TikTok Language Rabbit Hole

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S1: This episode of Spectacular Vernacular contains explicit language.

S2: Hello, I’m Ben Zimmer, language columnist for The Wall Street

S3: Journal, and I’m Nicole Holladay, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

S2: And this is Spectacular Vernacular, a podcast where we not only explore language, we

S3: also play with it.

S2: This week, we’ll be talking to Professor Norma Mendoza-Denton about her new article about how the language of young investors and Reddit is all about sticking it to the man.

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S3: And we’ll be quizzing one of our listeners with some wordplay. Then I have a really important question for you. What’s your relationship with TikTok?

S2: TikTok? Wow. I guess you could call me a casual observer of TikTok. I mean, I have the app on my phone, but I don’t really use it. So what I see from TikTok tends to be videos that people share in other places, like on Twitter or Slate’s podcast. I see. Why am I always goes deep on those TikTok trends. But for me, I still you know, I’m looking at it all from a distance, let’s say.

S3: Well, like a lot of people, I’ve been spending a little too much time there lately. But it’s a fascinating place to observe what’s going on with language. One of my favorite recent clips is this one from User 080. It’s hard to explain, so I’ll just let you listen to it. There is some mild offensive language here, so now may be a good place to pause. If you’re not on headphones,

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S1: just be like they just be like like they like the bitch that be like like

S2: bitch. Wow. What what just happened there. Exactly.

S3: Yeah. We should probably break it down for you and the listeners. So Zuway the user here says bitches be like bitches be like like they ain’t the bitch that Bílek like bitch. And there’s a few things that you need to know for this to be interpretable for you.

S2: Yeah, there’s a lot going on here. There’s so much to dissect. I mean, just the word like it seems like there’s a few different uses of like just in this one short clip. So like at the beginning, we hear the modern way of quoting something that someone said. So using like that way that’s called the quotative be like. But in mainstream English varieties, typically B gets conjugated. So you hear this a lot. Even in celebrity interviews.

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S4: She’s complimenting me. She’s coming, getting me. And I was like I was like me. No, I mean, you you’re movies that I can’t name and your fashion moments that I don’t know, like I was like, you’re unbelievable. And then my friend walked by and I grabbed her and I was like, This is Elizabeth Taylor. And she was like, no, it’s not.

S2: That was a bit of Jennifer Lawrence getting interviewed. And she’s using quotative, like all over the place there. Right.

S3: So we have quotative like but African-American English also has a use of B that’s habitual or referring to an action that occurs repeatedly in time. So in the case of Xai and the clip that we heard originally be like refers to a way that people talk or even behave in general.

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S2: All right. OK, so so zei here is critiquing the way that some people behave. I got that part, but it’s weird because it gets kind of recursive because the people that are getting critiqued are the ones who behave the same way as the speaker. I get confused. There are so many levels. It’s like Inception or something.

S3: Yeah, exactly. So this point is basically about hypocrisy. In other words, the people who complain that bitches be like are in fact themselves the object of their own complaints or the bitches that be like and to illustrate this they use is another function of the like, the more traditional one, the simile that means as though or in the manner of.

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S2: So we’ve talked about two different flavors of like, but I hear another one in there too. So it’s it’s like a special form of wordplay where you’re exploiting all the different possibilities of the word like and at the end Zimmer says like bitch. And so that like is what linguists would call a discourse marker. Right. And then we get bitch, which is used as a vocativ. That’s what we used to call someone. So it seems like Zeze getting the attention of the hypocrites by calling them bitch. But earlier we heard they use bitches as a generic term of reference for the people that they disagreed with. So, again, like different uses of the same word, but just based on the context, it means something new.

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S3: Well, OK, I think we did it so by exploiting a number of different functions of like the African-American English bitch will be and bitch as both a generic reference and evocative or word that we used to call people. Zaya highlights the flexibility of varieties of English. And it turns out to be really, really funny.

