A few nights ago, some friends and I were on our way to a small get-together.  As we ambled up the sidewalk, Rachel, whom I had met at the university I used to attend, commented that the neighborhood was rather “sketchy.”  I almost hugged her.  “Sketchy!” I nearly shouted.  “That’s a word I haven’t heard in a while.”  She immediately understood and laughed at my enthusiasm, while the others looked on, perplexed.  Sketchy was a very popular word at my old school, and, although it is undoubtedly used with the same meaning in other places, it immediately brought back memories of friends.

Later, I gave this incident some thought.  A word that originally referred to drawing is now used, at least in some quarters, to describe unsavory characters or places.  A place you would not want to be after dark is “sketchy.”  A party at which there is illicit activity can be described as having “a lot of sketch.”  The word will eventually be useless, applied to everything with a slightly negative connotation.  It is a typical example of college slang but also of my generation’s inability to communicate.

Slang does have its uses.  It can be part of the cement that bonds students or colleagues together, and it can become a link to people or places once held dear.  Slang can also be useful for giving a name to new or unusual activities.  In college dormitories, the word sexile has been coined to describe what happens when one’s roommate is occupied in one’s room.  It is usually used in verb form—“John’s roommate has his girlfriend here for a visit, so John has been sexiled for the night.”  It is a crude word, to be sure, but one that efficiently describes something that occurs all too frequently.

While good slang adds to precision, the opposite is more frequently the case in modern youthspeak.  Take, for example, the word awesome, which remains a favorite with those under 20.  In ancient times (a few decades ago), awesome referred to something that filled one with fear, reverence, and humility.  It was a powerful word, used in Scripture to describe God, often with the word terrible close by.  These days, anything from a TV program to breakfast cereal can be “awesome.”  The result is that we no longer have a familiar word to describe the sublime.  When a 20-something wishes to refer to something awesome, in the original sense, he has to call it “really really awesome” or otherwise overemphasize the overworked word.  AWESOME!!!  A similar example is great, which, like awesome, was originally used to describe something of truly staggering quality or proportions.

Other slang words have become equally useless.  Ghetto now refers to anything of substandard quality—“Dude, my old car is so ghetto.”  The words cool, tight, and sweet all mean “something I like.”  One of my all-time favorites is chick, which is used even by women to refer to women.  Nothing is so flattering as calling oneself the immature offspring of a domestic fowl.  The same process of generalization has degraded such good words as terrific (as well as terrible), fantastic, and wonderful.

Slang is a part of the constantly evolving nature of language itself, as words are coined and eventually work their way into formal usage.  But it also signifies a certain informal register, and there was a time when a young person was capable of communicating with his betters without using it.  I am not so fortunate.  When I speak to my professors, I am usually unable to prevent a “like” from slipping into the conversation.  The case becomes even more difficult when I wish to express an intricate set of ideas.  The very qualities that make informal language what it is—a lack of specificity, an overuse of the same words, generalization of meaning, etc.—also make it unsuitable for expressing the very complex thoughts and feelings that make us human.  When I wish to be serious, I have to stop speaking and hunt for the appropriate language to explain my thoughts.  By the time I am ready, my companion has probably grown bored with the subject.  Slang is no longer informal; it is a significant part of the only way I have to express myself, and it is, by its very nature, unsuited to the task.

This reliance on a single register of language did not develop overnight.  It has been a long and painful process, one that reflects our increasing dependence on consumable entertainment.  For a book to be considered worthwhile, it has nothing but its prose to recommend it.  Television has no such hindrance, and language becomes more of a barrier than a blessing on the typical TV program.  A TV director has only a fraction of a second in between channel flips to catch the viewer’s eye, and, to keep us watching, the program relies not on eloquent and powerful language but on passion, intensity, and shock, all of which must be conveyed quickly.  What we could regain through conversation with others, we forfeit by shutting ourselves into our own little worlds.  The most common sight after class on my campus is that of a student plugging in the earphones of his iPod before heading off to the next class.  Nothing says “Don’t talk to me” like that ominous white cord dangling around the neck.

We are, for the most part, unable to use anything but the informal language of everyday speech, and so we adopt the verbiage of others and thus become the dupes of any group with an axe to grind.  The result is that the world must assume we mean what we say, when we have no other way to say what we mean.  This must be the worst form of self-enslavement.  An ominous example of what is to come existed in Old Norse, which had one word to describe colors ranging from dark blue to black.  Modern linguists cannot declare with certainty whether the early Scandinavians simply lacked the appropriate vocabulary to describe these colors or whether they were unable to perceive the difference between them.  Years from now, my descendants may look back and wonder whether I was incapable of distinguishing between the awe inspired by God and the pleasure I take in an exceptionally tasty breakfast cereal.