In Netflix’s hit sci-fi drama Stranger Things, a group of kids adventure to rescue their friend from the Upside Down, a parallel dimension inhabited by a gnarly monster. But fans are just as thrilled by its other parallel dimension: 1983. The story is set in fictional small-town Indiana. Creators Matt and Ross Duffer lovingly bring the 1980s back to life in the series, from the deft touches of Rubik’s cubes and wood-paneled basements to the sweeping homage to Spielberg and Stephen King.* Children of the period, and observers of its culture, agree that the show successfully recreates the decade in its visuals, music, aesthetic, narrative, and even character names. But what about its language? How ’80s is the slang in Stranger Things?
As Episode 1 introduces the story’s central preteens, Lucas, Dustin, Will, and Mike, we get a taste of how they talk. “It’s because she’s been dating that douchebag, Steve Harrington,” Lucas fires after Dustin complains about a snub from Mike’s sister. Later in the episode, douchebag returns at the family dinner table. Nancy hurls it at her younger brother: “You’re such a douchebag, Mike!” “Language,” the father dispassionately rejoins from behind his thick, aviator-shaped spectacles.
Would kids in 1983 have ribbed each other as douchebags? While it emerges by the 1950s, douchebag seems to take off in popular culture in the 1980s, owing to its appearance in 1980’s “Lord and Lady Douchebag” SNL skit, 1982’s E.T., 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, and, to spill over into the next decade, 1991’s Terminator 2. During the 2000s, the insult went full mainstream, with the clipped douche particularly prevalent today. Douchebag, then, would have sounded fresh and a bit edgy on Lucas and Nancy’s early ’80s lips.
Cool, Ridiculous, and Gross
“Nance, seriously. You’re going to be so cool now it’s ridiculous,” Barb comments on her best friend Nancy’s new-fangled fling with Steve. But she is also worried Nancy will replace her with Steve’s clique. “That’s gross,” Nancy reassures her friend.
Slang-wise, this scene time-travels. By 1983, cool, both as “hip” and “OK,” was well-settled into the teenage lexicon. Beyond Barb, Stranger Things uses cool freely—and appropriately so—throughout the series. Gross, meanwhile, typifies the sassy judgment of “val-speak” that overtook the malls of 1980s America. But what about Barb’s ridiculous, or “unbelievable”? This broadened, emphatic usage of the word, which snowballed in the 2000s, may shade a tad anachronistic for the everyday speech of Reagan era teens. We should observe, though, that jazz musicians were using ridiculous in this way by the 1950s; cool has a similar lineage.
Like and Chill
Shortly after Nancy chats with Barb, Steve makes a move for some evening plans: “We can just, just like, chill in my car…” Nancy uses another iteration of chill in Episode 2: “Barb, chill,” she chides her friend, whom she drags out to Steve’s school-night party. “I’m chill,” Barb tries.
Both like and chill are very much of the 1980s cultural moment. The former, like, is a versatile speech disfluency that reaches far back in the 20th century. But this like became synonymous with that ’80s caricature, the Valley Girl, helped along by Moon Unit Zappa’s 1982 smash single, “Valley Girl.” Chill also came of age in the Reagan years. First slang for “cool down” and then “hang out,” chill stars in late-’70s hip-hop. “Rapper’s Delight” drops the “cool down” varietal in 1979, Run-D.M.C.’s “My Adidas” the “hang out” offshoot in 1985. White, middle-class America, as ever, appropriated the lingo. As an 1986 Early Adolescence Magazine observed: “Some ‘tribal membership’ teen lingo recently overheard included: rad, rad to the max, chill out, take a chill pill, totally out, punks, freaks, awesome, this dude is dino-rhino, grits, hosers, slime, and scuzz.” Barb’s adjectival chill is also of the era; the Oxford English Dictionary finds it for “relaxed” in the very year Stranger Things is set.