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S2: Yeah, I got to say that TikTok really does seem to be the linguistic gift that keeps on giving, and I really should be paying more attention to it clearly. Anyway, we will be back after the break with our guest, Norma Mendoza-Denton.

S3: Welcome back to Spectacular Vernacular today we have Dr. Norma Mendoza-Denton, professor of anthropology at UCLA, Norma has recently published an article called Sticking It to the Man, Our Wall Street Bet Generational Masculinity and Revenge in Narratives of our Dystopian Capitalist Age in Anthropology now. Welcome to the show, Norma.

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S1: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

S3: And I was so excited to read this new paper and honestly, really impressed with how quickly you wrote about all of this. So just as some background for our listeners, that may not be familiar with Reddit games of Wall Street, but my understanding is that basically there were a bunch of mostly younger people, the millennials and some GenZE on this Reddit who were sort of kind of trying to get back at the hedge funds for the damage that they’ve done both in 2008 and since. So they wanted to kind of organize to buy stock in something that the hedge funds were betting against. And they did this on Reddit. And they all invested in GameStop, which was a beloved video game chain from their childhoods, and drove the price of the stock up really, really high and in this way kind of gamed the system. So the paper then is kind of about how all this went down and how there are linguistically interesting facts that tell us more about the context of the situation, as well as kind of intergenerational relationships and Masculinity.

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S2: So in the in the article that you published, it’s really interesting how you analyze the ways that people talk about this whole situation and, you know, what was happening there with the with the Wall Street bets sub Reddit to explain what’s going on with Masculinity. Now, could you explain a little bit more like how you did this and how the language that these folks use reflects this social change with what you call Generational Masculinity?

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S1: Obviously, Masculinity is not a kind of static construct, right. It’s not something that is just there and it never changes. Right. So Ben Zimmer does not have the same type of Masculinity as Herodotus. Yeah, sounds right. We probably could surmise that maybe they both had a beard and that was part of it. But that and because we know that masculinity and femininity and all kinds of constructs toned over time and it only stands to reason that there would be changes so we can try to tease apart the very delicate texture of changes from one generation to another. So fathers and sons. And because a lot of the Wall Street bets discourse was calling out the fathers, that is the boomers, then it became a sort of thing where the vast majority of the our Wall Street bets sub Reddit is actually not boomers. They are younger. And in their discourse, they came out saying things that that called out the American male boomers who were relatively affluent in the nineteen fifties, that they were they were cool when they came of age, right. In the 50s and 60s. But now they’re older and they were the ones that were repeatedly battered by the financial crisis because two thousand 2008 was just the really big one. But there were other many crises in between as so the the role of the millennial dudes in the sub Reddit became as Avengers to the older boomers who have lost everything. They were their parents. And they were so basically torn and sad to see their parents getting screwed over by the banks. And so they were out for revenge. And that’s part of what I’m calling Generational Masculinity.

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S2: I mean, it’s interesting you have this idea of a kind of a revenge narrative, which sounds very serious. At the same time, a lot of this discourse is very lighthearted. So you have all this interesting slang or jargon like stocks get called stocks and there’s the rocket to the moon and diamond hands and and all the rest. How do you see the special language that they were creating? How does that sort of feed into your larger argument? Is there some sort of like in group solidarity that they were creating as part of this new identity?

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S1: Yeah, and sociolinguistics. We commonly talk about communities of practice. And although it may sound like a little bit of a weird term, basically, it just means like all the people you hang out with and all the special things that you do and all the ingroup jokes that you have and all of the kind of like Winx that you can give each other and the special little words that you yourselves came up with. And these groups could be as sort of certain types of family or as. Wall Street said Reddit, and so, yeah, so this little slang terms are things that they have developed and they make fun of themselves with these, right. So it’s a very sort of playful, ludic kind of language where one of the things that they want, for instance, is nuggets and nuggets are chicken nuggets. But the stereotype behind that, they talk about Virgie’s all the time.

