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.
You may also like: America's most hated slang words, explained
"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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“Fire” simply means cool, trendy, awesome—take your pick of superlative adjectives. It’s most commonly used to describe two paragons of youth culture: music and clothing. If someone’s “fit is fire,” that means their outfit is awesome. If a new rapper’s “mixtape is straight fire,” that means their new album is catchy and exciting. The fire emoji is often used as a substitute, commonly appearing in the comments on Instagram photos or YouTube videos.
As streetwear style becomes more intertwined with high fashion, luxury brands have sought to cultivate a new relationship with a younger generation. One of the most successful brands in this department is Gucci, whose younger customers are driving a higher percentage of sales. “Gucci” has become an adjective used to describe anything as cool, fresh, or exciting.
“Keep It 100” refers to authenticity. If someone is “keeping it 100,” they’re being true to themselves and following their dreams. If you ask someone a question and warn them to “keep it 100,” you’re asking them to tell the truth. The term is especially popular in hip-hop music, featured on tracks by Drake, Jay-Z, Gucci Mane, and others. Similar to “fire,” the numbers are commonly replaced by the hundred points emoji in tweets and memes.
“GOAT” stands for “greatest of all time,” and is generally used to refer to celebrities who are at the top of their field. A soccer fan might declare that “Messi is the GOAT,” while a hip-hop fan might refer to Kanye West’s album “Yeezus” as “the GOAT.” Rapper LL Cool J’s eighth studio album is even titled “G.O.A.T.”
While the conventional meaning of thirsty is still widely used, its secondary meaning has exploded over the last few years. It can be used to describe someone desperate for something, typically romance. Phrases such as “a thirst for success” are nothing new in the English language, but recent use of the word has a decidedly R-rated tilt. If your kid ever snickered when you innocently referred to something as “thirsty,” now you know why.
A portmanteau of angry and hungry, “hangry” describes the state of being irritable because of hunger. The implicit assumption is that the person will stop being angry if they eat some food. Merriam-Webster traces the word’s use all the way back to 1918. This slang term has a scientific background: refraining from eating can cause blood sugar levels to drop, and the hormones released to balance out those levels can lead to irritability.
“Fam” is short for “family,” and is used as an endearing yet casual term for those you’re close with. Not limited to one’s actual family, “fam” is generally used to address close friends (“what’s up, fam”) or bid them farewell (“later, fam”). The term’s exact origins are unknown, but like much of the slang on this list, it’s associated with AAVE.
The word “lit” has two primary meanings: very cool, or very intoxicated. You might describe a party or concert as “lit” if it was an exciting place to be, with lots of enthusiastic people. You might also describe someone else as “so lit” if they’re excessively intoxicated. Like “hangry,” Merriam-Webster traces the word’s use back to 1918.
“SMH” stands for “shaking my head,” and it’s usually affixed to the end of a justified grievance. For example, someone might tweet “Why does it always have to rain when I leave my umbrella at home, SMH.” “SMH” can also be used to convey personal embarrassment, such as, “Accidentally sent an email to my boss that was meant for my friend. SMH.”
Not to be confused with “Bey,” as in Queen Bey (a term of endearment for Beyoncé), “bae” is a slang term for a beloved person in your life, whether they’re your partner, best friend, or idolized celebrity. Some interpret the word as an acronym meaning “before anyone else,” though early uses of the word predate this explanation. The word began to rise in popularity in the mid-2010s, bolstered by the 2014 Pharrell song “Come Get It Bae.”