On New Words
By Nick Chheoun
Last week, I was the substitute teacher for a high school Arabic class. In this class, I hear a girl say, “Man, some people at this school are too sweet.” I asked her what she meant by that only to get a puzzled look. “You don’t know what sweet is?” she said. I told her I thought sweet meant nice or thoughtful when referring to people. She tried to tell me what it actually meant. “Sweet is like someone being soft,” she said. She didn’t know how else to define the term without using more words that were unfamiliar to me. In the end, she gave up and said, “Sweet is soft. That’s just what it is.”
This made me think back to my own time in high school and what the slang was back then (even though it wasn’t too long ago). The first thing that came to mind that was similar to that girl’s use of sweet was the word mad. Students at my high school used to use mad all the time but the meaning wasn’t “being angry.” We used mad in ways like, “You spent mad money at the store” and “Nick is mad cool.” Mad meant “a great amount” or “very.” I’m sure generations before me experienced the same initial confusion when they heard a common word used in a new way.
Every year Webster’s Dictionary recognizes new words and this year words like pregame, humblebrag, photobomb and weak sauce, are just a few of the new additions. It amazes me how many slang words are now considered common speech.
As writers, we need to be aware of these new words so we can use them effectively. Whether it’s in a story or in a poem, words and what they are associated can bring out meaning in a subtle sense. Take for example a fiction story where a character says words like sweet and photobomb. The reader can easily identify this character as being from the newer generation. The time period of the written world can be understood through these key used words. Word choice can indicate everything from the age of characters to their environment or social setting.
Words are constantly changing and new terms emerge every year. As writers, we should be aware of these changes because words are our main tools. These new additions present new opportunities for writing. The more we can expand our vocabulary to include words of the past and the present, the more doors we open to our writing. After all, we don’t want our writing turning sweet.
Image: Patrick Fore
Nick Chhoeun is a staff editor at Café Américain and a first-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.