Mental, Psycho, and Weirdo
Looking for the missing Will in storm-battered woods, Mike, Lucas, and Dustin find Eleven, the mysterious, traumatized test subject with psychokinetic powers who helps the boys in their friend-finding quest. At the opening of Episode 2, Lucas and Dustin debate whether it’s wise to hide the unusual girl in Mike’s basement, fearing that she is “mental” and “psycho.” Lucas’ distrust for Eleven only builds, leading him to nickname her “weirdo”
Mental and psycho have long been used to take down “insane” or “crazy” persons. The OED attests them in the early 1900s, and both made it into the 1948 American Thesaurus of Slang. No doubt mental and psycho would have been ready-and-able ammunition for Dustin and Lucas by 1983. To many present-day ears, the terms may even sound dated (though mental maintains currency for British-English speakers, among others), indeed suggesting how slang has progressed since the time of Stranger Things. Sensitivity to mental health has increased, for one, while terms like crazy, nuts, and insane now often over-tout something as “incredible.”
Weirdo is a younger term, emerging in the mid-20th century. Its slightly earlier variant, weirdie, mocked the bearded, long-haired, “dirty hippy” of the 1960s. Weirdo came into its own in the 1970s and early 1980s. Horror film When a Stranger Calls used weirdo in 1979. Underground cartoonist Robert Crumb launched Weirdo magazine in 1981, a bit avant-garde for the comics-loving boys of Stranger Things. By 1992, weirdo was safe enough for young adult literature, embraced by the likes of Seventh-Grade Weirdo. The 1980s, then, appear to mark weirdo’s shift from countercultural epithet to schoolyard slight, fitting for the concerned frustration of Lucas.
Mouth-breather and Wastoid
In Episode 3, Mike teaches some vocabulary to the language-deprived Eleven. “I was tripped by this mouth-breather Troy, OK?” Mike divulges to Eleven. “Mouth-breather?” she asks. “Yeah, you know…a dumb person, a knucklehead … I don’t know why I just didn’t tell you. Everyone at school knows. I just, didn’t want you to think I was such a wastoid, you know?”
As it recurs throughout the series, mouth-breather bonds Mike and Eleven together against the common foes of schoolyard bullies, controlling adults, and even the freaky, maw-headed monster. It’s colorful and descriptive, and innocent in its meanness, suiting Mike’s fantasy-soaked imagination and earnest goodwill. But it’s also a peculiar pejoration. At the onset of the 1900s, mouth-breather was a medical term for children who had to so breathe due to physiological conditions (e.g., adenoids). Their respiration, mocked as heavy and slobbery, became quickly associated with idiocy. Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green first finds it referring to a “stupid person” in 1915. Mouth-breather picked up steam starting in the 1960s, especially connoting a kind of imbecilic goon, apt for its bully-targeted usage in Stranger Things. Other dictionaries, including the OED and Partridge’s slang dictionaries, don’t cite mouth-breather until the mid 1980s, suggesting it may have taken popular hold around the time. And Mike’s gloss of mouth-breather, “knucklehead,” would have sounded old-fashioned and dad-jokey even then, at least 40-years-old by that point.
Finally, of all the slang in Stranger Things, wastoid sounds the most of the time. Many will know it from that quintessential ’80s film, The Breakfast Club, when Andrew tells Bender, “Yo wastoid, you’re not gonna blaze up in here.” David Foster Wallace writes of self-described wastoids, directionless stoners in The Pale King (the 2011 novel is set in 1985, though wastoid is used in reference to the 1970s ). While especially used of a “drug-user,” wasted and droidlike, Mike’s usage of wastoid suggests a jump to a more general “loser” or “moron.”
As far as this by no means exhaustive account is concerned, the slang in Stranger Things is timely, credible, and authentic. But here’s the thing. From its title cards and haircuts to its bike rides and plot lines, Stranger Things misses no opportunity to resurrect 1980s nostalgia. So why doesn’t it pipe in more slang with the distinct time stamp of the decade: barf, bodacious, gag me with a spoon, get real, grody, rad, to the max, tubular?
For one, slang is notoriously short-lived and group-bound. Chill and cool, for whatever accident of speech, have demonstrated an anomalous diffusion and staying power. To the max calls up the 1980s, but in novelty, not mood. Given the weight dialogue carries in a story, hyper-timely slang can distract from character, narrative, and atmosphere in a way the background texture of Barb’s acid-washed mom jeans do not. Instead, with measure and nuance, the Duffer brothers pepper Stranger Things with authentic slang of the ’80s but also beyond the ’80s, drawing on everything from the older-sounding mouth-breather to the still au courant chill. And in this way, its slang looks back to a time in service of a more timeless tale.
*Correction, Aug. 23, 2016: This post originally misspelled Rubik’s cube.