Over time, the meaning and usage of words evolve. Take a word like “suck.” Many adults cringe at what they would consider a vulgar term. But it’s widely used by youth to mean awful or poorly performed.
To adults, “suck” still has power. However, the word isn’t likely to get a strong reaction out of most young people. Richard Janda, a historical linguist, calls this “the boy who cried wolf” effect. Eventually, a word is used so much that it loses its strength.
Janda studies changes in language at Indiana University in Bloomington. He says that language never stops evolving. “Everything changes all the time. It’s changing right now.”
Language can change in many different ways. As time goes on, words can change in pronunciation and meaning. Slang changes – old words remain in use, but with new meanings.
“To be really effective in speech, it’s good to have something that’s very striking and new. So a new slang word can be really effective,” Janda said.
A group of students at Arsenal Tech High School recently met to discuss their use of language. In general, the teens said they use strong language (sometimes swear words) around their peers and friends but rarely around adults.
According to Janda, people want to use language that will have a strong effect on the people around them. But words will have different effects on different people.
“It’s about how people react, and if they stop reacting, then you’ve got to find a new slang word or a swear word,” he said.
Kaylin Warren, 18, Indianapolis, says she curses frequently because swear words are powerful. “It’s part of my everyday vocabulary,” she said. “It makes jokes funnier sometimes. I mean, it’s just not the same effect if you use a different word.”
However, cursing is not a part of the vocabulary of Princess Kimbrough, 18, Indianapolis. She is the granddaughter of a pastor and grew up in a home where bad language was not tolerated. “I don’t like cussing or whatever, so I don’t listen to any music that will put that in my head, or my vocabulary.”
However, Princess does use some words that rile her mother. “She doesn’t like the word ‘screw,’ like screw it or something. And the N-word, she doesn’t like when me and my brother use it, and sometimes we use it just because it gets on her nerves,” she said.
It’s typical for kids and parents to disagree on strong words. The wider the age gap, the more two people will differ in the language that they use, especially when it comes to swear words, Janda said.
“As the culture changes, you are upset by different things and so the euphemisms can change and also the swear words change,” he explained.
Because of this rapid turnover in language, people learn to adapt to what is acceptable language and what isn’t. “You just have to kind of figure out what offends people and what doesn’t,” Janda said.
“A really good analogy is clothing, right? So you would dress differently depending on where you are. You would not wear a tuxedo to paint a house. You wouldn’t wear pajamas to church. You wouldn’t wear too-slutty clothes to a Thanksgiving dinner ‘cause your grandmother is going to be there.”
The students said they try to respect people by adjusting what they say depending on the people around them.
Brandon Real, 18, Indianapolis, identifies himself as an atheist but says he appreciates that many other people are religious. “I don’t have a problem with saying ‘God’ and stuff, but I try not to do it anyway ‘cause most people do have a religion and I try and respect that,” he said.
The teens also have some agreement on the words they don’t like to use or hear. Most don't use “gay” or “retarded” as insults, and they don’t use “God” as part of a curse. Girls especially seem to have an issue with slang words for body parts.
“Guys always want to call somebody like the P- or the D- or the C-word,” said Kamen Rose, 18, Indianapolis. “Guys will do it just like to play around. I feel like when girls cuss and use that kind of stuff, they’re more like spiteful and like mean with it.”
“I think boys tend to use more vulgar words,” added Ashley Ballard, 18.
The students agreed that guys use different words than girls do. They also agreed that what is allowed by one gender is not allowed by the other.
For example, the terms “hoe” and “slut” have recently become popular terms of endearment among teenage girls. While many girls dislike this practice, woe be the man who uses the terms.
“It’s a big double standard,” said Roddell Felder, 18, Indianapolis. “Girls call each other B-words, W-words and S-words, but as soon as a male calls them a B-word, S-word or a W-word, all hell breaks loose.”
Males and females are more likely to curse around friends of the same gender. This creates a sense of unity, or what Janda calls the “frat effect.”
“If people, especially males, are allowed to share this sort of slight violation of the rules, then that’s a bonding condition,” Janda explained.
People will always curse. According to Janda, “Some people have said it’s a safety valve — that you use regular words and then when you really need to show you’re upset, then you swear.”
And those curse words will always change, he explained. “There is no list of taboo things that holds for all time and for all cultures,” he said.
So a “slag” today might have been a “hussy” a few years ago or a “Lolita” in the 1950s. Each term carried a punch unique for its time.
Janda explains why. “Language change always happens in the present. Whatever happens, the only time there is for it to happen in is the present.”
Assistant editors Libby Bowling, 14, and Izabella Robinson, 14, contributed to this story.
Copyright 2012 Y-Press