Sinking into a comfortable conversation with old friends over FaceTime, I can’t help but think about how different some of our language is compared to the last time we spoke just a few months ago. Our slang is drawn from social media platforms and internet culture, and evolves at an unprecedented rate. It helps us feel connected and bonded with one another — even when miles apart.
But when I speak with my parents and grandparents, my speech completely shifts. I adapt an entirely new vocabulary to communicate with the older generation. It's no wonder old and young people can't understand each other ideologically when we can’t even understand each other's speech... right?
The process of creating and speaking in a generationally distinct language is an element of generational social differentiation. By using unique linguistic rules, creating new phrases and redefining old ones, we identify who is in, and not in, our generational group. Having been raised online, Gen Z is inevitably crafting our own linguistic code with heavy influence from social media trends and digital culture.
Language shapes our understanding of who we are and where we belong in society. It has the capacity to separate or build personal connections. The formation of a linguistic code, slang phrases and all, helps us to feel connected, which adds real value to our lives. However, history also reveals the generational similarities within languages outweigh their differences.
A month ago, being called a “Heather” wouldn’t have meant anything to me. But when my friends endearingly use the term to describe me during our FaceTime, I know exactly what they mean. Popularized initially by the 1989 movie "Heathers," the term has reemerged with a slightly new meaning in the digital age. In response to musical artist Conan Gray’s song "Heather" and a viral TikTok trend, the term has come to describe a popular or beautiful “it-girl."
Although the term Heather used in this way might be new, the concept behind the word is not. The slang term “Betty” was popularized in the 1970s, and was used in a very similar way to Gen Z’s Heather.
By now, we have likely all heard of a “Karen”: a woman whose white privilege and entitlement warrant speaking to the manager (at best) and needlessly calling law enforcement on people of color (at worst). Karen is the reincarnation of “Becky," a name given to describe the peppy, younger 1990s version of its successor. Becky was formerly known as “Miss Ann," a white woman who was complacent in a discriminatory Civil War America.
The generational similarities within language don’t end at characterized names. Slang terms for virtually every activity have evolved generationally. The Gen Z term “tea” comes from its Boomer predecessor “the skinny." The Gen Z term “lit” followed the Boomers' “loaded." Although our generational vocabulary might be different, we are, in the most fundamental way, speaking the same code.
We are living in a divisive time in history, highlighted by increasingly polarized politics, social unrest and global trauma. The world seems bent on separating us — physically, socially and ideologically. Though it might feel as though we are irredeemably different from one another, now is not the time to give up on connecting. Now more than ever, it's imperative that we make an effort to understand one another if we have any hope of handling anything else 2020 might throw at us.
Individuals often say they feel misunderstood by those of different generations, and in many ways, those critiques are valid. But it’s clear that, at least in our language, we aren’t as different as we might believe.
We’re speaking the same language. Now, we just need to hear each other out.
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