of which you cannot be a member.
As a matter of fact, make the kids, when they're in your presence, speak your language. Simple, straightforward, old-fashioned English sentences will be something they can fall back on when they get into the real world and have to make themselves understood to survive and thrive. Or maybe it's not that difficult. In my time, kids were pretty good about using their slang with each other, but slipping into normal talk in the presence of adults. Perhaps they still are.