Slang words and expressions are an integral part of our language, yet in America’s fast-paced, rapidly changing society, some of them seem to endure through the decades.
Obviously, different races and cultures invented many of their own slang terms. I’ll undoubtedly (not on purpose) leave out some in this march through time.
One that comes to mind is “cool,” which replaced the word “swell” that was dominant in the 1940s and 1950s during my sister’s high school years. “Cool” remains popular today among both young and old, and seems to cover a wide range of situations.
I’m no scholar of the English language, but slang seems to be humans’ way of adding a bit of octane or power to our vocabulary, perhaps to make it more colorful and interesting.
During a 1970s stint in the U.S. Navy, for example, I learned that fellow sailors would ignore anything someone said unless it was liberally punctuated with curse words. One adapts quickly to be seen and heard.
It’s fun to recall popular slang words and expressions through time. Another common word during my 1960s high school years was “b****in’.” It was an import to Anchorage from California, which also sent us dance and clothing styles.
In Anchorage, we adopted these language and cultural shifts on a delayed basis. If it was popular in Los Angeles about 1960, it was at least a year before it came here, and even later in small towns like Seward. For example, actor James Dean died in 1955. But with all of the pompadour hair styles, black leather jackets and motorcycles in Seward in the 1960s and 1970s, you would think the Hollywood heartthrob was still alive.
Another California-born expression was “zero charisma,” referring to a dull or dorky person. Provocative, but it never caught on.
The 1960s-70s brought my peers “groovy,” “far out”, “out of sight” and “dig it.” Added were expressive terms like “give me the skinny,” “keep on truckin’,” “heavy, man,” “catch my drift,” “for sure,” and “what a drag.”
I recall “awesome” in the 1970s, and it’s still around today. People in the 1960s and 1970s said “take care,” and it is very prevalent today.
In the 1980s with the trans-Alaska pipeline full of oil and creating wealth for Alaska, terms like “bodacious” and “gnarly” and “radical” surfaced. “Bad” meant good. “Bogus” and “airhead” were definitely negative terms. I have no idea where “gag me with a spoon” came from. Again, it was probably a California invention.
I do recall a phrase unique to the Alaska’s pipeline era called the “Slope stare.” It described a kind of dazed look of those who had been in the Arctic for many months without a trip south.
With the more recent 1990s, I remember the word “like” in front of many sentences, such as “like, I was going in there and saw this guy.” “Dope” didn’t always mean drugs, but instead, cool or good. A phrase to put someone at ease, “It’s all good,” was one I used myself, and more often, “back in the day,” revealing my age. Younger people seemed to be practitioners of the term “don’t go there” and “freak out.”
A lot of people said “whatever.”
One of the year 2000 terms that confused me was “word,” which I later learned meant that the person heard and understood what you said. At first, I thought it meant I had used an incorrect word. For those extremely exhausted, the term “trashed” came on the scene. “You go girl” had energy and was widely used. Others that I recall were “cool beans,” and “as if.”
Moving into the 21st century, we were barraged with social media acronyms such as LOL (laughing out loud); BTW (by the way); FTW (for the win); and IDC (I don’t care). I made up my own to best describe a flagging memory: CRAFT (Can’t Remember A Friggin’ Thing).
I tried to coin a new term for a meaningless Tweet, called a “chirp.” It never took hold — even though we heard a lot of them from 2016 to 2020.
It’s been around for quite a while, but it seems like today, just about everyone says “have a nice day.” Perhaps it’s because the coronavirus of 2020-2021 brought us so many bad ones. Before the pandemic, I don’t think I ever heard the word “jab” to describe a vaccination, or “social distance” to describe physical spacing.
“OK, boomer” hasn’t yet been spoken to me by a young person, but I’ve heard it’s popular today. They’d be wrong, however; because I don’t consider myself a “boomer.” Born early in 1945, I prefer being lumped in with the “World War II babies.”
I’m mostly oblivious to the slang of today’s teens. Instead of “for real,” which was embraced by my generation, I believe they now say “no cap.” Another one, “extra,” means a person is way over the top. “Snatched” means good. “Chill” is used often to suggest “settle down.” “Slay” can describe someone who looks amazing.
Across the generations, people from all locations and walks of life have developed their own slang, and I think it’s interesting to watch it change and evolve. Because we’re in a computer age, people no longer “think things over.” They “process” them. “Beta” means information. If you’ve heard someone say “I don’t have enough bandwidth for that,” they’re not necessarily talking about their computer space or network capability.
Conversations have become “exchanges.”
As I’ve aged, I’ve found myself employing fewer slang words and expressions. If I used the term “hunky dory,” spoken often by my sister and mother in past years, people would look at me as if I were a space alien. Same goes with “phooey,” used by my father.
I’ll stick with “cool.” It comes out the winner every time.
A lifelong Alaskan, Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.
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