December 17, 2006

More adolescent vocabulary

Popular treatments of teenage language usually assert simultaneously that adolescent vocabulary is desperately impoverished -- girls use like as almost every third word in their sentences, guys communicate entirely through exchanges of the word dude -- and that teenagers have "a language of their own", packed with vast numbers of vocabulary items that make their speech incomprehensible to outsiders.  I'm more entertained by critiques of the second type, because they're at least based on some shreds of fact (though they still treat perceived features of teenage speech as deficiencies, in this case a failure to be clear, rather than mere differences).  Today's Zits cartoon (drawn by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman) includes a catalog of words for types of behavior that a high school judges to be unacceptable at a school dance, including a fair number that most readers will find uninterpretable in this context:

It's a long list of V-ing nominalizations.  Some of them I recognize as naming activities that would count as lewd at a school dance: grinding, bumping, licking, booty dancing, fondling.  Some name activities that a school might view as inappropriately aggressive or dangerous: moshing, shoving, rolling, kicking.  Some of them I have interpretations for, but not ones that would be relevant to school dances: mashing, sledging, wallowing, freaking, pronking, knurling.  One is totally new to me, and a Google search yields nothing useful: squeaning.

I know, you're saying that some of this is just made up, and some of it is teen slang imported from other contexts into this one, and no doubt you're right.  I'm especially suspicious of "squeaning" and "whole- or half-body knurling".  Possibly kids these days are inclined to leap and bound like antelopes while dancing -- I'm familiar with pogoing (which has its own wikipedia page!), after all -- and they call this, quite appropriately, "pronking", but I wonder, I wonder.  I also wonder about mashing, sledging, wallowing, and freaking.

My scorecard: of the 16 words, 5 I recognize as referring to lewd behavior and 4 to other behavior inappropriate for a school dance, while I have doubts about the other 7 (almost half the list).

Of course, the point of the list is to provide a lot of stuff that readers will find incomprehensible in this context -- the message is that teens use lots of words we don't understand -- but this is done not by using actual teen slang, but to a large part by listing words of the sort that teenagers MIGHT use.  That way the list is mostly incomprehensible to EVERYONE who reads it, even those who know something about teen talk.  The message is that the way teenagers talk is not only impenetrable, but hopelessly impenetrable.

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 17, 2006 02:11 PM