Getting to grips with Gen Z slang – confessions of a millennial trying to keep up with the kids
I was born in 1982. I did not grow up with the internet. We didn’t have a computer at home until the mid-90s. I got my first phone when I went to university in the year 2000 — a huge brick of a contraption from Virgin Mobile.
So, now I’ve outed myself as a card-carrying millennial, it won’t come as any surprise to you that Gen Z slang is a little foreign to me.
We were young and hip once too
It’s not like we millennials didn’t have our own set of expressions. Every generation does. It’s how we differentiate ourselves from the older generation and signal our youth, freshness and general belongingness to each other. The 90s, for example, were the decade of such slang gems as “awesome”, “mega” and “word”.
However: once you hit adulthood, unless your job demands fluency in the youth-speak of the day, you should probably drop it all from your vocabulary. Apart from letting slip the occasional “awesome”, I think I did a good job of this.
That is, until I switched careers to digital marketing.
Getting to grips with Gen Z slang
Digital marketing is a field largely populated with later millennials and Gen Z. Most of whom are about 10 years younger than I am. As a professional translator, I know better than anyone how language is a dynamic thing that is constantly developing. But parking my tanks on this bit of Gen Z’s lawn really has been like moving to a different country.
And, just like settling down in a foreign country, you soon find yourself picking up the odd phrase or two. My challenge is to move with the times and fit in without seeming like some embarrassing middle-aged aunt trying to be “down with the kids”.
It’s a fine line, but the key is to be selective. These are the Gen Z slang phrases that I’ve welcomed into the boudoir of my personal vocabulary.
1. “I feel seen”
I recently found myself using this phrase in response to a particularly enjoyable lunch where the conversation flowed and my company a) asked me lots of questions about myself, b) maintained good (but not scary) levels of eye contact, and c) did not look at their smartphone once during our lunch.
The fact that this kind of attentive, non-distracted behaviour was so shocking as to provoke comment shows how far we have lost sight of our own manners and social mores in the digital age. We now consider it an event when someone pays more attention to their opposite number at the dinner table than to their phone. How sad.
Alas, language is a reflection of the times and circumstances in which we live. And so — whereas 20 years ago, we would probably have just said “X was great company, very polite and an excellent conversationalist”, we now muse rather breathlessly about how “X was great company, and was fully present in the moment…I felt seen”.
2. “Super-” as a prefix to another adjective of your choice
I can tell you with absolute certainty that this is not a speech pattern I was prone to before 2015. It has happened since I became self-employed and started spending more time a) online, and b) away from the legal sector generally.
“I am so super-excited about that!”
“Oh, this pasta is super-good — you have to try it.”
“Helen is so super-stylish.”
You get the picture.
3. “I’m a content creator”
We all live online now. And the internet is nothing other than a huge digital maw that demands constant feeding with content to keep users happy and coming back for more. Blog articles, e-books, podcasts, videos, images…the volume of content that goes online every single day is quite mind-blowing.
Content creation is a massive industry. That, in turn, has given rise to a global army of content creators — drawn largely from the millennial and Gen Z cohorts — who have signed up to satisfy the demand.
Even though, as a millennial, I should be a natural fit to this industry, I still had “a moment” the first time I heard myself identify as a “content creator”. It felt a bit cheesy, a bit fake, a bit like I was trying too damned hard.
Then I realised that this is just the proper way of describing a part of the work I do every day.
So I pulled myself together and got over it. My boomer parents would be so proud.
4. To slay
A word which I felt I had to sidle up to slowly. I read it for the first time in a tweet about the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018:
“And here is Amal Clooney, slaying in canary yellow.”
The word was so perfect, so apt. It caught to a tee the vision of the lovely Mrs. Clooney, striding confidently into the royal wedding venue, looking like — well — a queen. (To meet the actual Queen, who, as we can all agree, slayed pretty much constantly for 70 years.)
I felt an immediate affinity to the word…but was intimidated. Could I, a 36-year-old who used to work at the Austrian Financial Markets Authority, appropriate it without coming across as completely absurd?
Some words are like clothes: you have to grow into them. Five years later, the mists of time have largely closed over my dry-as-dust lawyer past and I feel like a relaxed, confident and — dare I say it? — cool 41-year-old.
Sorry, Gen Z — we millennials were the original pioneers of “valid”, meaning “right”, “true” or “correct”. Every now and again, if someone metes out a particular brutal truth or dollop of tough love, I still allow myself a “harsh, but valid”. A phrase which I know I was using in the 90s — while Gen Z were still swimming around in amniotic fluid or were mere twinkles in their parents’ eyes.
6. “I’m here for it”
I’m very fond of this. In Britain at least, we used to say “I’m up for it” — but this is so much better. It’s got such verve, such daring, such sass! I guess you could say that, as far as this natty little phrase is concerned, I’m here for it.
Gen Z really did hit the ball out of the park with this one. “Don’t let [him/her/them] live in your head rent-free” is such a perfect way of discrediting that daft fixation on someone who doesn’t deserve so much of your attention, energy and thought-power.
Both millennials and Gen Z live inside our own heads more than any generation that went before. Some might say we are self-obsessed. Whatever label you give it: if we are going to be inside our own heads so much, we need to exercise firm control over who and what is in there at any one time.
Serve that undeserving occupant an eviction notice, post-haste and pour your energies into more enriching activities.
Caution, oncoming uncool millennial statement:
WHEN I WAS YOUNG (sorry, it had to be said), a drip was a wimpy, weak, pathetic person. Now, the word has done a 180° turn and hurtled off in the direction of hip. It now means someone who oozes (or drips) cool or style. It appears to have assumed the function of “swag” — a noughties slang confection which I was just about young enough to catch onto.
9. OK, boomer
Here’s one where millennials and Gen Z have got considerable overlap and solidarity.
Admittedly, I’m a geriatric millennial, which means having some serious boomer inflections. I’m rocking that hybrid generation chic, you know? But both our generations know the feeling of disconnect from the boomer generation and how talking to them can sometimes feel like you are trying to communicate with another species.
They can harp on about how hard 15% interest rates were in the 1980s. And how they never got to eat avocado on toast or hummus. But I see your post-war food rationing and 1970s oil shocks and I raise you coming of age in an age of perma-crisis and looking down the long barrel of “the decline of the West, no home ownership, spiralling rents and precarious gig-type employment for the rest of our lives”. Oh yes, and the small matter of dealing with the effects of climate change and possible civilisational collapse.
That’s it boomers, sit back in that huge house you bought for 3 strawberries back in 1975, and allow us to fund your massive pensions which you started drawing at 58. Our old age won’t look like that.
Possibly my favourite Gen Z slang term – I use it alot. And to be honest, when you get to your 40s, everything you do is low-key. You just don’t have the energy for anything else.
Low-key holidays, low-key birthday celebrations, low-key hen nights. And my goodness, isn’t everyone quietly thrilled when their friends announce that their wedding is going to be “absolutely low-key”?
In the fullness of time, Gen Z will come to fully appreciate this sentiment.
Photo: bafos on Envato Elements