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S2: I thought 10 days to four chicken tenders. And that was another one.

S3: I just repeat, like Niños kids.

S1: So so the stereotype behind that is that the they’re. Basically, a computer geeks living in the basement and they’re behind their computers all day and their mom brings them chicken tenders at some point in the day to feed them. So there’s this whole sort of funny self mocking discourse about the attendees and living in your basement. And and so that’s how people make fun of themselves and each other. But I guess if you were to sort of scope out, one of the questions that we want to ask ourselves is why would somebody do something that appeared to be against their own best interest? And that’s a question that we that we see all the time, like the political authorities might say, wear a mask. And the people are like, absolutely not. What’s behind this kind of behavior that is possibly going against your self interest, but you’re going to do it anyway for other reasons. All of the CMB analysts, everyone and the Fed, absolutely everyone said these guys are crazy, don’t listen to them, do not do this damn thing. And and they did. And many of them said, I don’t care if I have to eat cereal for the next month. I’m going to put my money into these stocks and write it to the moon. And they would take out entire billboards, make all kinds of Internet means and content. And there was just such a satisfaction in being able to make a stand this way and to avenge their deaths. So all of these painful narratives came out. Hundreds, hundreds of painful narratives came out all about how the average American is getting always stuck with the bill for the banking dealings going south. These guys are all rich. They’re all hedge fund pros. We don’t care about them. I’m here to avenge my dad who died of alcoholism because of the stock market crash in eight.

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S3: Wow. So these are really powerful narratives, and I’m I’m interested in like this is a type of language, right? The stories that you’re seeing and and the posts. Can you give us a few specific examples? Ben mentioned the slang in the jargon, but examples of the post that you looked at and tell us what’s unique sort of linguistically about them, maybe in particular in the type of Masculinity that you’re saying is being constructed there.

S1: A lot of these posts meet the definition of a narrative which is defined in linguistic speak as introducing a complicated or unexpected events in the past. But they also share narrative features of trauma and even coming up stories and that they portray gendered history. So I’m just going to introduce a term here before I share another one of these narratives. So YOLO means you only live once and YOLO is like supposedly the battle cry of the millennials.

S3: Maybe we can blame Drake for that, right.

S1: So from that initial post, people would say, my parents bought a house in 08. My dad would work at minimum 70 hours a week to keep us buried in the house I barely saw in four years. Melvin and his horrific cohort took my dad away from me. When I was a boy. I had a market sell place for a thousand. I’m getting rid of it. I don’t care about the money. I want these kids to lose their houses, cars, whatever else. But what I want most is for them to lose their families like so many of us did. This is for you, Dad. I love you and I’m proud to be your son.

S2: So it’s interesting in all of these narratives how important these Generational labels are. So you’ve got the millennials with their millennial rallying cry of YOLO. You have the boomers, you know, boomer dads who are being avenged, or boomer hedge fund managers who are the target of their fury. I mean, how do you think these actual labels, like boomers and millennials, how do you think those labels are affecting the way that people from different groups see themselves? Is that something that you noticed while you were doing this research, what these terms are actually doing in terms of creating identity?

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S1: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Boomer is it’s not a near term by any means. The people of that generation have always been called baby boomers. The term boomer itself has it has become more frequent with like slang such as OK, Boomer, which is meant to be dismissive of that generation’s, I guess, staes tastes or attitudes. But also millennials and GenZE have been having kind of intergenerational scuffles of their own that are playing out on BuzzFeed and on Reddit and other places. But I think, you know, identifying with one’s own generation is a very common and cross-cultural type of identity. So this kind of identity winds up being what will bind me to the two of you in contradistinction to 10 year old kids today. And they will just think that we are impossibly old and rotten and and we will think that they’re impossibly immature. And that’s the nature of of identification and society. But I think that when you have Boomer, as you mentioned at once, being the abject aging parent and then the hateful hedge fund investor, then it points in two different directions because they are avenging the parent, not the hedge fund. So we call that a shifting index. And for that reason, I think that all of these Generational labels are extremely important to look out for. And I think there’s a lot of anthropologists working on this.

