By MARY HOOD HART
Adolescents are famous for creating slang. This language serves to exclude adults from the teenage world. Even though I have a teen and a preteen in my home, I’m not familiar with current slang. If I were, however, I wouldn’t attempt to write a column about it. I know I’d get it wrong. Indeed, communicating with my kids, I struggle with even the obvious concepts. Take “going out with,” for example. When I was a teen, a couple was “going out” if they were dating. Now, 10-year-old boys and girls go out, without ever seeing one another outside school. Going out means going steady. Despite knowing the innocent meaning of the phrase, I can’t bring myself to use it as a substitute for going steady. But you should see the looks I get when I say it wrong.
Other words, though not considered slang, take on new meaning for those who spend a lot of time communicating with teens. Because of these new meanings, even the simplest attempts at conversation are challenging, to say the least. So in an effort to improve dialogue in my home, I’ve come up with new definitions to ordinary words that I once assumed I understood. These words changed their meanings as my children matured.
For example, the word “always” has a new, more liberal meaning. Always is spoken as if it’s written in italics and is defined as once in the last week. Here are some examples: “It’s always my turn to feed the dog!” “I always get stuck babysitting while you go out to dinner!” When applied to family relationships, always is liberally and dramatically thrown into comments like: “You always let him get away with it!” “I’m the one who always gets in trouble!”
It stands to reason then that the opposite of always would also change its meaning to accommodate a teen perspective. In a household with a teen-ager, never is defined as not now. For example, “You never let me do anything fun” translates to “I’m not allowed to go out tonight.” The definition of never also changes when applied to friendships. “Jenny never calls me anymore” really means Jenny hasn’t called in the last 24 hours. “I’ll never speak to him again!” means I won’t talk to him until tomorrow morning.
Another common word with a new definition is the pronoun “everyone.” Only foolish parents believe that everyone means all people. In communicating with a teen, “everyone” should be defined as “three people outside my circle of friends who I’m convinced are allowed to (fill in the activity).” It’s a given that everyone is going to the party or seeing that horror movie. Indeed, everyone is always allowed to do everything. Everyone also owns a car, CD player, cell phone and television, with cable, of course. Everyone has a ridiculous clothing allowance and never uses her own money to purchase new outfits — no matter how many are in her closet. Everyone’s parents are also a lot nicer than you, and they never lose their temper.
Once again, the opposite rule applies. Just as the definition of everyone constricts, the definition of “nobody” expands to include “those who want to maintain a reasonable level of popularity among their peers.” Nobody buys that brand of shoes. Nobody wears a retainer. Nobody drives the speed limit. Nobody listens to that radio station. Nobody tucks his shirt in, wears a belt or brings a lunch box.
Perhaps the most versatile word in a teen’s vocabulary, however, is the word “like.” It can function as any part of speech. And it can make communication truly challenging — except to those familiar with its usage. Indeed, with some practice and a familiarity with new definitions, we parents can easily understand our teens and their views of the world. Take, for example, this typical answer to the question, “How was you day?”
“In history, we had, like, the hardest test. Like nobody passed it. Everyone was, like, complaining. Mrs. O’Connor NEVER teaches us anything. She make us answer stupid questions and read boring stuff, like, right out of the book. Then, she ALWAYS expects us to memorize, like, the whole chapter.”
Translated, that means “OK.”
Mary Hood Hart lives in Calabash, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 7 to 15.