Why Grown-Ups Keep Talking Like Little Kids

Felt writey. Because reasons.

The other day I walked through a room full of toddlers who were energetically growling at each other. They were obviously playing together, but there was a passion and an aggressiveness in their voices that made me feel that somehow, they weren’t just growling at each other, they were joining forces to confront the unfairness of a stressful universe.

When I noticed my 17yo daughter had also been observing the children, I waited until just the right moment and said, “Mood.”

Her face brightened. “Yeet!” she said, confirming I had use the word correctly.

The headline of this Atlantic piece seems designed to attract the outraged clicks of the olds, but the content of the article is a perfectly sensible celebration of the flexibility of the English language, especially as expressed by the young women whose linguistic innovation so often drives trends.

It has long been ordinary for one language to borrow from another (schadenfreudehara-kiri), and even from a dialect of the same language: Black English has lent mainstream English words like diss and the “angry” meaning of salty.

Kidspeak extends our word stock in exactly the same way that Old Norse, French, and Latin once did. On the internet, for example, kidspeak refers to a “smol kitty” and a “smol baby,” but not a “smol mailbox” or “smol Blu-ray player.” Smol, then, is not merely a way of spelling small, but a more specific term referring to diminutive cuteness. Just missing out on becoming Word of the Year at the American Dialect Society’s 2019 meeting was the monosyllabic yeet, seemingly meant to mimic the sound of something being thrown into a container or through a net (and often pronounced with a celebratory gesture to that effect). One now speaks of “yeeting” an empty can into the trash, and the word has even developed an irregular past-tense form, yote. We have kidspeak to thank for introducing these new layers of playfulness and subtlety into our repertoire. —Atlantic