In one of my favourite childhood movies, the fictional journalist Josie Geller attempts to go undercover in a high school.

Gellar is dressed in white from head to toe, with feather boas accessorizing her neckline and wrists and her hair styled into a three-inch tall blowout.

“I’m a high school student. I’m here with my fellow students,” insists 25-year-old Geller in Never Been Kissed starring Drew Barrymore, when she’s questioned by security.

Never Been Kissed stars Drew Barrymore, who goes undercover at highschool to understand teenager’s lives.

But her older age and down-covered top aren’t the only things making her stick out in the hallways. Her words give her away: “high school students don’t call themselves high school students”.

Unlike Josie, I have made good use of language over these past 30 years.

However, as a journalist, I use language as a tool, a method of creating intimate understanding;  I have never had trouble being a member of the in-group.

As bratty tweens, my sister and I would say “as-if,” “beeyotch,” “f-bomb,” “whazzup.” 

Our parents would say, “Hi hungry, I’m dad,” “Wow, they’re letting anyone in these days,” and “What’d you call your mother?” 

My dad, to this day, cracks the same old joke when we ask to go to the beach. 

My sister and I came up with endless ways to express the differences between our parents and us. We were the “in-group,” and they were the “out-group.”

Looking back, it irks me to admit that I once said (without being ironic) “take a chill pill dad!” or the commonly spoofed “uhhh, what-ever.” 

Words that my sister and I commonly used to differentiate them and us. 

Although my parents clearly understood what our meaning was, those same words would never leave their lips. 

I can only imagine my 6’4, collar shirt, oil working dad saying “as-if” with neck swag. But that was the point.

As I grow older and wiser, I notice that this jargon phenomenon is everywhere. It’s at my previous job as a condo property manager through words like: “governance,” “operating,” “reserves,” “fiscally sound,” “GICs,” “bylaws,” “building envelope,” “ARTA”. 

At university, we hear: “male gaze,” “the other,” “feminist,” “construct,” “unpack,” “hypothesize,” “SES,” “advocate,” “occupy.”

All the while, my best friends and I continue on the legacy of slang, now mostly through text and conscious misspelling: swapping t and d sounds “doot” instead of dude, “cude” instead of cute, “hart” instead of hard. 

Darin Flynn, an associate professor in linguistics at the University of Calgary, describes this as emic versus etic. Insider knowledge versus outsider knowledge.

“The broadest function of slang is to keep the outsiders out,” says Flynn.

But as a journalist, my ability to quickly become an insider through thoughtful language selection can be used to my advantage.

According to Flynn, the use of slang can help interviewees gain trust with the interviewer, as it depicts the notion that the journalist is a part of the “insider” group. 

“It’s a good way of flashing your belonging to a particular group professionally. having developed terms that other people might not understand … it helps to break down some of those barriers, and slang is such an easy way of doing that.”

But knowing how to keep outsiders out can also benefit a writer on how to become an insider. This ability Flynn calls metalinguistic awareness.

Metalinguistic awareness is how we think about — and are aware of — language and give it meaning beyond what the words are saying. That means using words as tools to your benefit.

“You can capitalize on that more explicit knowledge … when you try to use this term or that term, you’re signalling that you’re making an effort to join that group,” says Flynn.

I can’t just approach a group of teenage girls (which is horrifying for many reasons) and say, “What’s the haps’, ladies?” 

I can’t just roll up looking like old-ass Drew Barrymore trying to be a high school student. It’s just not going to work.

Nevertheless, the gap between my generation and those after me grows. 

I hate the words woke, finna, boujee, fire, swole, turnt. Outside of fitting in with teenage girls, I have the skills to belong in no time — and for journalists, this means the difference between carving out a beat and being Josie “Grossie.” 

And if you don’t get that reference, you might be in the outside group this time.

Editor: Aamara Khan | akhan@cjournal.ca

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