Published: May 5, 2021

Teenybopper, chad, buppies, sugar mama, wigger. These are just a few of the many slang terms speakers use to represent who they are—and who they’re not.

By: Korye Lockett
Course: LING 1000 - Language in U.S. Society
Advisor: Katherine Arnold-Murray
LURA 2021


Teenybopper, chad, buppies, sugar mama, wigger. These are just a few of the many slang terms speakers use to represent who they are—and who they’re not. Slang is defined as, “an ever changing set of colloquial words and phrases that speakers use to establish or reinforce social identity or cohesiveness within a group or with a trend or fashion in society at large” (Guzman, 2017: 36). Slang is a form of language variation that is employed and utilized to “convey, shape, and re-shape social, interpersonal, personal, and sociolinguistic meanings” (Wolfram & Schilling, 2015: 387) . From this we see that slang is used to both form solidarity with the group you want to identify with and to distinguish yourself from communities you wish to disassociate from.


A variety of examples of these phenomena can be found on college campuses. Even though college campuses host a plethora of socioeconomic, racial, religious, and gender backgrounds, slang is used as glue to join these broader categories into more niche groups. Observing the slang used on the University of North Carolina campus, Eble (1996) gives us a clear picture of slang’s ability to form in- and out-groups. By referring to someone as butthead, goombah, nerd, or wannabe, you indicate that they are not attuned to college life (Eble, 1996: 106). The effect, then, is to signal that you are an in-group member and the wannabes are squarely in the out-group. Slang further divides these in- and out-groups into subcultures. For example, the term bro might be used by members of the collegiate community, and its use is often associated with a particular subculture of college life: fraternities.

 A meme of a frat bro

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The frequent use of bro signals to those who not only directly converse with you, but also those who indirectly overhear its use, that you might seek to “fit in” with the fraternity lifestyle. Further still, students may call fraternity and sorority members fratosororalingoids; Christian students, bible beaters; and students who wear a lot of black, goths. These slang terms create clear demarcations of the subgroups on the UNC campus (Eble, 1996: 108). 


The use of slang to form in- and out-groups is exemplified in the movie Mean Girls, when the character Regina shuts down her friend Gretchen from using the slang term fetch to describe something as “cool”.

"Stop trying to make fetch happen" meme

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In order to demonstrate that she is the leader of an exclusive popular clique, Regina regulates what slang is to be associated with the group she leads: “The Plastics”. This also functions as a message to others who might want to associate with the group, as they are now aware that using fetch to describe something “cool” squarely disassociates themselves from “The Plastics”.


Thus, slang functions as both an identifier of group identity and as a marker of inauthenticity. As some seek to identify with a group or subculture, the misuse of slang can cause an out-group to form. Slang terms are typically borrowed from the lexicons of less powerful subcultures in opposition to the ‘standard’ lexicon forwarded by institutions of authority (Eble, 1996: 72). For example, African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a frequent source of slang used on college campuses. In fact, the borrowing of slang from AAVE is “more prominent in the speech of college students than the relatively small number of African American students and borrowings from them would suggest” (Eble, 1996: 77). In borrowing from AAVE, speakers may seek to build an authentic association with the African American experience, whether socioeconomically or as a minority group, or to use the expressive features that AAVE has to offer. However, many times this attempt at authenticity fails and the user of the slang is disassociated with the desired group instead of welcomed. The ‘AAVE Struggle Tweets’ page showcases some of these instances on Twitter.


Several tweets

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In the example above, Twitter user @m challenges user @BauerOutage’s use of dawg because he is White. In reply to this challenge of his use of dawg, @BauerOutage overcompensates by using additional slang terms that he associates with AAVE to try to be authentic: homie, fasho, and dawg again. @BauerOutage’s inability to indicate authenticity to @m creates a projected in-group, with @m and other AAVE speakers, and an out-group where @BauerOutage resides due to his faux-AAVE usage.


While slang can lead to the interconnection of seemingly disjointed large groups (based on socioeconomic, racial, and gender identities, etc.), it also has the ability to separate and divide these same groups into niches and subcultures. This inherent duality allows slang to shape and reshape interpersonal and personal sociolinguistic meaning.



Eble, Connie C. Slang & Sociability: In-group Language Among College Students. The University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Guzman, Juan C. “Slang as a Means of Language in Low-Socioeconomic Status Individuals: A Cross Comparison of Multicultural Individuals in the United States.” International Journal of Language and Linguistics, vol. 4, no. 4, 2017, pp 36-40.
Wolfram, Walt & Schilling, Natalie. “Chapter 10: Dialects and Style”. American English: Dialects and Variation. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015, pp 387-409.