The English language is widely acknowledged to be one of the very best. It’s got some great letters – G, or X, for example – and some properly useful words. Just imagine trying to get through the day without being able to say shoes, or banana.
We English speakers are lucky people.
The really clever thing about the English language is that it keeps changing, and producing new words and phrases to help us describe all the stuff that keeps happening, and existing.
Where would we be if phrases like ‘smart phone’ or ‘brexit’ hadn’t popped up in the dictionary at just the right moment?
It’s almost magical.
Just occasionally, however, those clever people in charge of English – apparently a group of excruciatingly shiny twenty-somethings with haircuts – misfire. They create phrases so painfully modern, ironic, and self-referential that they threaten to fold in on themselves.
“I know, I mean, is that even a thing?”
The first time you hear them you get a little hit of endorphins.
Imagine stepping into one of those American comedies so clever and witty that the funny bit is as precise as maths and as satisfying as a massive watermelon on a hot day. You roll your tongue around the words and people gasp and clap excitedly at how fresh and modern we all are.
Which is all well and good, but some of us are over the age of 40. When we start saying these things, nobody quite knows how, but the meaning changes.
It’s thought to be something to do with the Facebook ‘echo chamber’ effect; the words rebound in cyberspace until someone middle-aged accidentally removes them and uses the phrase in normal, grown-up conversation.
Once in the wild it mutates from clever and cutesy, to weird and jarring, in a matter of hours.
Then it stops showing up on Google and dies.
It happened this year with ‘on fleek.’ One day it was peppering social media like a barely understood contagion, the next it’s disappeared.
Often it only takes one use of a phrase out of context – in a broadsheet newspaper, or shared flippantly on social media by Stephen Fry – and whhoommphh! It spreads like verbal wildfire through a whole section of society old enough to know better.
And then it’s gone.
Up in smoke.
And the millennials consult their phones en masse, replace said phrase with something else, and move on.
And those of us over 40 wonder: is ‘on fleek’ even a thing?