Following is a by no means exhaustive list of slang words that have come into the common lexicon of Americans young and otherwise. For reasons that I will attempt to outline, each of them deserves consideration as to whether its contribution to your language is meaningful, and otherwise, if the correct course of action is excision. Of course, each person is free to communicate however he or she will, but know that if you speak heedlessly with the words below, I, and other thoughtful people (hopefully most that read this article), will cringe and unfairly think less of you.
creeper ~~~~ Creeper properly means a plant that grows by means of extending stems or branches, any of a number of small birds, or the wheeled platform a mechanic uses to work under a car. Today it means someone who is creepy and who unsubtly wants to get with you. My guess is that it came as an alternative to stalker, which came to mean the same thing. I’m actually all for this motive, because stalker is too serious a term to throw around at the very subjective notion that someone wants to get with you. I think creeper is not the choice we should land on. Creepy is a very good word and it has Goosebumps-style connotations and conjures up a real image. Creeping on even expresses well the act of making a creepy play at someone: To creep calls to mind the image of slowly and eerily moving on top of someone. However, creeper, at least to me, does not call up any image but that of slinging accusations. The only proof the reader should need is that it leads to headlines like the following: “Madonna Creeper Arrested for Some Way Creepy Behavior,” “Too Many Men and Women Toe the Thin Line Between Flirtation and Being a Designated ‘Creeper.’”
douchey ~~~~ Douche, French for shower, means cleaning out one’s vagina. Douchebag, referring to a bag filled with the runoff from such an operation, has been a standard pejorative slang word for a while, filling the same role as dick, but obviously with a different image. Virtually the only criteria for a slang word like this, for which the actual meaning isn’t especially important, is how it sounds. I think that douchebag sounds pretty kickass and that’s why it cut off. It’s rapid-fire, you don’t have to linger on “douche” especially long. And because we hear douchebag refer to a mean person far more than an actual bag of vaginal detritus, it doesn’t really conjure that gross an image, thus you can hear your parent say it, or someone you love, and not be mentally transported somewhere gross.
The use of douche as a synonym for douchebag was a step in the wrong direction. There’s no good way to emphasize it without having to linger too long on the “ch” sound, which is awkward to sustain. It also brings us one step closer to the actual nitty-gritty of the term.
Douchey is a phenomenon only in the U.S. and Canada as far as I can tell and has really gained popularity only this year. It’s a very ugly word. The word douche is bad enough and it doesn’t want a long vowel sound to continue it. Worse, because it’s still somewhat unfamiliar, when we hear douchey we feel compelled to define it; do we really what to delineate what qualifies as “of or pertaining to douches?” Douchenozzle is obviously even worse for this. I roll with douchebag, but I’m shocked if someone I consider not a big swearer says douchey because it’s a gross and unnecessary word.
fail ~~~~ Dear God, can we stop using fail as a noun? People say fail when someone has made a large mistake, has failed. The term came from Internet use of the phrase “You fail it,” mocking the notably poor English in a Japanese video game. Eventually fail became used a noun. The term came to vast popularity with failblog, a website that posts pictures of people messing up comically at things (ranging from falling off of motorcycles to misspelling items on a menu—i.e. images that would already circulate the internet via chain emails or bins of funny images), but its contribution to humanity was to add the macro text “FAIL” somewhere on the image. The images would be titled something like “teacher fail” or “dive fail.” Some of the pictures were funny, but none of them benefited even a little from the editorializing. Because of the explosive popularity of this website, fail gained wide use as a noun. It also compounded the obnoxious use of epic with their painful conjunction, epic fail. Failblog has thankfully declined in popularity. Unfortunately, the scars it left on the English language have so far remained.
The problem with fail is that it always says more about the user than the subject. It either makes you seem stupid because you’re using fail in a way that doesn’t work in English, or because people assume you read failblog. And it can never overcome these biases by pointing out something insightful, because it’s a really obvious word. It’s a one size fits all slang word, and not a very good one. Unfortunately, its use is so wide that certain people (including Ben Zimmer of the New York Times) have written of it as a nifty little neologism that’s going to stick around, pointing out that the presence of fail as a noun (meaning a failing grade) makes it an easy transformation to make. They point out that Merriam-Webster allowed the noun form of fail through its authoritative gates in the same edition that it let in w00t and paned. The latter two are so inextricably tied with the Internet, there’s always a degree of irony in their use in real-life contexts. When I hear fail, I always assume the speaker is genuine, and an idiot. For evidence of what a defender of fail sees to be the proper extension of its usage, please see Ben Zimmer’s treatment, whose quippy finisher is “fail is proving to be an epic unfail.” Fuck that.
bromance ~~~~ Bromance is an odd word, because, unlike the other words we’ve examined, it carved out its own meaning. It doesn’t really replace an existing word, except perhaps “close male friend.” But of course, it doesn’t mean nearly the same thing. The idea is that two guys are such good friends it’s like they’re in a relationship. It picks up with our culture’s crystal conception of and frank obsession with the idea of a relationship. Without our shared idea of the Relationship, it would be too hard to write TV shows. Their taken-for-granted centrality in everyone’s lives and the clichés within them that bring about conflict between the people they encompass provide a framework for like 50% of the stories our culture produces (good ones along with bad).
The word came about in response to a perception that men were getting close enough to be in relationships. I believe the idea is that it’s expected for girls to be that close, but it’s remarkable between guys. The word was first coined by MTV’s “Bromance,” a 2010 show that was “The Bachelor,” but with being friends with Brody Jenner from the Hills. That show’s popularity didn’t last long and the word kind of fell of the map until its use spiked at the end of that year as a cultural meme, gaining entry into Merriam-Webster in August 2011 (along with tweet and fist bump). I have the romantic notion that people used to be able to speak of interpersonal relationships frankly and honestly, and that it’s only today that we rely on cliches to express. That a man could say that upon meeting Teddy Roosevelt, “I fell in love with him” and have nothing be thought of it. That generations ago, J.K. Rowling could have written Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s friendship without saying they were gay. I don’t know if that’s true, maybe people threw around love back then.
When I was young, we used to just call two close guy friends gay. In my first year of high school, a guy I quickly became friends with became linked with me in a bathroom stall carving on the first floor: “[First name withheld] [Last initial withheld] is a gay with Tammanay B.” Indeed, even two years ago, when two of my male friends celebrated their friendiversary by buying each other potted plants, they were teased, asked if they were out of the closet yet, but no one accused them of a bromance.
It’s nice that bromance offers an alternative to just calling guys gay, but I think it presents its own problems. I feel like a bromance, defined by something like “I Love You, Man” rather than MTV’s “Bromance,” shackles your image of its subjects into a cliche: “Oh, they bicker and one of them fixed the other’s collar—they’re in a relationship!” Even if those plant-exchanging friends of mine got called gay, I like to think my friends and I also seriously examined their relationship. We talked about its weird, self-conscious, rapid growth and could have predicted that they wouldn’t make it to their second friendiversary. It may be useful to have the relationship cliche, because people tend to conform to it in their own ways, but let’s save friendship from falling into a box. Next time you reach for bromance, see what you think of friendship.