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The life of slang… dot com

At my son’s recent tenth birthday party, I was struck by differences in the slang used between two groups of friends from different schools. We tend to think of slang as ‘British’, ‘American’, or ‘Australian’ or perhaps as belonging to sub-groups like teenagers or rappers, but it isn’t really that simple because individual social networks develop their own micro-climates of slang usage from among the various words available.

Under the influence

If all the kids in your class use wonga for money, for example, it’s likely that you will too. It isn’t something you’ll think about consciously, probably, but you’ll have heard it used by the children you like and admire, and you’ll have picked it up from them. When they adopt another term, you’ll do the same and wonga will be quietly forgotten. But the people you’re adopting slang from almost certainly won’t have made it up themselves. They probably picked it up from the friends, siblings, or cousins that they look up to. New words are obviously spread by the media and the internet too, but they only become slang when people start using them within their social groups.

Birds of a feather…

During school terms, children spend much more sociable time with the same group of people than adults do. They’ll also be influenced by their friends’ interests in deciding which TV programmes to watch and which computer games to play when their friends aren’t there. Once they start spending unsupervised time online, using social-networking on sites like Facebook and MySpace, slang micro-climates probably become more exposed to external trends, but for now, ten-year olds in two East Midland schools, less than thirty miles apart, are using slang in very different ways.

Change can be awesome

My 10 and 6 year old sons changed school just over a year ago, and in that time they’ve altered their accents (five now sounds like foive, for example), their grammar (oh how I miss those past participles!), and their vocabulary. They’d certainly heard wicked and awesome used to express approval before we moved, but both terms have become much more frequent. Noob and loser were new additions to their vocabulary, both used as general terms of abuse. They also, for a while, used dot com as an interjection giving humorous emphasis to whatever the last speaker had said, but I haven’t heard that recently. Whatever has the opposite effect, and is particularly effectively used to infuriate parents.

Meanwhile, slang usage had changed in the school my sons used to attend. The old friends who came to the recent birthday party were using sweet, epic, and lollage as interjections and adjectives expressing approval: Mr Smith is epic; Sweet!; my new class is lollage.

Nothing new under the sun

Most of these terms aren’t new, and some have a long history that can be traced in the Oxford English Dictionary and in Green’s Historical Dictionary of Slang. Sweet was first used to mean “extremely good” by British criminals in about 1821, with wicked (1842) and awesome (1975) first developing this sense in the US. Wonga “money” was adopted as a slang term from British Romani in around 1984, though it had been in use among Romani-speakers since at least 1874. The use of wonga has increased since it was adopted as the name of an online credit company.

Social outcasts have been called losers since at least 1955, originally in the US, and the US Secretary of Defense included whatever among a list of new slang terms defined for the benefit of returned prisoners of war in 1973. Google blog searches show that epic, lollage (from LOL “laugh out loud”, since 1989), and noob (from newbie “a novice” from 1970 in the US military but also later used by computer enthusiasts) have all been used with these senses since at least 2000. My son’s friends said that they had picked up lollage from CBBC, but it is more likely to have originated online.

Dot com was first recorded in US student usage in 1999 in the Online Slang Dictionary and in 2004 on Urban Dictionary, with an emphatic function, so that Mike is stupid dotcom means the same as Mike is very stupid, with the implication that Mike should own or feature on the stupid.com website address. This usage probably spread into humorous use in British primary schools via the New Boyz 2009 track Dot Com.

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