An Insider's Guide to Teen-Speak

By Micheal Anania

I speak ordinary adult English, and my daughter was raised to do the same. By age 12 she was quite good at it. She could conduct conversations, answer complex questions, tell jokes and give directions. But within a year she began to practice Teen-speak.

Although it has an English vocabulary, Teen-speak is a different language. At first it seems to make sense. You nod and smile, believing you know what you were told.

I am assured by friends who's children are now ambassadors and bank presidents that, at some point, it ends. But whether that day comes before or after the Nobel Prize is not clear. Either way, a rudimentary understanding of Teen-speak can make a parent's life a bit more comfortable. Here are the basics:

The words teenagers use with one another (BOSS, COOL, BAD, AWESOME, BOGUS, TUBULAR, etc.) have a variety of meanings. The keys to understanding them are tone, duration and pitch - a little like Chinese.

Most parents encounter the tonal dimensions of teen language when dealing with the phrase "All right." In response to an ordinary request like "Take out the garbage," "All right" can mean: (a) DID SOMEBODY CUT OFF YOUR LEGS?; (b) DON'T BOTHER ME; (c) I DEEPLY RESENT THE AUTHORITY YOU HAVE OVER ME, BUT I ACKNOWLEDGE IT AND TAKE OUT YOUR STUPID GARBAGE; (d) OUT OF AFFECTION FOR YOU AND RESPECT FOR YOUR AGE, I WILL TAKE OUT THE GARBAGE; or (e) OKAY.

Depending on the tone, a harmless response such as "Great" can mean (a) GREAT; (b) NOT THAT AGAIN; or (c) YOU'VE RUINED MY LIFE. The answer "Sure" never indicates simple agreement, as in regular English. Depending on duration, "Sure" means: (a) THAT'S JUST WHAT I'D EXPECT FROM AN OLD PERSON; (b) YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT; or (c) YOU'VE RUINED MY LIFE. "Yeah" has the same range of meanings, but in this case the briefest version has the most devastating intent.

As exit lines, "Great," "Sure" and "Yeah" require punctuation. For example, "Great (SLAM)," "Sure (STAMP)" and "Yeah (ABRUPTLY TURNED HEAD)." When punctuated this way, all three expressions mean YOU'VE RUINED MY LIFE. But before you're overcome with guilt, you should know that "my life" only refers to the next 45 minutes.

Of all the Teen-speak responses, the most important is "Oh." When it is pronounced with a rising pitch and a quick stop, "Oh" signals an impending expenditure, as in "Oh, I lost my retainer" ($90) or "Oh, I need a new computer book" ($23.50).

Simple Teen-speak remarks almost never mean what they seem. "I've cleaned my room" means THE MESS THAT WAS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FLOOR HAS NOW BEEN MOVED TO THE EDGES OF THE ROOM. "Janet's mother said it was ok with her" means IF YOU AGREE, JANET THINKS SHE CAN GET HER MOTHER TO AGREE. Statements having to do with clothing are particularly dangerous. "I have nothing to wear" means THE LAUNDRY I HAVE BEEN HIDING FOR TWO WEEKS IS NOW SO WELL HIDDEN EVEN I CAN'T FIND IT. "Everybody's wearing them" means I SAW THEM ON A MUSIC VIDEO. "It's not too cold" means I'VE LOST MY PARKA. "There's not that much snow" means ONLY GEEKS WEAR BOOTS.

Asking questions about school gets you another wave of Teen-speak. The usual answer to "How was school today?" is "Okay." In this context, "Okay" means DON'T ASK. If you then ask, "What did you DO in school today?" the answer is always "Nothing." This is one of the few times when teenagers say exactly what they mean.

Don't venture any farther into the subject of school, because the next step is foolhardy: "When did you do your homework? You've been watching television ever since you got home." The answer will be "I did it in study hall." This means SINCE I ALREADY SPENT AN HOUR AT SCHOOL PRETENDING TO DO IT, WHY SHOULD I SPEND ANOTHER HOUR PRETENDING TO DO IT AGAIN?

There are variations, including: "I don't have any homework," which means I FORGOT MY BOOK; "My teacher never gives homework," which means I'VE LOST MY BOOK; "I don't know when it's due," which means IT'S DUE TOMORROW; and "Can you help me with this?" which means IT WAS DUE TODAY.

Since teenagers, like humming birds, must eat twice their weight in food each day, much of what they say is acoustically distorted by the inside of the refrigerator. Even if you master the refrigerator echo, what you hear is also coded Teen-speak. "There's nothing to eat" means WE'RE OUT OF JUNK FOOD. "I haven't had anything to eat" means HAMBURGERS, FRIES AND MILKSHAKES DON'T COUNT. "Is this all we're having?" means GREEN THINGS DON'T COUNT. "I just made myself a sandwich" means THE LEFTOVER POT ROAST YOU WERE PLANNING FOR TONIGHT'S DINNER FIT NICELY BETWEEN TWO PIECES OF BREAD.

Even if the subject turns serious, Teen-speak has a word - or several words - for it. When you raise a problem, the common teen response is "I'll take care of it," which means I AM WILLING TO ACT AS IF I TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY IF YOU ARE WILLING TO ACT AS IF YOU BELIEVE ME. "I don't want to talk about it" indicates that you've touched a nerve, and IF YOU INSIST ON TALKING ABOUT IT, I'M GOING TO DO A TEN-MINUTE SOAP OPERA AND GIVE YOU A HEADACHE.

Conversely, "That's not how we do things now" and "You don't understand" don't really have meanings. Both are tactical ploys meant to weaken your resolve by forcing you to think about your age.

If you insist at bringing a serious discussion to some kind of conclusion, you can make your point and then ask "Do you understand?" But then you leave yourself open for one of Teen-speak's ultimate remarks: "Whatever." It means WHY ARE YOU STILL TALKING WHEN IT WOULD BE OBVIOUS, EVEN TO A CASUAL OBSERVER, THAT I HAVE STOPPED LISTENING?

Even after you think you've mastered Teen-speak, you will never understand it completely. All teenagers occasionally slip back into ordinary speech. They do this to trap you. If they catch you translating when you should be listening, it's an incredible victory for their side. As a reward, they get to say "You never listen to me!"