S3: Yeah, I think you see a duality of that, too, with the millennials. Right. So it’s kind of like these damn kids just live in their parents basement and eat chicken nuggets, but now they have the money or some of them have the money or I guess we I’m a millennial and have sort of banded together with people power to do this avenging. And so there’s a there’s a sort of like alignment of solidarity with the generations on one side or the other. Right.

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S1: Yeah. It’s so interesting to continue to follow the sub Reddit. And again, I’m just an anthropologist and a linguist, so I, I don’t see myself as necessarily part of this community. But the stories that are told in there are so poetic and so transcendent, they will make you weep. And they made me want to buy GameStop, which is just sad. I spent too much time alone. That’s what’s happening.

S3: Yeah, but you got a paper out of it.

S1: But I didn’t get any 10 days out of it.

S2: You didn’t take a rocket to the moon.

S3: There’s still time. Maybe, maybe the next big stack.

S2: And where can people find out about your research

S1: while you can find out all about my. On my website, just search up my name, Norma Mendoza dentin, and that should lead you right into my Web site. And if anybody wants a copy of this paper, I’d be very happy to send it to them as a private person in case you can’t get a copy of it otherwise.

S2: Thank you so much, Norma, for joining us. Thank you for having me. We’ll be back after this break with some wordplay. Welcome back. As we like to do every episode, we’re going to finish off by playing with language.

S3: That’s right. And once again, we’ve got a listener who’s joining us for a Wordplay quiz. This time, we’re joined by Dave Nelson of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dave, I think I’ve seen you on Twitter with the handle at the underscore grammar geek. What’s that all about?

S5: Yes, that’s correct. That’s my freelance editing business that I started a while back.

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S2: OK, Dave. So as the grammar geek and copyeditor, I think you’ll be well prepared for this challenge. OK, so we have a challenge for you. It’s called City Centers, and it comes to us from Eric Chaikin, a colleague of mine from a venture called Beyond Wordplay. Check it out. It beyond Wordplay, Dotcom. So here’s how it’s going to work. We will give you a clue to a word or phrase that contains the name of a major US city. Inside it, we’ll tell you how many letters are in the city where the city is located and we’ll give you other hints if you need them. So you just tell us the name of the city and the longer word that contains it.

S3: So here’s an example. We’re looking for a word describing someone who has been around the block. Inside that word is the name of a city that’s four letters long and the city is in Pennsylvania. So, yeah, it’s a word describing someone who’s been around the block and inside that word is a city that’s four letters,

S5: four letters, city mayor in Pennsylvania. So Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are off the table.

S2: Shorter, yes. Maybe maybe an extra hint would help with this. Sure. So the city shares its name with a famous canal, Erie.

S5: There you go. OK, someone who has been someone who has been around the block.

S2: Think Jimi Hendrix at that help.

S5: Oh, that doesn’t help.

S2: Well, he famously saying, are you something?

S5: OK, put me out of my misery. I don’t know this one.

S2: OK, it’s experienced the way it is experienced. Experienced Erie. OK, Dave, here’s one that might be more up your alley. We need a word for grated cheese that’s often used in Italian cooking. And inside is the name of a city that’s four letters long and it’s in Arizona.

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S3: I would do so bad on this, I don’t know my Arizona cities

S2: well, if you if you go at it from the grated cheese, then there might be the best way to do it. Dave, you’re getting anywhere with this one.

S5: Yeah, I think I have it. Excellent. The cheese is Parmesan and the city is Masr. There you go.

S2: All right.

S3: I think that I think the cheese angle was the place to stay.

S5: That’s where I stay. I always start with the cheeses in all situations.

