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Decoding Teenager Slang: Understanding Today's Youth Speak

The meanings behind these slang terms, their role in uniting teens, and why grasping the context is crucial when trying to understand your teen’s communication style in real life.

Decoding Teenager Slang: Understanding Today's Youth Speak

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Imagine this — you plop down on the couch, open your Instagram account, and begin scrolling through your feed. But before you know it, you're bombarded with a series of unfamiliar terms you've never heard of, including "Netflix and chill," "Left No Crumbs," and "Red Flags."

If you’re in the loop, you’ve likely seen these slang words plastered all over social media. But if you’re not, and let’s be honest, most of us aren’t, your kids might come to you seeking an explanation for these new phrases. Or worse, your teenagers might already be using them, leaving you feeling a tad behind the times.

To help bridge the generation gap and keep you in the loop, we spoke with licensed independent clinical social worker Cassidy 'Cass' Dallas, LICSW, about how to decipher teenager slang like a pro.

Ahead, Dallas delves into the meanings behind these slang terms, their role in uniting teens, and why grasping the context is crucial when trying to understand your teen’s communication style in real life.

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What is Teenager Slang?

Teen slang words may sound like a foreign language to some, but Dallas explains that they help teens connect and express themselves in a way that's both authentic and fun.

"Slang is like their secret code to talk about what they like, find common ground, or even express their feelings without going into too many details," Dallas tells Today's Parent. "Slang provides a way to convey admiration, gratitude, or empathy while adding humor to conversations. Teachers often ban these words in class, which can give them a secret, rebellious feel."

Common Teenager Slang Terms and Phrases

Just like how new social media trends constantly emerge, fresh slang words are always popping up all the time. However, here are some of the most common ones you’ll come across online:

Netflix and Chill

This term started making waves on Twitter back in 2009. However, Dallas points out that it was really popular within the Black community first. "The phrase originated in Black Twitter circles before going mainstream," Dallas explains to Today's Parent. "Nowadays, it is described as a sneaky way of inviting someone over for a romantic evening but doesn’t always have to be about getting physical."

Throw Shade

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"The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘shade’ as a way to subtly express disdain or disgust for someone, which can be communicated through words or actions," Dallas shares with Today’s Parent. "This expression dates back to the early '90s, but then soared in popularity thanks to Ru Paul's Drag Race."

GOAT - Greatest of All Time

This term is an acronym that stands for 'Greatest of All Time. "This term, like many other slang terms, originated in the black community, with Muhammad Ali's wife Lani trademarking the term "G.O.A.T." in 1992," adds Dallas. "Sometimes, people use a goat emoji instead of the word 'goat'."

Left on Read

This is a reference to when someone reads your text message but doesn’t respond. According to Dallas, "When someone reads your text but doesn’t reply, people might say 'they left you on read. It’s like they’re showing you how they really feel about the conversation."

Rent Free

Dallas says that when people say something is 'living rent-free' in their mind, it means that the thought is taking up space in their head that they wish it wouldn’t. "It’s like an unwanted tenant that just won’t move out."

Friends With Benefits

Dallas clarifies that the term 'friends with benefits' refers to a unique type of friendship where romantic or sexual involvement goes beyond the boundaries of a typical platonic relationship. Dallas continues, "This kind of connection lies between being just friends and being in an official romantic relationship."

Sus (Suspicious)

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'Sus' is just a shortened way of saying suspicious, which is used when someone is acting in a way that makes you question if you can trust them. However, Dallas says that is term is not very serious and has somewhat of a lighthearted connotation. "In fact, this term is really popular in the world of video games, where players will call out something as 'sus' if it seems a bit dodgy or untrustworthy."

Red Flags

According to Dallas, "This term is like a signal that someone or something could be a bit off — not necessarily a major threat, but just not quite the right fit. It's commonly used in dating scenarios or even during job interviews."

Shaking My Head

People often shorten the term 'shaking my head' to 'SMH.' They use it when they feel disapproval, surprise, or anger about something. Dallas explains to Today's Parent, "Essentially, it's like typing out a virtual head shake in a conversation, similar to how LOL was first used to show someone was laughing."

Tea (Gossip)

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, tea is like the juicy gossip you spill with your friends. This term started in the black gay communities of Harlem back in the early ‘90s and it’s still used today whenever there’s some fresh gossip to dish out.

FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out)

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines this term as feeling left out, or worried about missing out on a fun activity that everyone else is enjoying.

