Language At Large

Millennials: Whose Word Is It Anyway?


Step up to the plate, millennials, and let’s really engage these neologisms. They’re quickly defining our generation. You’ll want to choose which ones do.

Catfish. Big data. Twerk. Gamification. Paywall.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard at least one these words a million times. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, these are some of the new words coined in the last year or so that have stuck. But where did they come from? What do they really mean? Why do these seemingly made-up words stick around? (And what the heck are those other ones?)

Step up to the plate, millennials, and let’s really engage these terms. Let’s start with, say, the word millennial. As originally defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, millennial is an adjective, meaning “related to or believing in the coming of a millennium.” Many of this obsolete usages express expectations of change: One cited sermon from the 1800s predicts, “But in Millennial times, how things will be changed!” In the 1980s, millennial took on a new spin, but retained the same connotations: “Of, relating to, or characteristic of the latter years of the 20th cent. and first years of the 21st; spec. denoting phenomena or events designed to mark the end of the millennium.” But the OED definition doesn’t end there. It tacks onto the end: “Also: denoting feelings of expectation or apprehension associated with the turn of the millennium.”

Thus we arrive at the current definition, in which the adjective has been appropriated into a very different noun: “A person reaching young adulthood around the year 2000.” Yet the adjective’s connotations have transferred to the noun as well. Millennial doesn’t simply mean someone born in the late 80s or 90s. It means a generation of Americans with whom our society has become obsessed, a generation analyzed and praised and admonished through all sorts of anxiety-ridden inspections. In other words, by being labeled by a single word, the current generation of twenty-somethings carry on their backs years of pressing societal expectations.

Curiously enough, we, the so-called Millennials, have chosen to take on the challenge of expectations posed in our namesake by embracing the trade of wordsmithery. As of 2014, there are now more 22-year-olds than any other age in America, and they’re not just sitting around: this new society in which we live is exploding with an emergent lexicon. We are witnessing a rich, generative moment in the use of words through modern media and technology. In fact, the OED has been tracking the additions to its dictionary: From 1928 to 1986 (58 years), approximately 78,500 words were added. Yet since then, more terms have been added in less than half that time: From 1986 to 2011 (25 years), approximately 98,000 words have been added.

Terms spring up that evolve to keep pace with the technology phenomena they describe. Hashtags generate new phrases at break-thumb speed. That buzz you’re hearing isn’t only murmuring mouths anymore—it’s that phone vibrating on your desk too. I’m committed to tracing the radical direction that the coded language of millennials is taking. I’m going to show you the neologisms you need to know–the diamonds you need to cut and polish.You may be in the act of typing “I don’t need a millennial translator. I’m already using those words… #oldnews.”

But what you may not know is what those words are saying about the people using them. Are they misusing them? Appropriating them? Will you seem sharp and updated, or will you be mocked for using “street slang”? (Is crowdfunding okay to use in both a tweet and a résumé? Can you casually toss around a buzzword at a cocktail party if, deep down, you don’t really know what it means?)

In other words, how will these trending words reexamine the greater body of effective communications in the contemporary world? A lack of understanding as to how our evolving use of language must fuse with classical grammar and vocabulary plagues our generation. We need a new documentation of the English language in order to glean the applicability of the emerging vernacular. And that is what this blog seeks to remedy.

My planner, oddly enough, is where this whole shebang starts. (Yes, I still have a paper planner—it’s that grounded feeling of putting pen to paper.) Here hide words I’ve come across that I didn’t know but wanted to get to know, and I’d jot them down, intending to look them up later. More than half of them were elusive encounters with studying for the heinous GRE. But recently I’ve been wondering why in the world I would ever need to know terms like “oviparous” which are “otiose” and never quite “pellucid.” (I linked those puppies up for you, because why would you know what all three of those mean?). Instead, I shifted focus to words that I felt like I needed to know now. I wanted to stay in the fast-paced neologism game, but only if I understood how newly coined words had an appropriate place in the in broader canon of English.

That is what I intend to explore and impart to readers through this blog. From philosophy to economics, from work to play, the posts in this blog will tell you the stories behind words of the millennial generation. An analysis of the millennials’ newest words is nothing less than considering our generation’s culture, for each word is a window as to who we are. I will be your word biographer, profiling each word’s peculiar character; your word archaeologist, digging up its etymological roots; your word statistician, tracking its ups and downs of usage through space and time. And from this, my goal is to make you the word rhetoricians of the 21st century, equipped to express yourselves intelligently in the wordplay of our modern world.


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