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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

Why is Our Vocabulary Changing So Much?

In an ever-evolving digital era, our vocabulary is greatly influenced by social media platforms.
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In a world centered around social media, we are consuming content more and more quickly, which accelerates the speed at which our linguistic habits change. (Photo Credit: freestocks / Unsplash)

In the digital age, language evolution has been facilitated and perpetuated by social media platforms, the latest of which has been TikTok. This video-sharing app has been upending the entertainment and content-creation industry for years. At the same time, it has become a strong catalyst for the spread of new vocabulary. As these terms start to go from online slang to everyday vocabulary used in real-life conversations at the dinner table or the workplace, it becomes interesting to understand how TikTok propels these words into our mainstream culture and why they catch on so fast.

TikTok’s effect on language is generally attributed to its somewhat quirky environment that propagates creativity, brevity, and virality. The application runs on an algorithm dedicated to promoting the viewing of engaging content, which leads to unique, thought-provoking content going viral. When these videos go viral, it creates a common culture between all of its viewers, making them ‘in the know.’

TikTok hosts a younger audience, with many of its users now falling within the Gen Z age group. This generation is not just tech-savvy but also outstanding at exploring and producing digital cultures. These innovators are early adopters of the language of the internet, and they can move this language from TikTok to other platforms, allowing for much wider use. The pace at which these terms become common among the youth is remarkable, which illustrates the dynamic shift of language in the era of the internet.

The reasons some terms stick are as varied as the words themselves. Commonly, these are expressions that fill an existing linguistic vacuum and aid in concisely expressing complicated ideas or feelings. For example, the word “simp” in recent years originally functioned as a negative noun denoting the quality of a person who is excessively submissive toward another. Still, it recently has taken on new ironical and humorous overtones in its spread through TikTok, which perpetuates some of these words in a more humorous context. Because of this, many members of younger generations have adopted the term in a more positive or humorous tone.

A different type of word that has been disseminated over the years is one that is simply a shortening of the word. The way these words are unique in that they function as gatekept words for specific communities that are on the “in,” meaning they know about this word in the context of a niche internet community. The most prominent example within recent years is the term “rizz,” a slang word derived from “charisma,” referring to someone’s ability to attract or charm others, often in a romantic context. The word comes from AAVE (African American Vernacular English) and has arisen from the rich tradition of an inventive and dynamic play of language within the community. Over time, “rizz” gained wider recognition, mainly by the new millennium generation, who constantly creates and adapts slang to carry social and cultural nuances.

With TikTok coming into the equation, these usages of the word “rizz” were spread more widely outside their natural habitat. What was once a piece of slang only accessible by certain communities became a word that could appear on anyone’s For You page on Tiktok. Once a term is exposed to the massive Tiktok user base by the algorithm, its popularity will be dictated by the engagement it receives. And for the algorithm on TikTok, whatever seems right for the colossal user base will show first. The slang words, in particular, will spread like wildfire and go from video to video.

Most often, memes, funny challenges, and comic sketches on TikTok feature “rizz” in the form of scenarios showing or critiquing the trait. It was Influential TikTokers and viral videos that helped to fortify the phrase and make it something that would be deliberately etched into the vocabulary of millions worldwide. As such, “rizz” escaped the digital landscape and became a mainstream term recognized and used by a wide and varied populace.

Since the advent of spoken language, vocabulary was meant to be a dynamic entity, for language itself is an expressive form, and we need new vocabulary to express some new terms and ideas. Vocabulary, like the culture it mirrors, cannot remain static and has to be dynamic. Technological advancements, social movements, and cultural influences all contribute to the development of our communal vocabulary. A perfect example of this connection is the influence of culture on vocabulary, which is very clearly seen in the impact of technology. More precisely, the Industrial Revolution was a time of tremendous industrial growth from the late 18th century, bringing in lots of new concepts and inventions that most certainly needed new vocabulary. The words “train,” “engine,” “factory,” and “machinery” worked their way into everyday language as the technologies transformed ordinary life. There was an expansion in language as it adopted, or rather evolved, to cope with these changes.

Referred to as “viral words,” the majority of terms that appear on social media get high degrees of popularity yet still fail to possess the necessary characteristics that will make them hold on for a long time in our vocabularies. An example of words in this category is “on fleek” or “lit.” These types of words often come from specific points within cultures or communities and then move to the mainstream with the help of key influencers and viral content. As the changing social media trends develop too rapidly, they are mostly overused and forgotten the next day. With the fast-changing social media trends, what is a hit today becomes a thing of the past tomorrow.

Other words and phrases, however, somehow manage to transcend their viral origins and embed themselves in the broader language. Terms that have stuck around for a more extended period usually have something within their qualities that makes them stick, remaining relevant throughout time and applicable in various contexts. Thus, for instance, the word “selfie” — taking a self-portrait photograph using a smartphone — was coined in social media culture, then slowly leaked into mainstream usage, and is now part of dictionaries.

Through this process, even “hashtags” and “memes” can be used for serious discussions about communication and culture. Factors leading toward the longevity of a term are its capacity for adaptation, great scope of application, and the descriptiveness of new or currently forming phenomena. A long-lived term usually fills some gap within the language, making its expression compact and carried by potentially many people. Moreover, these words are often adopted by mainstream media and thus mainstreamed into everyday conversation, which helps solidify their place in the language.

In summary, though social media is a rich bedrock for new linguistic development, almost all those words enjoy a brief moment of popularity and then fade away. Those that stay on usually provide more value, can be adapted, and are relevant in a wider sense to be able to move from being fleeting trends to permanent fixtures in our language. The more words from TikTok videos migrate into real-life conversations, the more obvious it becomes that social media hubs are not just passive vessels of language but very active shapers of its trends. It reveals the mechanics not only of the language’s evolution but also of the cultural force behind it.

With an increasing emphasis on social media as a part of our culture, one major impact is the leakage of terms born on social media into our everyday lives.

About the Contributor
Gabriel McCarthy, Staff Reporter
Gabriel McCarthy is an Editorial Editor for ‘The Science Survey,’ and he helps improve the quality of the editorials of his classmates. He has a passion for journalism, and he loves to read and write engaging articles. He loves journalism because it can tell an engaging story while also informing the reader at the same time. He also loves taking photos for the newspaper and believes that photos can capture a part of a story in a way that writing cannot. Outside of school, Gabriel is a nationally-ranked fencer and spends his time either doing homework or practicing. He believes that editorials are a reflection of the author and that they can tell a much deeper story. In college, Gabriel wishes to study history and maybe go into that line of work. In the foreseeable future, he has no intention of quitting journalism and hopes to be able to spread information in some capacity even after he graduates.