Mind your language

Mind Your Language

*SCREAM!* Welcome to the new language that is like, totes amazeballs! From “reem” to “ridic” (an obvs example!), Style investigates the befuddling world of abbrevs-speak…

Sunday Times, 22 January 2012

When Lily Cooper (nee Allen) gave birth last November, the world wasn’t alerted to the happy event via a bland PR statement or pap shots of mother and child outside Portland Hospital. Instead, it was two simple words posted by the singer to her Twitter feed: “totes amaze”.  

Forget fake boobs and Swarovski-studded mons pubis: the most seismic contribution the spray-tanned residents of The Only Way Is Essex (and their ciné vérité Made in Chelsea cousins) have made to popular culture is the way in which they speak. Their penchant for truncating words such as “obvs”, “well jel” and the Allen-favouring “totes amaze” is now percolating fast to mainstream use, crawling everywhere from fashion blogs to T4 presenters through to excitable magazine cover-lines. This new lingo isn’t just defined by the ability to shave syllables from longish words: neologisms (“wine flu”) and cleverly-crafted portmanteaus (“glamping”) are pouring into our vocab like never before. We’re all OMG-ing, WTF-ing and *SCREAM!*-ing our way into linguistic Armageddon. #justsaying.

“The whole idea of abbreviating goes with our accelerated lifestyle,” says Tony Thorne, language and innovation consultant at King’s College, plus author of the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang. “It goes hand-in-hand with SMS messaging, plus younger people now have lower boredom thresholds and lower attention spans. We want things to be instantaneous. In terms of language, it [abbrevs-speaks] is instant gratification…”

If abbrevs-speak has an antecedent, it’s in the sarky “whatevers” and “like, totally”-isms of California’s Valley Girls. Emerging in Los Angeles’ affluent San Fernando Valley during the 1970s, the Oh-my-God-ing Valley Girls and their nasal idiolect is an eerie pre-cursor to today’s teen-y argot.

However, it wasn’t until 1995 and the genius teenspeak of Alicia Silverstone-starring Clueless that ‘Valspeak’ began to penetrate this side of the Atlantic. In recent years, TV shows such as Gossip Girl, Keeping Up with the Kardashians and the real-life Valley Girls of The Hills have helped propagate Valspeak further. Which is probably how the burghers of Brentwood, Essex arrived at their own bastardised version (incidentally, the first-credited mention of ‘vajazzle’ wasn’t in TOWIE, but Jennifer Love Hewitt on a US chat show).

Of course, there have been British abbrevs-abettors too – the slashed idioms (“Bolly”) of Absolutely Fabulous and the honkingly-posh ‘Rah Girls’, who were using words like “obvs” and “boyf” in the 1990s. The influence of magazines such as Grazia, Heat and more! – all of which employ abbrevs-speak throughout their copy – can’t be under-estimated either.

“The media leapt onto TOWIE lingo in a half-ironic move, which has quickly dissolved into use without sarcastic quote marks,” says Lucy Tobin, author of ‘Teenglish’ guide Pimp Your Vocab.

Richard Wilson, author of How Not to Talk Like an Arse agrees: “There’s a cultural superiority used in that you’re using these words because they’re wrong. At the TV company I work for, people in the office use it constantly. And get away with it because they’re using it ironically.”

“[It’s similar] to the way hip hop slang comes from hardcore ghetto life but is used by white middle-class people who realise they’re not doing an Ali G, but are aware of the absurdity of using this language,” adds slang lexicographer Jonathon Green, author of the three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang.  

But blame can’t all be apportioned at reality TV shows – technology is also responsible…

“We’re rushing and multi-tasking all the time,” says Tobin, who admits using abbrevs-variants “devo” (devastated) and “fomo” (fear of missing out). “Since most of us spend evenings Tweeting with one hand, cooking with the other, and phone chats squeezed in while the kettle’s boiling, it’s no wonder we CBA – AKA ‘can’t be arsed’ – to strain our lips or fingers with using words and phrases in their full glory.”

Green agrees. “I think the abbreviations are SMS-led. It’s driven from a pre-smartphone era when you only had 160 characters to text. Inevitably, people will contract their terms. It’s only now that people are saying them out loud.”

Such is textese’s linguistic stranglehold, “text-speak baby names” such as Samiul, Conna and Flicity have apparently appeared on birth certificates. Punctuation is also changing – see the vogue for swaddling verbs such as *sigh* and *SCREAM!* in asterisks. Twitter hashtags such as #justsaying have also crept into everyday parlance too, while Facebook is forever tinkering with our syntax, changing words like “friend” into verbs and adding “frape” and “defriend” to our lexicon.

