Language, I find, is used like a password to a club, writes Kirsty Green.
It’s why I think I’ve always enjoyed trying to learn foreign languages, because I hate going to a country where I can’t communicate and be part of their crowd.
We similarly use our own language to create our identities. A recent survey of English teachers showed that foreign students are trying to get to grips with slang terms used among the so-called Generation Z on TV and social media. It’s not just the foreign students struggling to get to grips with these – so am I.
My kids are only young, but I have already had to be educated by an eight-year-old about what ‘rizz’ (charisma) is and my apparent lack of it and who they consider GOAT (greatest of all time).
Even my five-year-old seems to think it hilarious to call me ‘bruv’.. even though it doesn’t seem that long ago that he learned to say ‘mum’ for the first time.
Listening to teenage relatives talk, I sometimes don’t know if I need to call a doctor or throw a party when they talk of things being “sick”, “dead” and “popping off”.
I admit I find it slightly irritating that words I associate with one meaning, like sick, are now used to describe something completely the opposite. But I also acknowledge the reason I’m irritated isn’t because it’s some assault on our great language. No, it’s because I realise I’m not in the under 20s club anymore (or the under 30s, or 40s for that matter!) and I find anything that reminds me of that fact, including remakes of classic songs, irritating.
Every so often we hear of the latest slang term or technical word being accepted into the English Dictionary, from ‘bitcoin’ to ‘beast mode’. It is nothing new. We have all copied words from the cultural references of our time; the first movies, songs, popular talk shows, TV series, now Tik Tok videos. We can either adopt the new words and variants and try to get accepted into the club, or we can mark ourselves out through our own terminologies and use of language as being part of another – the ‘80s kid’ club for me.
The use of language in this way can be a celebration of identity, like wearing a badge or branded hoodie. But at its worst it can be quite exclusive, inadvertently, or worse intentionally, omitting a whole raft of people from a conversation.
There’s a reason I’m particularly sensitive to this. Working in PR, it’s my job to get people’s messages out to a broad audience and to reach new people. To do this I choose my language carefully. Clients are often used to talking in the language of their ‘club’ – the acronyms and jargon which is common parlance in their offices, staff rooms or factory floors. It is my job to break away from these or I’d risk alienating the new customers or employees they’re trying to attract.
Similarly, using terms which would confuse or alienate entire age groups could be counterproductive.
It once again comes back to thinking of your audience. You may be tempted to use language you believe will appeal to a specific cohort, but quite often it’s more important to choose words which won’t alienate a much larger audience.