The Birth of Online Slang

In the 1980s, slang words such as “bite me,” “righteous” and “chill” where a part of our everyday vernacular. TV, movies and music made these and many other words the jargon of a generation.

Uses of those words were often fodder for sitcoms. For example, in the ’80s, it was always funny to hear a 40-year-old say “gag me with a spoon.”

In reality, the older generation was using those words to connect to the younger generation. It was a poorly veiled attempt to communicate with teenagers or, what probably seemed like to older generations, alien life forms.

Fast forward to 2016 and, as a parent and a teacher, I’m constantly trying to stay hip to the new jargon, in hopes of making and maintaining connections to my kids and students.

The roles have reversed, and now I’m the goofy guy in his 40s trying to communicate with the aliens.

It is increasingly more difficult to stay ahead of this new slang today than it was in the ’80s.

With the proliferation of new media and countless social influencers, the adoption of slang seemingly happens overnight. And, unfortunately for old fuddy-duddies like me, these new terms are gone almost as quickly.

For example, terms like “bae” and “on fleek” are actually on their way out. You say you’ve never used or even heard those terms? Don’t worry. They’re so 2015.

In case you’re curious, “bae” is a term of endearment meaning “before anyone else,” often used in reference to boyfriends and girlfriends. “On fleek” is a compliment. Instead of saying, “her shoes look amazing” say, “her shoes are on fleek.”

According to, if you want the freshest jargon for your saucy social media updates, try these new cool terms.

Instead of “on fleek,” use the word “snatched,” as in “that outfit is snatched.” Or try adding “boots” to the end of an adjective for emphasis, such as “this is silly boots” or “I’m hungry boots.”

How these words are created and eventually adopted is a bit of enigma. But a group of Chinese researchers think they may have cracked the code.

In the January issue of the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, Leihan Zhang, Jichang Zhao and Ke Xu of Beihang University in Beijing, China, found that the adoption of online slang ebbs and flows, but that adoption usually has two peaks: a small peak at the beginning by social influencers (e.g., celebrities), and a second, much larger peak when the social media crowd uses the new slang.

Their research team used Weibo, a popular social media platform similar to Twitter, to analyze slang birth and adoption. Webio has 500 million users in China alone, generating 100 million posts per day. These posts mirror the same kind of content we see on Twitter – status updates, opinions, news and entertainment.

Zhang, Zhao and Xu’s evidence suggests influencers don’t actually have that much influence on the adoption of new slang.

Sure, celebrities are important at the beginning of the life cycle of a new term.

But it’s the everyday users who deliver lexicon legitimacy.

About the Author:

adamDr. Adam Earnheardt is chairman of the department of communication at Youngstown State University. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn and check out his blog at


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