The pressure to drop witty aperçus on Twitter and social networking sites has also given rise to a new phenomenon – ordinary people being playful with written language in a way they never have before.

“There’s never been more writing around – previously it was the preserve of a much smaller group,” says Robert Williams, commissioning editor for Chambers dictionaries. “The internet has made everybody a potential writer, which is maybe why we have more variation, like abbreviations. Social networking has made people more creative with language…”

This creativity is also reflected in the unstoppable rise of the portmanteau. In recent years, there’s been an unrelenting stream of such fusion-words: glamping, bromance, tanorexia, affluenza, fauxmosexual, staycation, frenemy… Meanwhile, the squashing together of couples’ names (“Brangelina”, “TomKat”, “Jedward”) has been a staple of celeb mag journalese and shows like Glee (e.g. “Finchel” – Finn and Rachel) for years.

Thorne credits the portmanteau’s rise with changes in publishing. “Until the end of the 1980s, even the popular press supressed popular language,” he says. “It’s only recently that journalists are creating and celebrating this language, encouraging people to use it. It started in showbiz journalism, and now ordinary people are using it.”

One of the most fertile breeding-grounds for new words is ‘Multicultural London English’ (nicknamed ‘Jafaican’), manifesting itself most obviously in the capital’s grime subculture, which has spawned words such as “from road” (street cred), “bare” (many) and “slewing” (slagging off the competition).

“The originators of grime are second/third generation and their grandparents would have been speaking [Caribbean] island patois but it’s taken a long time for it to break into wider slang,” notes Green. “These teens and early 20-somethings are using those words, some hip hop language, Cockney and their own inventions. It’s a fantastic mix.”

Elsewhere, linguists have noticed ‘Ponglish’ (Polish/English hybrid) words “drinkowac” (going for a drink) and “friendy” (friends) appearing in some Londoners’ vocabulary.

Phonetics – the sounds we make – are also in a state of flux. Linguists have detected something called ‘Australian Question Intonation’ (AQI) or ‘uptalk’. Misspent childhoods spent loafing around watching antipodean soaps such as Neighbours and Home and Away have bequeathed many 20 and 30-something Brits with a speech habit whereby statements sound like questions because their voice gets higher at the end of the sentence. Other linguists have noted the Geordie lilt spreading beyond the northeast, thanks to the televisual ubiquity of Cheryl Cole and Ant and Dec.

As for abbrevs-speak, it doesn’t look like disappearing anytime soon. Which doesn’t concern experts at all…

“There are lots of sticklers and traditionalists who might disapprove,” says Williams. “But language is an evolutionary process, owned by everybody. And we’re free to do whatever we want with it…”



A guide on how to props use abbrevs-speak and the other new words flooding our language…


amaze, amazeballs, amazingness <adj.> I am overwhelmed with wonder.

campet <n.> an annoying slow-moving person.

fo’ sho’ <colloq.> For sure! Derived from rap/hip hop music and the oeuvre of Snoop Dogg.

frape <v.> a portmanteau combining Facebook and rape, describing somebody’s social networking site being hacked into and changed. Not to be confused with iced coffee beverage.

hilar <adj.> hilarious, something exceedingly funny. 

#justsaying <colloq.>vaguely sarcastic Twitter hashtag meaning “as you do”.

mos defs <colloq.> Most definitely! Also the name of an acclaimed Brooklyn rapper.

obvs <adj.> short for ‘obviously’, obvs!

OMG <colloq.> acronym for ‘Oh My God’, a hyperbolic expression which translates as ‘heavens above!’

reem <adj.> looking attractive and/or gorgeous, as popularised (and possibly invented) by be-quiffed teenager Joey from The Only Way Is Essex.

ridic <adj.> ridiculous

*SCREAM!* <n. and v.> a loud high-pitched piercing cry expressing excitement. Couched in asterisks for extra emphasis.

totes <adj.> totally, used as a prefix for almost everything.

totes inappropes <colloq.> totally inappropriate, as in “jeggings have been totes inappropes since 2007 at least”

umbretiquette <n.> the proper usage of umbrellas in an urban setting during inclement weather

vom <v. and n.> to vomit, puke, chunder, sling your ring, park your breakfast, lose one’s lunch, pavement pizza etc.

well jel <colloq.> I am very jealous.

whatevs <adj and pron.> nihilistic gesture of disapproval.