A lot has happened in the past decade. Technological advances have created new norms in everything from dating and consumer culture to the organization of political movements. As our cultural and political landscapes continue to shift, the language we use to talk about them changes as well.
Today, we’re looking back at the 2010s through the lens of language. Here are ten words or phrases that were somehow repurposed during the past decade – adjectives becoming verbs or adverbs, nouns taking on new metaphorical dimensions – to fit with the changing times.
Canceled (or Cancelled)
In the wake of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault, the term ‘canceled’ was coined. The term’s new meaning refers to people who lost popular support and respect for having done something racist, sexist, manipulative, violent, etc. The term is most often applied to celebrities, politicians, online influencers, and other public personas.
A few examples of people who have been referred to as ‘canceled’ in the past few years include former film-producer Harvey Weinstein, R&B singer R. Kelly, actor Kevin Spacey, and comedian Louis C.K.
Recently, the applicability of the term has broadened, and it is now used to refer to pop-culture and fashion trends as well.
A catfish is a deceptive online personality, often in the form of a fake social media account used to target a specific individual for abuse, deception, or fraud. Catfishing also tends to be used in romantic scams on dating websites, where the catfish may lie about their age, gender, physical appearance and more in order to gain favor with their target.
The term came into the mainstream following the release of the 2010 documentary “Catfish,” in which Yaniv Schulmen helps people investigate potential catfishing situations, while simultaneously exploring the motives of people who create fake identities to build relationships with other users. According to Schulmen, the term catfish is an analogy to fisherman “putting sea catfish in with the cod to nip at their tails and keep them active” during overseas transport.
Although the distribution of disinformation by online, print, and broadcast media is not entirely novel to the 2010s, the term ‘fake news’ surged in popularity following the election of President Donald Trump. During his presidency, Trump has waged a war against mainstream media channels, often referring to them as ‘fake news.’
Trump’s use of the term has become controversial. In the past couple of years, many mainstream media stations have sworn off the term altogether, claiming that its overuse has rendered it meaningless.
While the traditional use of ‘low-key’ is as an adjective, as in ‘We’ve decided to stay in and have a low-key night,’ it was repurposed into an adverb about halfway through the 2010s. It’s retained elements of its original definition (“moderately, or of low emotional intensity”), but today it’s also used to indicate something that is secretly (sometimes shamefully) desired by the speaker. I.e. “I low-key want to eat an entire tub of cookie dough right now,” or “I’m low-key kind of interested in the guy Carley was set up with tonight.” On the internet, low-key tends to get further informalized by dropping the hyphen.
Netflix and chill
Although the phrase ‘Netflix and chill’ was technically used for the first time in a Twitter post in 2009, it wasn’t until 2014 that it started to be used as a compound noun with sexual connotations. In 2015, the phrase was added to Urban Dictionary.
As “Netflix and chill” gained notoriety, products, events, and services associated with the phrase began to emerge. In 2015, the logo outside Netflix’s headquarters in Los Gatos, California was spray-painted with the words “and chill.” That same year, Ariana Grande released a holiday EP entitled “Christmas and chill.”
In 2016, Netflix itself finally acknowledged the neologism when it released the results of a company-conducted survey about how users in relationships utilize their product. It was called the “Netflix and chill study.”
Safe spaces became increasingly prevalent on university campuses during the second half of the 2010s and remain a highly controversial, though not entirely partisan issue. Advocates of safe spaces define them as places where individuals can relax and express themselves, “without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or challenged on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability.”
Critics of safe space culture often consider it an infringement against their First Amendment rights as well as a mechanism for retreating from differing opinions. In 2016, the University of Chicago sent out a controversial letter to its incoming freshman class informing them that the university does not support trigger warnings or “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from thoughts and ideas at odds with their own.”
Starting around 2016, ‘savage’ started to be used as a general way to refer to something as hardcore, extreme, or shocking, or to talk about somebody who does not care about what others think. The meaning here is just a slight tweak on the more traditional formal definition, in which ‘savage’ is used to refer to something that is ‘fierce, ferocious, cruel, or untamed.’ Examples of the modern usage include, “Did you see the way he just told his boss off?! That was straight up savage,” or “She ate an entire pizza in just ten minutes. It was savage.’
Pejorative uses of the word snowflake date back nearly two centuries. We’ve included it in our list, however, because in the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. election, “Snowflake” took on a new form as a disparaging term used by conservatives to describe liberals, the implication being that their left-leaning opponents were overly sensitive and fragile.
Glimmers of this idea existed in the decade and a half preceding 2016, where the word was often used to describe young millennials who were allegedly too convinced of their own uniqueness to handle the difficulties of adult life. This use of the term has its supposed origin in Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel Fight Club, in which the leader of an anti-consumerist cult tells his followers: “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone, and we are all part of the same compost pile.”
Prior to that, snowflake was used pejoratively throughout the 1970s to describe a white man or a black man who was seen as acting white. The earliest slang use of the term, however, dates all the way back to 1860s Missouri, where a “Snowflake” was a person opposed to the abolition of slavery – in other words, somebody who valued white people over black people.
Catfish are not to be confused with a more recent internet personality known as the troll. Though the internet troll has technically existed since sometime in the 1990s, its definition has become much more negatively charged during the past decade, where the troll has come to be known as somebody who intentionally starts arguments or tries to upset people on the internet in order to sow discord, especially by using inflammatory or digressive messaging.
This is done either for the troll’s amusement or for some specific gain. In the case of some astroturfing initiatives, sponsors hoping to mask their own involvement will pay teams of trolls to express their messages as individuals, oftentimes swarming websites in an effort to overwhelm any honest discourse and outnumber any who disagree with the sponsored message. Common advice when trolling is suspected is to ignore rather than engage with the troll – i.e. “Please do not feed the trolls.”
The rise in popularity of ‘woke’ has been linked to the Black Lives Matter movement. Following the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2013, #StayWoke started to be used on social media posts regarding police brutality and racism in an effort to urge people to look behind one-sided narratives provided by police and media and to seek answers for themselves.
Nowadays, ‘woke’ is used to describe somebody who is up to date on political happenings and who specifically understands the ways in which racism, sexism, and classism affect the lives of millions of Americans.