The English language has countless ways to say “Great!” or “Cool!” When people want to sound au courant, fashionable, trendy, or with-it, they often choose slang words that are currently popular in their culture – very informal, unconventional words that may not be found in standard dictionaries, but have a freshness and color that may not be found in standard English.
Especially among young people, these words are valued because they’re used by their peers and those they admire. Popular words become unpopular when used by older people or by those they don’t admire, including advertisers who use youth slang to make their products seem contemporary. Once youth slang gets overused in advertising, it’s on its way out. After all, the point of “status slang” is that only the cool people use it.
Because they aren’t standard English, slang or cant words may not even be widely understood. They may be common only in a particular occupation or social group. In the case of underworld slang, the user hopes that only certain people (their fellow criminals) understand it, while certain other people (the police) don’t.
Slang, especially American youth slang, often has certain features:
- Extravagant words become ironic. Instead of describing a subject of fantasy and wonder, “Oh fantastic” can merely express disappointment. Irony is cool.
- Strong words become trivialized. Anything can be “epic” even if you wouldn’t write an epic about it.
- Powerful words become overused. Everything is awesome.
- Extreme is cool. A century ago, that was less true. Back then, a young British subject might mildly express his agreement by saying, “Oh, rather,” or “Yes, quite.” Today he might say, “Totally!” or “Absolutely!”
- Abbreviation is cool. As if you can’t be bothered to make the effort to pronounce the whole word. “As I said to Princess Di – I called her Di – we were quite close…”
When you say, “Oh, totes fab” instead of “That is totally fabulous,” you are hedging your bets by leaving yourself open to an interpretation of either enthusiasm or irony. But if you are ever asked by your supervisor, “Have you finished the top-secret assignment on which your nation depends?” an answer of more than one syllable would be appropriate.
“Saved the world yet?”
To add a different generational perspective, this article was written in collaboration with a 12 year old white Midwestern boy. His evaluations of these words are italicized in parentheses. And a visiting college professor in her 60s had a few comments about his comments.
- bodacious – You would think this word was a combination of bold and audacious. Or it may be an example of onomatopoeia, where the sound influences the meaning. Even if you don’t know its dictionary meaning, it sounds bold. Medieval linguist Dr Kate Wiles cites the Cornish dialect word bowldacious, meaning “brazen or impudent.” At least by 1837, the Midlands English dialect adverb bodyaciously meant “completely, bodily, as a body; that is, wholly.” Francis Lieber’s Americanisms (ca. 1850) says that in South Carolina, a farmer might say, “The pigs broke into my fence and destroyed the potato patch bodyaciously.” Fueled by its use in films such as An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), GenXers adopted it afresh in the 1980s. But the word had been popularized more widely after 1934 through the southern Appalachian comic strip character “Snuffy Smith” whose 1963 cartoon theme song began with the line, “Great balls o’ fire, I’m bodacious!” (Never heard it in my life.)
- capital – A dated, particularly British, positive exclamation. From the Latin for “head” – when you come up with a capital idea, you’re at the head of your class – it’s a top-quality idea. if you committed a capital offense, you could lose your head. Often confused with capitol, which is a building where a legislature meets. (I heard it once on a action adventure, time-travel TV show with a British character.)
“Sir, I’ve finished typing your list of known Russian agents in Algiers.”
“Capital. Thank you.”
- chill – Saying “She’s chill” is similar to saying “She’s cool.” Since 1979, the verb has been used as an exhortation to relax: “Stop worrying, just chill!” By 1985, it was used to mean “hang out,” spending time with a person or in a place. Personally, it makes me imagine a walk-in refrigerator – certainly cool but not a relaxing place to hang out. The word’s usage in the phrase “chilling effects,” as in “discouraging,” dates to the late 14th century. (At school, we usually say “Chill out, dude” when somebody is getting mad.)
- copacetic – Extremely satisfied. Though popular among hippies in the 1960s, it was used among African-Americans as far back as 1919. Tap danger and actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1877-1949) is responsible for popularizing the word and claimed he had invented it. If he didn’t, etymologists have suggested other origins – any of these sound convincing?
Hebrew: kol be sedher
Italian: cappo sotto
(Unless I was pretending to be a smart person, I wouldn’t use it.) Our friendly professor adds, “Even some smart people wouldn’t use it unless they wanted to sound smart.”
Smart! You bet your life ’twas that!
Nifty! (short for magnificat).
More likely, nifty was short for magnificent, but that wouldn’t rhyme. (What adults say when they have to talk to you when they really want to talk to your parents)
All of these words have been cool sometime in the last hundred years. Learning them will help you understand the writings of other people who have used them. But should you use them yourself? That depends. Each word is naturally colorful, though overuse may have faded some of them. You can use this list to add color to your writing, even if you only use these words with tongue in cheek. But don’t rely on this list to sound cool. Slang constantly changes in popularity according to region and time. In the 2010s, an expression that was cool in the 1940s may be uncool or unknown in one city, but wildly popular in another. We make no guarantees – unless you’re a 12 year old Midwestern boy at a certain middle school in 2019. Then if you follow our advice, your coolness is guaranteed.