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Origins and Evolution of Teenager Slang

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Slang can come from a variety of sources, including social media, influencers, characters in shows, chats and groups on the internet (think Discord or chat features in games), and other media.

However, a lot of the time, slang starts within marginalized groups, such as people of color or the LGBTQIA+ community. "These terms are then appropriated by members of the outgroups that are not marginalized, to signal allyship and solidarity with those marginalized groups, or without knowing the origin of the language."

As slang words evolve in meaning over time, Dallas points out that they can lose their effectiveness for showing who’s in the know and who’s not as they become more widely used by everyone. “And when even parents start using slang those words lose their cool factor,” Dallas explains.

Regional and Cultural Variations

Slang words can have very different meanings in different cultures, especially when it comes to how people look. "For example, a word that's meant to be nice about someone's appearance might actually make them feel bad about themselves or make them self-conscious," Dallas points out.

Some cultural subgroups also use short versions of words in their own way. "In the LGBTQIA+ community, 'aro' is short for 'aromantic' (not feeling romantic love), 'ace' is short for 'asexual' (not feeling sexual attraction), and 'cis' is short for 'cisgender' (when your gender identity matches the body you were born with). Dallas elaborates. "This is different from "trans" people, whose gender identity is different from the body they were born with."

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Additionally, some words come from how people say them or the accents of different regions, or from things that were originally specific to one culture but then became more general in meaning outside of that culture, losing their original roots and context.

For example, Dallas explains that the word 'snatched' from AAVE (African American Vernacular English) originated from black drag culture, where traditionally, weaves and other hairstyles have been used to mean that something looks so good that it has 'snatched' someone's hair out, as in blown them away. "When the term is appropriated by people outside of that culture without the context and origin, it can make less sense and feel disrespectful to members of the origin group," adds Dallas.

Usage and Context

When it comes to teenage slang, context is key. Dallas emphasizes that it’s not just about learning cool new words from teens or other cultures; you need to be able to distinguish between casual slang and hurtful language and recognize how the meaning of words can shift based on who is using them.

Dallas elaborates, "For example, if words originate within a community, it can be helpful to think about identities you share or don't share with that group, and privileges that you might have. It may also be helpful to examine reasons that slang or shorthand may be needed for a group, such as needing to hide parts of their identity or quickly identify who is safe to be around."

Parental Concerns and Responses

Dallas states that parents frequently worry about teen safety online, particularly who their children are communicating with and whether those people are known peers or strangers. They also have concerns about how their teens treat and are treated by their peers. The complexity of slang usage can further exacerbate parents’ apprehensions if they lack an understanding of the context.

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"Parents may have emotional reactions to communications or words that their kids wouldn't, and vice versa," Dallas explains to Today's Parent.  "Additionally, parents could misjudge situations, or others could misjudge the intent behind the slang being used."

That's why Dallas is all about using a bit of humor and a lot of curiosity when talking to your kids. Keep an eye on how you both react to things emotionally.

"For example, if your child seems hurt by someone 'throwing shade' at them, ask about their feelings," advises Dallas. "If not, you can use your own reaction and gently ask about theirs, like "If a friend said mean things about me, I'd feel angry. Is that how you feel?". Remember, your kids are experts on modern language, while you are the experts on what language is acceptable and how to keep them safe and teach them to interact well with others."

father and son bonding over a laptop iStock

Benefits of Teenager Slang

Teenager slang isn't all bad. In fact, Dallas says that it can bring teenagers together, inspire creativity, and help them express themselves better.

Dallas tells Today's Parent, "Slang gives teens more ways to understand each other’s feelings and share information efficiently. With so much communication happening online these days, having this kind of shorthand makes it easier for teens to connect on a deeper level. Plus, it’s not just fun; it actually helps regulate our nervous systems and assists with processing emotions.”

How Does Teenager Slang Reflect Cultural Attitudes?

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Teenager slang does reflect cultural attitudes, according to Dallas. However, they point out that the origins of these slang terms often disappear as they become popular with the wider public.

"This shift can take years and typically moves from marginalized groups to less marginalized ones, like from black, hip hop, and drag communities," Dallas says. "By looking at the themes in these slang terms, we can get a glimpse into what teenagers are thinking and feeling."

Experts

  • Cassidy Dallas, LICSW, a licensed independent clinical social worker, and founder of Cass Dallas Psychotherapy & Training

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