Right now, language is exploding on TikTok. It is kind of beautiful until you understand why. With every scroll, new terms compete for space in your brain: “orange peel theory,” “microcheating,” “girl hobby,” “loud budgeting,” “75 cozy.” They are funneled into the collective consciousness not because they are relevant or necessary but because random people have made videos inventing these terms in the hope that the wording will go viral. The other day, I saw one where a guy was like, “Does anyone else just love a ‘dinner and couch’ friend? Like, you just have dinner and then you sit on the couch?” The video currently has more than 100,000 likes and 600 comments. He then repeats the term as if to drill into the audience that this is a phenomenon that deserves its own designation: “dinner and couch friend.” Fascinating!
There is a case to be made that the constant stream of phrases vying to become widely used slang exemplifies a deep appreciation for language among the extremely online, or a desire to connect over the intricacies of the human experience. Perhaps you, too, can relate to the concept of “polywork” (that is, working multiple jobs) or having been raised by a diet-obsessive “almond mom.” Maybe this guy’s video coining the term “weekend effect” to describe the feeling of wasting your Saturdays and Sundays really speaks to you; maybe “first time cool syndrome” is something you’ve personally overcome.
But chances are, either you have never heard of any of these terms or you have heard of so many that you are starting to become a little bit fatigued by them. It is not novel to note that TikTok has sped up the trend cycle, creating incentives for users to remix or react to the latest viral video and forget about it once it’s no longer a reliable source of views. What this has wrought is a graveyard of microtrends and niche aesthetics for people to try on, care about only to the extent that they generate attention, and then discard for the next thing (who even talks about “e-girls” or “goblin mode” anymore?). And over the past few years, TikTokers have clamored to coin the next new trend.
It has become such a frequent occurrence that some TikTokers have even made parody videos about the thirstiness of aspiring term-coiners. “This is my impression of a TikTok influencer who comes on here and starts to explain an experience or a feeling or a kind of person that is literally definable in the dictionary,” says Brenna Connolly in a video posted last September, “like they are the first person to ever encounter or feel something like this and they speak about it in a crazy authoritative, educational tone.” Connolly, a 20-year-old student in New York, says her video was inspired by a different viral video where a woman laments a phenomenon she coined the “‘what about me’ effect” to describe when people on TikTok comment on a video and “find a way to make it about them.”
“I’m sure she’s great and kind, but there are ways you can describe this by just speaking a sentence. We don’t really have to label it something silly,” she tells me. She guesses the onslaught of made-up TikTok terms she’s noticed over the past year or so is from a collective search for identity; the way we’ve tried to seek it out is by labeling and pigeonholing every possible part of the human experience.
In her newsletter on Gen Z consumer trends, After School, Casey Lewis leads each issue with a subject line devoted to two of these viral terms. That there are enough of them to populate an email subject line every single day says plenty about the pace at which they’re fired off; some recent examples include “Doomscrolling and Daylists,” “Work Island and Generation Zyn,” “Stanley Moms and Sephora Tweens,” and, a personal favorite, “Earnestcore and Resolutionsmaxxing.”
“Gen Z are nothing if not marketing geniuses,” she says of TikTokers’ ability to push out viral phrases. Having covered youth culture and marketing trends since 2008, Lewis is struck most by the shift from where these terms and phrases used to originate versus where they do now. “When we were kids growing up, magazine editors and fashion designers were determining trends, but now editors are literally just reporting on what people on TikTok are doing.”
Unlike slang, which generally spreads organically within particular groups and is then co-opted (and often appropriated) by the masses, these kinds of catchy phrases or new terms have historically been disseminated top-down — that is, from cultural products like books or film. Shakespeare, for instance, coined an arguable 1,700 terms, while “gaslight,” “friendzone,” and “catfish” all stem from professional screenwriters. That’s not to say this doesn’t still happen: In 2016, the Cut coined the term “millennial pink,” though if such a phrase were to come about today, it’d be surprising if it didn’t come from a TikToker.
And unlike slang, these phrases are invented for a more cynical purpose: that other people might use them. When then-16-year-old Kayla Newman posted a Vine admiring her eyebrows, she wasn’t intending for the phrase “on fleek” to become a contender for 2015’s “word of the year.” But it did, and she never made a dime off of it (she later crowdfunded a campaign to launch a hair extensions line; the website currently appears to be down). “I gave the world a word,” Newman told the Fader at the time. “I can’t explain the feeling. At the moment I haven’t gotten any endorsements or received any payment. I feel that I should be compensated. But I also feel that good things happen to those who wait.”
TikTokers, knowledgeable in the ways that social platforms profit from minority cultures, most notably Black femmes, have also learned from previous generations’ inability to profit from their contributions to the culture. They know it’s highly improbable that they’ll make a fortune from naming the next new trend (you can’t trademark slang, after all), and few term-coiners profit meaningfully beyond — if they’re lucky — a brand sponsorship deal or two. Instead, they’re after authority and clout. They are, to borrow from Mean Girls, “trying to make ‘fetch’ happen” just to say they made “fetch” happen.
“I understand why people would want to come up with something that’s used all over the internet,” says Connolly. “I think about the girl who came up with ‘girl dinner,’ and how awesome it must feel to see everyone saying it all the time. It’s like starting an inside joke with your friends and your entire circle continuing to use it.” But it is also sort of thirsty behavior, and Lewis predicts TikTok’s biggest user base is starting to see through it. “I do think there’s going to be a backlash this year against content that is created like, obviously, just in the hopes of going viral,” she says.
Of course, TikTokers aren’t the only ones trying to make their various fetches happen. Judging by the sheer volume of coverage on phrases like “beige flag,” “quiet quitting,” or “mob wife aesthetic,” journalists on the culture beat are essentially captive to whatever happens to be trending online in the hopes they might capitalize on its existing virality. So, what the hell, I might as well join in: I’m calling the rash of tryhard slang online “trendbait,” and if you make a TikTok about it, please be sure to tag me.
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