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America's most common slang words, explained

  • America's most common slang words, explained

    Generational gaps can manifest themselves in a variety of ways. In the 21st century, American youth differentiates itself by having more familiarity with technology, listening to more hip-hop music than the generations before it, and, as always, using the latest slang. It can be tough for outsiders to get a handle on the lingo of the younger generation, however. According to market research group OnePoll, one in four Americans thinks people older than 25 are already too old to use any form of slang at all.

    Slang has always had a contentious relationship with ordinary English. A century ago, the word was used to describe language that was unseemly and vulgar; only more recently have we accepted slang as a valid alternate lexicon generally used by younger people. Much of today’s slang comes from African American Vernacular English, or AAVE, the English dialect commonly spoken by the African American community and popularized by hip-hop, rap, and R&B artists. Some slang also comes from the African American LGBTQ+ community, particularly drag culture.

    Despite slang becoming more acceptable in casual settings, most Americans remain uncomfortable using slang at work. According to OnePoll, 37% found slang use in the workplace to be completely unacceptable. 55% of those polled were totally against using “lol” in an email to a boss, though nearly half thought it was fine in an email to a coworker. 

    If you’re among the 46% of people in the OnePoll survey who admitted to using slang without fully knowing what it means, this article is for you. Using a report of the top-20 most common slang words from digital news provider SWNS, we’ve put together explainers for slang terms you’re likely to encounter. Read on to find out what acronyms “SMH,” “TFW,” and “GOAT” mean, and why you might hear some snickers the next time you refer to yourself as “thirsty,” even if you just want a glass of water. 

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  • #20. Trill

    "Trill" is a portmanteau of true and real, and is commonly used in the hip-hop community, though it’s fallen out of fashion in recent years. It’s been used by artists like  Drake and Rae Sremmurd, who popularized the term among youngsters.

  • #19. Totes

    Tote bags are useful if you want to carry your belongings, but the slang term “totes” is a shortened form of “totally.” You can use it anywhere you’d use the longer form, such as “that concert was totes awesome.”

  • #18. Clap back

    To “clap back” means to respond to someone’s aggression with aggression of your own. That response would be your “clapback,” the noun form of the slang term. Ja Rule popularized the term with his 2003 song “Clap Back,” and nowadays it’s used to refer to celebrities responding to critics, or informed citizens responding to politicians. 

  • #17. TFW

    “TFW” stand for “that face when” and is generally used to start comedic tweets or memes. While the actual source of “that face” may not always be apparent, “TFW” is generally used to complain about ridiculous or laborious circumstances, e.g., “TFW you still have 20 pages of a paper to write,” accompanied by a picture of a sleepy cat. 

  • #16. Peeped

    The slang meaning of “peep” is generally close to its typical meaning: to take a quick look at. You might ask a friend to “peep my fit” if you want them to check out your outfit, or tell them to “peep this vid” if there’s a funny YouTube video you want to show them. 

  • #15. Fleek

    “Fleek,” generally used as a part of the phrase “on fleek,” means awesome or perfect, much in the same way “fly” was used during an earlier generation. One of many terms originating from African American Vernacular English (AAVE), “on fleek” is commonly used to refer to well-maintained eyebrows, due to a teen’s viral Vine that declared “Eyebrows on fleek.” 

  • #14. Spill the tea/sipping tea

    The LGBTQ+ community is known for its slang, much of which is adapted by mainstream youth culture. “The tea” is one such example, basically meaning “gossip.” “Spilling/sipping the tea” means telling someone what’s really going on in a particular situation. The phrase’s roots can be traced back to African American drag culture, and has been popularized through outlets like the popular TV series “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” It’s also been disseminated through memes like Kermit the Frog

  • #13. Throw shade

    “Throw shade” is another example of LGBTQ+ slang adapted by wider culture. It means to insult someone in a particularly clever or subtle way. Dorian Corey, a transgender woman, describes shade as: “I don't have to tell you you're ugly, because you know you're ugly,” in the NYC ball culture documentary “Paris Is Burning.”


  • #12. Turn up/turnt

    Turn up the excitement dial to 11 and what do you get? Someone who’s “turnt.” One can be “turnt” at a party if they’re tearing up the dance floor, or a musician can yell at the crowd to “turn up” if they’re feeling sluggish. If you’re hungover in the morning, it’s likely you were “turnt” last night. Celebrities like Beyoncé and Eminem have used the phrase, which has strong roots in AAVE. 

  • #11. Woke

    Among today’s youth, significant cultural capital comes with being culturally and politically aware, a state commonly described as “woke.” While some use the term to earnestly refer to figures they admire (“Lady Gaga is so woke when she talks about the LGBTQ+ community”), it’s often used as a term of derision for people who are seen as inauthentic or pretentious when voicing their opinion about political issues. The term originated in the African American community in the 1960s, though woke has recently seen a resurgence via the Black Lives Matter movement

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