Ja’ime King and friends, the comic creations of Chris Lilley.
Good news, povos! Ja’ime King, Chris Lilley’s monster in a private school uniform, is on her way back, ready to sort out the hot from the fugly in a new TV series, Ja’ime: Private School Girl.
That Lilley will be back on our screens at all is welcome news; that he’s channelling his bold satire through Ja’ime is even better. Not only does Lilley give us, through his young alpha female, a sharp, painfully accurate insight into teenage girl-dom, but he also has a gift for replicating youthful slang in all its wit and potential cruelty.
For me, it’s a reminder that the constant laments about young people corrupting the English language and the infiltration of ”text-speak” into the popular lexicon are as tedious as they are misguided. The way kids use language, and create their own, is actually a wonderful thing: sometimes warm and sometimes brutal, often witty and heavily ironic, filled with the ennui – affected or real – of yoof, which has been around, well, forever. Frankly, I’d take kid-speak over the cold clunkiness of corporate-speak, where everyone is being ”incentivised” to ”action” their ”learnings”, and so on.
Friends with teens and ‘tweens have pointed out that kid-speak these days is sprinkled with the articulation of text message acronyms, such as ”LOL” (laugh out loud), ”TMI” (too much information), ”IDK” (I don’t know), ”BRB” (be right back), ”TBH” (to be honest) and ”seebs” (a contraction of CBS, which is ”can’t be stuffed”). Then there is that old favourite ”totes”, which can be teamed with lots of other corruptions, particularly ”amazeballs” when something is really ace, as we children of the 1980s would say. Apparently ”noob” is the new ”dag”, and ”sos” is sorry. But my favourite is ”cool story, bro”, which is used ironically when someone’s conversation is boring and maybe a bit TMI. Really, what’s not to love?
Of course, young people developing their own language is nothing new, nor is it new for older people to throw their hands in the air and predict the end of civility as we know it. Not knowing what kids are talking about can feel as threatening as a sleeve tattoo and as mysterious as One Direction’s hairdos.
The difference today is that where slang may once have been confined to a school or even a particular friendship circle, technology has ensured it now spreads fast and wide, making its way into the popular lexicon in a way that it would not have even a generation ago.
And if we old-timers feel excluded by it, we’re meant to. Slang is tribal, a means through which to exercise power, so young people communicating among themselves is a perfectly natural thing for them to do.
When it comes to adults joining in, I reckon the ”look but don’t touch” philosophy is best: admire its wit but don’t try to use it yourself. And if you absolutely must use it, make sure you know exactly what it means, and what it implies. My mum recently came across ”hook up” as a phrase, thinking it meant simply to meet, and not realising that it has distinctly sexual overtones. I had to fill her in before she started having miscommunications all over the south-eastern suburbs.
Language is a living thing that necessarily evolves with us – just like fashion, the ”rules” should morph with it. The use of the vernacular has always attracted criticism, including from noted writers: as Monash University professor of linguistics Kate Burridge points out, Samuel Johnson took umbrage at words such as ”fun”, ”nowadays” and ”capture”; Jonathan Swift got his knickers in a twist about ”mob” and the use of ”pants” as a contraction of ”pantaloons”.
The good news, Burridge told me, is that despite much fretting to the contrary, young people are generally well aware of the difference between slang and the more formal language required for essays or business. In fact, she believes young people write very well, and not at all like they speak. This was backed up by Monika Wagner of the Victorian Association for the Teaching of English, who said that her 15 years of classroom experience showed her that students knew when to use totes amazeballs, and when to keep it tucked away.
So we should all probably relax and just enjoy it from the gallery. Effective use of language is primarily about clarity – if you can add wit and elegance on top of that, more power to you. It’s a little tiresome when people bang on about split infinitives or exactly when ”however” can be used, as opposed to, say, incorrect spelling or use of apostrophes, which are important because they impede clarity.
Effective language changes with its users, and the users in turn do well to roll with it and keep a sense of humour. The mere fact that young people are expressing themselves with such wit, creativity and irony makes an old noob like me very happy.
Amanda Dunn is a senior writer at The Age. Twitter: @amandadunn10