Virtue & Mischief: Let’s be clear


The amigos are teenagers now. This means several things, among them: (1) The largest budget item in the Swensen household is food, by a wide margin (breakfast cereal, milk, bread, peanut-butter, and various types of snack crackers dominate); (2) We rarely see our children on Saturday mornings; (3) Personal hygiene has suddenly become a topic of great importance to each (this is a positive development, for the most part, although obsessions regarding brands of shampoo, bar soap, deodorant, and even laundry detergent are becoming major hassles. Rigorous in-house studies comparing the relative efficacy of different razors can’t be far behind); (4) There has been a huge up-tick in the reliance of technology – and not just for entertainment purposes (school assignments, updates, and reminders are communicated via text messages, as are extracurricular activity schedules and related information, and many academic tasks are accessed and/or completed via the computer or cell phone); (5) Krista and I must become conversant in a new language, a tricky tongue which I’ll term (with an admiring nod to George Orwell) “teenspeak.”

I hate teenspeak. It is ugly, sometimes guttural, and misleading and obscurantist. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash. But I must grasp its rudiments if I hope to have the faintest idea what’s going on with my teenaged crew. Residing alongside a perfectly serviceable language like English (even “American” English), its nefarious purposes are to hide meaning (facts, motives, etc.) and to permit – perhaps even encourage – lazy thought. Ergo, I despise it.

If my interactions with Luke, for instance, are indicative, grunts and blank stares carry deep teenspeak meaning about which I, the listener, can only guess.

“Hey, Luke! How was school today? What’s the rumpus over there?”

“Rumpus?! Iiiuuooonnnhhgg.”

“Huh? Could you clarify for me a little? I don’t really understand what you’re trying to say.”

[Heavy and disgusted sigh]. “Nnnnuuuno. Pfffmmmnng.” [He resumes staring at and pecking his cell phone. Because he’s in a particularly good mood, he adds a shoulder shrug.] “I’m a little busy right now. See ya.”

My previous experience informs me that these arcane utterances could mean anything from “Nothing new to report, dad, everything’s pretty boring over there, honestly,” to “Some dude got expelled for punching the Resource Officer in the face,” to “We talked about drugs today … have you ever taken illegal drugs before?” to “Rumpus? What kind of idiotic word is that? This ‘conversation’ is over.”

Daniel (aka “middle Amigo”) is a laconic fellow, too, though he at least attempts to communicate clearly. His linguistic missteps are almost never attempts to deceive, but are rather a function of his limited vocabulary. There are times when I ask Daniel a question and I can tell from his facial expression that he can’t quite summon the words to reply in the way he’d like. Mildly frustrated, he resorts to two-standbys that serve to get him off the hook.

“Hey, Daniel!”


“What did you do today in school?”

“Well, I had reading and math and social studies and other stuff.”

“Great. What did you read about?”

“Ummmm … [he furrows his brow and purses his lips] well … [he shakes his head, hoping words and sentences arrive which will enable him to explain that he read a fascinating section of a biography on Thomas Edison’s sometimes difficult childhood]. Umm, I dunno [standby No. 1]. Maybe [standby No. 2] stuff about Edison.”

Abby, the eldest amigo, speaks a completely different dialect of teenspeak than her brothers. Her version employs metric tons of words, a torrent of words, an eruption of them. She vomits verbiage, but certain common teenspeak words and phrases have infected and crippled her discourse in the past couple of years.

One example of this is the pestilential word “like” (as in, “Hey, dad, like, could you, like, pick me up tonight, like, at Wesley’s house? Maybe, like, at 8:30?”). This is a verbal tic that must be eradicated, and soon, or I’m going to lose, like, my mind. Another common teenspeak verbal cancer involves variants of “all” and its first cousin “every.” For instance: “All my friends are going,” “Everyone has a better dad than I” (to be fair, this is probably an accurate, precise statement), “You’re always so unfair,” or “Good, grief, dad, everyone has a [cell phone/car/ $400 BBCOR bat/million dollar off-shore or Swiss bank account/ etc.].”

Finally, “necessarily” has entered her lexicon and is a throw-away word that adds nothing to the REAL meaning of her (and other teens’) utterances. Rather, it is tossed in to soften her opinion a smidgeon or provide a little back-tracking wiggle room, depending on the response of the audience.

“I’m not necessarily a fan of ‘Breaking Bad’” means “I’m not a fan of that hyper-violent show and I wish the main character would hurry up and get his just deserts!” The word “necessarily” here means nothing. It constitutes wasted syllables. But if the listener retorts, “What are talking about?!! You’re crazy! Blood’s never been spilled in so many awesome ways!” she can walk it back – “Yeah, I know what you mean, bro. Like, I wasn’t saying it’s a bad show or anything. Just that I didn’t, you know, NECESSARILY like it …” Sigh.

Things could be worse, I suppose. The kids seem to be improving, or at least trying to improve, though not as quickly as I’d like. But if any of them announce at the dinner table that they think we should change our country’s name to Oceania, all (and I do mean ALL) bets are off.

By Tim Swensen

Virtue & Mischief

Timothy Swensen is the author of the column series Virtue and Mischief. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

No posts to display