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Have Millennials Ruined Language?—A Literal Study in Irony

The meanings of words have never been permanent. If they were, then you could still be punished for obscenity if you said "f**k* or "s**t" in public.

What part of civilized society haven't millennials ruined—with all their student debt, financial barriers to homeownership, and uniquely high rates of depression and anxiety?

Between Baby Boomers' conviction that millennials are the worst generation to date and contradicting data that millennial life is harder than it was for prior generations, both evaluations are overstated. The reality is that those born between 1981 and 1996 have, for the most part, wreaked the same havoc on society as any generation, from shifting the political climate to interrupting established industries. They just happen to coincide with the digital age, which has accelerated the rates of change.

When it comes to how millennials communicate, social media has created a new languagesure, literally. Sociolinguists are fascinated with the new patterns of language used by Millennials, both spoken and written. Whether you think millennials are causing the "Destruction of Civilization" or just accept humanity's boring old "linguistic shift, here's a sample of how words have changed to reflect modern views on relationships, gender roles, and technology's power to control our lives.


As millennials question the use of outdated labels, they propose a bevy of new ones. When it comes to relationships, "partner" has replaced "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" and even "wife" and "husband." According to Google Trends, "my partner" is more than eight times more popular today than it was 15 years ago. The word is preferred for its genderless nature and implied equality. Additionally, it carries more seriousness than the juvenile titles of "boy/girlfriend," which is unique for committed couples in long-term relationships who choose not to marry. In fact, millennials increasingly find the institution "dated" and, if they do marry, they marry later in life than previous generations.


Contrary to popular belief, the figurative use of "literally" actually dates back to the 1700s. It was not in popular usage until the early 1900s, when writers like Ambrose Bierce called its hyperbolic context "intolerable"—and he didn't have to live in the age of the Kardashians. Oxford English Dictionary's definition includes the colloquial use "to indicate that some (frequently conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: 'virtually, as good as'; (also) 'completely, utterly, absolutely'."

Still, millennials are responsible for the over-use of the word. While it's only natural to be frustrated with a word so versatile that its meaning contradicts itself, such radical changes in a word's connotation are part of the age-old pattern of linguistic innovation. A whole generation twisting a word's meaning into its opposite is not new or distinctly millennial, but it is, now more than ever, painfully obvious to hear in our day-to-day conversations.

millennial language change Illustration: Nadezda_Grapes/iStock/Getty Images Plus


"Relatability" isn't a word, but we're doomed to pretend that it is for the foreseeable future, and all because millennials watch too much TV. Prior to about 2010, it wasn't common to use "relatable" to indicate how well you identify with a character or situation. Rather, the word's core meaning describes whether a thing is capable of being told (like relating a story) or whether it shares common features with something else.

In The New Yorker, Rebecca Mead criticizes "The Scourge of Relatability" as a reflection of how millennials treat art and media. As a demographic, millennials expect art to be a mirror of their own lives (which by itself is natural), but the inflated significance of "relatability" suggests that people aren't willing to look closely at art—to work to find connections to it. Mead writes, "But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure. It's a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of 'relatable.'"


With the public's trust in the government near all-time lows, who can blame millennials for being ultra-concerned with evidence and proof? As consumers, most millennials and Gen-Zers don't trust brands' motivations or business ethics, nor do they trust major social institutions like religion or universities. And in their private lives, millennials struggle to build trusting relationships thanks to social media and the casualness of dating apps.

So the figurative use of "receipts" to indicate evidence that reveals someone's deception or hypocrisy is an accurate reflection of millennials' trust issues. Slate traces the term to Whitney Houston's erratic 2002 interview when she denied having a drug habit and demanded, "I wanna see the receipts." The usage took off online among bloggers and Internet trolls, but today it fits neatly into the culture of calling people out on their history of prejudiced or contradictory comments.

millennial language change Ikon Images/Corbis


The word itself is far more common than it was even 10 years ago, according to Google Trends. But Alanis Morissette's quoted-to-death song is no longer the worst misuse of the word. With a slippery definition and several sub-types of "irony," confusion is more or less understandable, but millennials taking creative liberties with the word only removes it further from its meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary accounts for its use to describe "a situation, event, or outcome: cruelly, humorously, or strangely at odds with assumptions or expectations; of the nature of an irony.

So, yes, sarcastically telling your friend that his neon bucket hat looks amazing is verbal irony. An entire sitcom plot surrounding a miscommunication that you're aware of but the characters aren't is dramatic irony. A handful of other less common types of irony float around, like the historical irony of inventors who are killed by their own inventions. But no, getting run over by a bicyclist on the same day you age out of your parents' health insurance plan isn't irony: that's just shit luck. Now, getting run over by a bicyclist on the same day you say people who get hit by bicyclists are dumbasses: that's good irony. Also, watch out for bicyclists.

In truth, every generation changes the rules of accepted vernacular. For better or worse, language is being forever altered by the millennial generation—actually, just kidding; the meanings of words have never been permanent. If they were, then English grammar would actually make sense, "ghoti" would be pronounced "fish," and you would still be punished for obscenity for saying "fuck" or "shit" in public. Fuck that.

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