Brow Beat

How Pen15’s Creators Came Up With the Show’s Meanest Insult

It’s not actually deployed by real-life middle schoolers—yet.

Maya Erskine of Pen15 stands with her arms crossed at a school dance next to a popular kid played by Jonah Beres.
Pen15’s Maya Erskine and Jonah Beres. Alex Lombardi/Hulu

In the pilot episode of Pen15, Hulu’s new series about middle school, one of the show’s main characters, Maya, is called a name so despicable, so unimaginably vile that, prior to watching, I had never actually heard it spoken aloud, the sure sign of a really bad word: UGIS. As Maya eventually discovers, it’s an acronym that stands for—gulp—“ugliest girl in school.” If the idea of anyone being labeled UGIS doesn’t make your blood pressure spike, then I guess you’re more over your middle school experience than me. When the episode ended, I clicked right over to Google, because I had to know if kids were really calling each other UGIS these days, or were in the year 2000, when the show is set.

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A quick search answered my question: No, kids do not appear to have added UGIS to the middle school lexicon—yet. Instead, the most popular result for UGIS was a medical dictionary that listed it as an abbreviation for “upper gastrointestinal series.” But my curiosity remained. Confirmation that the word hasn’t been universally embraced did not preclude the possibility that it had been a term of art specific to certain middle schools. If any girl on this earth had ever been called a UGIS, I wanted to know about it.

My UGIS fascination eventually led me to Sam Zvibleman, the co-creator of Pen15 and writer of the pilot. He verified that he, along with Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, the show’s stars and co-creators, made the word up. “Me, Anna, and Maya are very interested in the cruelties of kids at that age,” Zvibleman said. During the writing process, he said, he was telling the others about a ritual in his middle school that eventually made it into the pilot: “Boys would write notes or posters on the wall and stick them up in random places: ‘David loves Katie’ or so and so, basically as a prank to impress one another. I was telling them this, and I was like, ‘Well, Katie was never the hot girl.’ It was the gnarliest, grossest girl you could possibly pick just to embarrass your friend. You tried to pick the ugliest girl in school.” Hence the ultimate putdown.

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The three also got to talking about kids’ habit of shortening words. “Middle schoolers love to create code words or nicknames, and they think they’re skirting through the system or won’t get caught or maybe are too cowardly to say the full thing,” Zvibelman said. “I think we just started chanting it out loud to each other and making each other laugh, shouting, ‘UGIS! UGIS!’ like the boys [do in the episode]. It just kind of flowed off the tongue in a weird way. That was it. It just kind of tickled us, even though it made no sense and it didn’t come from any real-world word.”

Its weirdness and specificity beguiled me, too: There’s just something about UGIS. Is it the sound of it? (“Literally everyone who read the script had a different pronunciation,” Zvibleman added. “To us it was always UGIS”—YOU-jiss—”and maybe that was just because it was the first thing out of our mouths.”) UGIS sounds like the old-fashioned name Eunice, which makes it funny as an insult, and also like the word hubris, a very thing-you-learn-in-middle-school sort of vocabulary word. It manages to echo the endless debate, which you probably engaged in circa age 13, over whether one should pronounce the h in huge. The word’s sound alone is enough to distinguish it as a great slang term, to say nothing of its devastating meaning. “I don’t think there was much intellectualizing about why we did it; it was just instinctual,” Zvibleman said. “We liked saying it.”

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Plus, it parallels nicely with a more modern bit of slang: Calling someone UGIS feels like the perfect inverse of calling someone the GOAT, aka the “greatest of all time.”

Any word that means ugly is a shattering weapon to deploy on a middle school girl, but Pen15’s use of UGIS also shows that, for a TV show, ugliness isn’t always a bad thing. “What’s great about Anna and Maya is their wanting to play the darker [stuff],” Zvibleman said. “They want to go ugly as much as possible in their performances. We’re interested in telling that side of the story, not the smart-ass boy’s side of it, but the consequences that they are not seeing.” In depicting the crushing experience of being called ugly in our most vulnerable years, Pen15 itself gets ugly, but for adults watching, the ugly stuff turns out to be some of the show’s best material. This is why, despite UGIS being a terrible word, I’m so glad Pen15 created it.

There’s just one remaining issue with UGIS, though: Now that the word exists, will non-fictional bullies weaponize it? Zvibleman acknowledged the possibility. As he put it, “I hope we haven’t created a monster.”

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