S2: You’re in Milwaukee, so that makes sense.

S3: He just has to say that otherwise they’ll throw them out. All right. Well, next up, we’re looking for a word for a Native American accent similar to a hatchet. The name of the city is five letters long, and it’s in Nebraska.

S5: OK.

S2: Five letter city names in Nebraska probably helps narrow it down a little bit.

S3: I think most people can probably only name like a couple cities in Nebraska and hopefully one of five letters. But maybe Dave knows more.

S5: OK, I’m going to say Tomahawk and Omaha.

S2: Yes, fantastic. You got it. Well done. OK, moving on. The next word describes something that makes you feel very tired, like a long day at work maybe. And the name of the city is six letters, and it’s in Texas. Might be a few different six letter Texas cities that come to mind, but only one of them is inside a word for an adjective that describes something that makes you feel very tired.

S5: OK, I’m a little stuck on this one, I have to I’m kind of going at it backward of two cities, El Paso and Dallas,

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S2: it’s neither of those we’re looking for another six letter city. And maybe this will help you. Many residents want to keep this city weird. It also happens to be the capital of Texas.

S5: Oh, now. Now we’re getting somewhere. OK, yeah, OK. Now I have it. It’s exhausting. And Austin, there you go.

S3: All right. One more for you, Dave. We’re looking for a phrase that describes Jeopardy! Or Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or technically this podcast right at this moment, the city name is four letters long. It’s in Iowa. Just thinking about the Music Man City,

S2: does it get mentioned? Known to fans of college sports, at least this town,

S3: college town, yeah,

S5: I might need a clue on this one. I’m thinking quiz show or game show, but that’s not I don’t think that’s I’m coming up with anything.

S2: Right. Well, you’re definitely on the right track. I mean, do you know the home of Iowa State University, by any chance? Home of the cyclones.

S5: Home of the cyclones? Well, you know, I’m the grammar geek. I’m not the I’m not the geography geek. Sports geek. So let’s see. Ames.

S2: Ames, right. Ames is inside game show. You got it

S5: right.

S2: Oh, OK. Dave, you did a great job and you can relax now. Thank you. But we have a special challenge for all the listeners out there. So see if you can figure this one out. We are looking for a word that might be used for someone called Junior. So this word has not one but two city names hiding inside it. And I hope you’ve been paying attention because both cities have already been mentioned in our quiz. So once again, we’re looking for a word that might be used for someone called Junior and it has two city names hiding inside it. I think you’ve got it. Send your answers to us at Spectacular at Slate Dotcom with Cui’s in the subject line of your email. Please include the two city names and the word that contains them from the correct entries will randomly selected winner who will receive a slate plus membership for one year. Or if you’re already a slate plus member, you’ll get a one year extension on your subscription and we may bring you on the show to face a new Wordplay challenge. Once again, that’s spectacular at Slate Dotcom with a quiz in the subject line. And please respond by midnight Eastern Time on August 25th. And we’re very pleased to announce the winner of our first contest, Brian Lipinsky, figured out that Fats Waller is an anagram of Waterfall’s. Congratulations, Brian.

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S3: Thanks for joining us, Dave.

S5: Thank you.

S3: So that’s it for this week. We hope you’ve enjoyed the show. If you have, remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, then you’ll never miss an episode. And please consider subscribing to Slate plus Slate. Plus, members get benefits like full access to all the articles on Slate, dotcom, zero ads on any Slate podcast, bonus episodes of shows like Big Mouth, Little Mood with Daniel and Larry. It’s only one dollar for the first month. To learn more, go to Slate Dotcom Slash Spectacular Plus.

S2: And thanks also to Norma Mendoza-Denton for being our guest this week. Spectacular Vernacular is produced by Jasmine Ellis and Sheena Roth, June Thomas and Slate Podcasts Senior Managing Producer.

S3: We’ll be back in two weeks with more spectacular vernacular. Thanks for listening.