Slang, Trends, and Passing Obsesssions
And the marks they make on society
Hi Zan, Hi Pa
October 10, 2023
HI, PA: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about trends, fads, slang—basically all the things that grip society for a short time and move on. It was a combination of things that brought on this train of thought for me.
First was the way the story of Taylor Swift attending the Chiefs game has dominated the online world and media lately, despite appearing to me like an insignificant piece of news. Then it was the memory of a slang word from high school: jops (pronounced “hops”), which meant “bullshit.” I remember hearing it first from someone in the dormitory of the person who came up with it, and then a few weeks later it seemed like everyone was using it, myself included. It stuck around for about six months, then my class graduated and went out into the world, leaving “jops” behind us.
Why do you think we as humans feel we need to take part in these passing obsessions? Do you remember any fads you participated in or ignored?
HI, ZAN: In grade school I loved my Jack Purcell sneakers (named after a great Canadian badminton player who designed them for badminton, though who knew that at the time?), which were a popular item for boys then. And shirts with little loops in the back, and Baracuta jackets. We all wanted to be cool. . . or at least not ridiculed. Much to my father’s displeasure, I wore a headband in college and had fairly long hair, parted in the middle. I might have said ‘groovy’ once or twice, though I hope not. I danced the ‘bump’ in nightclubs. In other words, I behaved pretty much like those around me, pretty much all the time, though I avoided some of the fads of junior high, high school, and college, which seemed either incredibly stupid or hurtful. In time, as you know, peer pressure eases, for some of us at least, and we strike out in more original directions.
Language evolves, like everything else. The ‘jops’ of the world come out of nowhere and then go back there. I used to hear the word ‘guff’ a lot as a boy, as in, ‘Don’t give your parents any guff!’ Who says that now? Does anyone you know say ‘groovy’?
ZAN: I think I’ve heard “guff” more often than “groovy!” Although sometimes these terms turn retro and come back in style…
PA: You probably heard the word ‘guff’ from me, though I can’t remember you ever giving me any. I heard it a lot as a kid.
We are creatures of the herd. We learn language from listening to other people, and in large measure we learn how to behave from watching other people. I think of communal behavior as the ground beneath our feet, the soil of humanity. All kinds of things, good and awful, grow out of that soil. Some of those things—words, fashions, mores—are long lasting; the institution of marriage, for one example. Others are fads that sprout like a seasonal weed or flower and soon disappear. For years and years, women covered most of their bodies at the beach; at one point a lot of men wore powdered wigs; in my youth, no one would ever use the word ‘bullshit’ in polite conversation, never mind ‘sucks’. The only constant, as they say, is change.
ZAN: Interesting… Maybe trends are just the pieces of social change we choose not to adopt for the long run?
PA: That’s a good notion. The Taylor Swift phenomenon is interesting. Her fame may last for generations, like Elvis,’ or it may be relatively fleeting. I’ve seen so many things come and go, from one-hit-wonder musicians to clothing styles. Neckties were wide, then they were thin. Suits were double-breasted, then they mostly weren’t. Pants had bellbottoms. Miniskirts were in, then not cool. For a few years not that long ago, women put these big fake shoulders in their dresses. I think, for better and worse, we’re programmed to use others’ behavior and language as guardrails…until someone jumps over the rails. And then a small or large number of others follow.
Artists are famous for trying to navigate the territory outside those guardrails. Sometimes that results in great works of art. Sometimes it makes the artists crazy.
ZAN: I would say that travelers, too, try to live beyond those guardrails. Or at least have a different perspective on them.
That’s what I felt when I moved to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Even though I had traveled extensively in the past, before Siem Reap I had never been anywhere as dramatically different from where I grew up. In Europe, the trends were at least close enough to what I’d seen at home—ripped jeans, for example, or certain songs on the radio—but in Cambodia everything I saw, heard, and experienced reinforced the fact that I was far from home. Many women I came across wore Khmer pajamas (see below) rather than anything you’d find in an American fashion magazine, Asian covers of American pop songs played in every cafe, and there was no common slang in the multicultural expat community I was a part of. Instead, everyone talked in their own way, building sentences out of the English they knew, interspersed with expressions and slang they’d brought from their own native language and culture. I suppose that, occasionally, foreign words drifted in—my Filipina best friend used the term “bloody” like the Aussies and Brits did, and I began calling air conditioning “air con”—but this was more like sharing common terms than the start of some new trend.
In Cambodia, to wear whatever was cool on the American East Coast, or say anything like “jops” would have seemed silly. So I dropped my slang and my trendy style and anything else that penned me into a specific place or period in time. I adopted a more general, adaptable way of being, relatively impervious to the changing ways of society. That meant dressing in plain T-shirts and shorts most days, speaking in clear English that my friends could understand, and focusing more on day-to-day life than anything coming or going in the media.
And even though I’ve been back from Cambodia for four years now, I think that experience forever altered the way I see trends. I notice when a new word or expression makes its way into the vernacular, I try to dress in a way that doesn’t stand out too much (no more skinny jeans!), I read the news stories about Taylor Swift. But these things don’t take up a lot of space in my world, as I know that in just a week or a month or a year they’ll be a thing of the past. And I know that in other countries other people are wearing different kinds of clothes, using different slang words, and obsessing over different pop stars. Sometimes I feel isolated because I don’t keep up with American pop culture too much. I try to strike a balance between getting involved in national conversations and trends so I don’t miss out on the present moment or the future while also keeping it all in perspective.
So my question to you, Pa, is do you think we can have culture or progress without trends?
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Hi Zan, Hi Pa to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.