Do You Speak College Slang?

Posted by Mark Peters

Swagger Jackers and Harlot Davidsons Get the Ews!

Ah, college... What memories. I was the chicken-finger-eating champion of my dorm. I introduced Evildead 2 to approximately 47 friends. I marched on Washington for causes I have completely forgotten, and I danced myself silly at hundreds of concerts. Despite having less musical ability than a brick, I was in two bands myself.

I was also more saturated in slang than at any other time of my life. College has always been an ultimate petri dish for slang: That’s what you get when hordes of young people with identities in flux gather and gab. In honor of the recently begun college year, here’s a look at some current college slang that is totally off the chain.

In his remarkable book Slang: The People’s Poetry, Michael Adams praised the creativity of slang, saying that “Like poetry, slang is the aesthetic exercise of linguistic ingenuity.” It’s easy (and boring) to say that someone is crazy or (more respectfully) that they have mental health issues. Only with slang can say how we really feel at times: that a dude is a total weapons-grade nutbucket.

Besides this creativity and irreverence, slang also tends to exist within specific groups, and to reinforce the boundaries of those groups. As Connie Eble wrote in Slang and Sociability: In-Group Language Among College Students, “Sharing and maintaining a constantly changing in-group vocabulary aids group solidarity and serves to include and exclude members. In this respect, slang is the linguistic counterpart of fashion and serves much the same purpose.” So a slang term is the equivalent of one of those odd moose hats worn by lodge members—it may be goofy and over-the-top, but hey, it’s just what we do around here.

Eble—an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—was kind enough to share her latest slang list with me. She’s been collecting such lists of “good, current campus slang” since 1972 in her undergraduate English classes. The lists are not just about collecting new slang, but about seeing what older slang is still in use, so I wasn’t surprised to find familiar terms like “absofreakinlutely,” “alrighty,” “blow off,” “craptastic,” “food coma,” “hammered,” “hook up,” “preggers,” “splitsville,” and “tramp stamp.” Though slang has a reputation for being ephemeral, some terms do stick around for decades—look at what a run “cool” has had.

On her list were also many terms I have never seen before. Before I get to them, a disclaimer: these terms don’t necessarily go beyond undergrads at the University of North Carolina, though many obviously do. You could probably find most of them on Urban Dictionary and who knows where else. The point is that they are verified ingredients in the cauldron of slang among current students. As Adams writes, “Slang is a flexible set of linguistic practices (including but not limited to vocabulary) that we use to fit in and to stand out, that is, that we use to mark group membership on one hand, individual social and linguistic identity on the other.” These terms are part of how UNC students are fitting in, standing out, and having a linguistic blast.

Eble’s collection includes terms formed by just about every method of word creation. There are blends like “beeramid” (a pyramid of empty beer cans), “Helltober” (hell plus October), and “procrastichat,” (a chat that is a form of procrastination—a college classic). There are exaggerated pronunciations—like “bruh” for bro and “mayne” for “man.” Rhyme creates some terms, like “dorm storm,” meaning to annoy residents by going door-to-door looking for signatures. Some words shift in meaning, such as “belligerent” as a term for drunk, no doubt due to the time-honored tradition of the belligerent drunk. Terms also shift in part of speech, as shown by the movement of “ew” from interjection to noun. Eble provides this example: “My date was nice, but he gave me the ews.” (Like the heebie-jeebies, the creeps, and the willies, you do not want the ews.)

Pop culture makes a big impression on college slang. Many terms—like “guido,” “creep on,” and “pouf”—are popularized by Jersey Shore. The expression “The cake is a lie!” comes from the videogame Portal. “Meh” and “totes magotes” (meaning “totally”) come from The Simpsons and I Love You, Man respectively. “M’kay” was used on Beavis and Butthead as well as by smarmy Lumbergh in Office Space. “That’s what she said” is older than The Office, but the American version made it a staple of slangy humor. By email, Eble said, “My impression is that more and more references to popular culture are showing up.” That seems like a valid impression, and she’s planning a more scholarly look at past slang lists to see if the numbers back it up.

Some terms are spectacularly creative and useful. “Ham sandwich!” is a “Holy crap!”-like exclamation that would fit well in the absurd world of Anchorman. We all probably know an “askhole”—the kind of person who asks a lot idiotic questions. A “Harlot Davidson” isn’t a female biker, but a woman in a long-distance relationship who blabs about that relationship at a party and then hooks up with another dude anyway. Then there’s “fubarose”—a mix of F-word-derived slang and chemistry jargon used by chem majors to mean an “impure carbohydrate mixture, an undesired product of sugar synthesis.” Though “fubarose” has a science-specific meaning, I wonder if the inventors of this word have accidentally found the building block of everything in the universe. If we’re all made of fubarose, that would explain a few things.

Though I am usually a proponent of expanding your vocabulary and adopting lonely words into new homes, I can’t recommend slipping any of these terms into your latest blog posts and protest signs. The risks of sounding like a swagger jacker—“someone who copies another's distinctive style"—are just too great.