The insults were better in my day

‘Boomer’, ‘Karen’, ‘basic’... the preferred put-downs of Gen Z are testament to American cultural hegemony.

Simon Evans

Simon Evans

Topics UK

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A ‘study’ has found that a new wave of humanity has rejected not just the fashions, the prejudices and the cold fizzy lager of their elders, but also some of their most cherished linguistic artefacts – namely, their lexicon of sub-swearing insults.

According to the study, roughly a quarter of Generation Z have not heard of insults like ‘plonker’, ‘nitwit’, ‘pillock’ or ‘prat’. It seems these ejaculations of weary, quotidian contempt are all ceasing to be common currency among the young and, one suspects, terminally online.

Such muttered dismissals are now as drained of charge as the old copper coins found in a pensioner’s tobacco tin. Instead, snarkier transatlantic neologisms, such as ‘Karen’ (a form of ‘bitch’, since you ask), ‘basic’ (which tends to mean boring) and, of course, ‘boomer’, are all more readily exchanged and understood in their place.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise. Language has always changed with every new generation. Just as ‘cads’ and ‘bounders’ or indeed ‘tykes’ sounded pretty rum to my teenage ears, so pillocks, plonkers and prats do to my kids.

Still, as always, there is that faint, melancholy sense that the comfortable and familiar, however crude and vulgar, are being replaced by the charmless and mass-produced. A sense of tools long shaped by and for the human hand being exchanged for less personable items. Of the replacement of the cheerful anatomical crudity beloved of Shakespeare, Trotter and Cleese with something more uniform and less joyous.

It is of a piece with the removal of wrought-iron boot-scrapers on grounds of health and safety. It’s redolent of the replacement of stone gargoyles with plastic gutters, or of proper hats with branded beanies and baseball caps. It’s a process that generally scrubs away any trace of historical context and inter-generational connectivity.

Everything, in other words, that Sir Roger Scruton would have deplored and the architect Sir Donald Gibson would have welcomed, as he did the bombs which cleared away Coventry’s stubborn medieval architecture to make way for his vision of a West Midlands.

It might feel quixotic in the extreme to take arms against the changing tide of language, especially vulgarity. Language is organic, and slang especially is a fundamentally bottom-up, grassroots crop, not to be astroturfed. But some of these newly popular terms do not strike me as grassroots, as organically emerging from British culture at all. Most of them have emerged from the ubiquitous black mirror of the smartphone.

A ‘Karen’, for instance, is a very specific kind of white American woman – roughly speaking, one who is irredeemably middle class and subsequently has a sense of entitlement that usually manifests in her escalating to ‘the management’ in any altercation. Especially if the altercation involves what the ‘Karen’ perceives to be an irritant of colour.

It was popularised after a widely shared encounter in 2020 between such a woman and a black birdwatcher in Central Park, though on that occasion the woman’s name was Amy. Why she isn’t the eponymous Amy of this trend, I don’t know. Perhaps that name was felt to be insufficiently harsh, hectoring and consonantal to characterise her type. Regardless, ‘Karen’ is a phenomenon I defy anyone to find in quantity in Croydon.

‘Basic’, meanwhile, is a kind of ‘mean girls’ American high-school slang for high-street clothes or high-street opinions, unmodified by original thought or stylistic choice. And ‘boomer’ is, of course, simply a way of saying ‘old timer’ that doesn’t sound hopelessly old-time. It is intended to wound for what is the most immutable and blameless of traits – one’s age.

But I take solace from the wisdom of Grandpa Simpson. ‘I used to be with it’, he warned. ‘But then they changed what “it” was. Now what I’m with isn’t “it”, and what’s “it” seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you!’ It would by now, had he been capable of ageing, have happened to Bart.

All this is a shame. It’s a form of cultural cringe, the fear that our homegrown products are not as attractively noxious as the imports. But then I am a man who still misses ‘zounds!’, and ‘gadzooks!’, as curated by children’s TV show Rentaghost. Call me a basic blighter if you will, but I still think that ‘gadzooks!’ – an oath that references the nails of the crucifixion as ‘God’s hooks’ – has a sturdiness and depth charge that I think is built to last.

There are a number of detectable underlying trends here. Preferring cheap, American mass-produced imports to British bench-made tools is one, though that has sadly been in evidence since the Second World War. Clearly, US cultural hegemony is not waning yet, however infused it now is with emojis, K-pop and TikTok.

But there is also a stranger, more psychologically troubling swing here. It’s as if the young can no longer enjoy the robust argy-bargy of traditional put-downs and verbal play-fighting and prefer to indulge in a passive-aggressive critique of society, and how it has let them down.

Old-fashioned vulgarities usually trace back either to some anatomical impudence, whether sexual, excretory or flatulent, or occasionally a moment’s disrespect for the sacred – however minced, for crying out loud. They are meant to wound, but they are also great levellers. Anyone, everyone, high and low, can be a plonker from time to time.

But Karens and boomers, whether basic or otherwise, are not great levellers. They are instead part of an inter-generational war of attrition many of us are unaware we are even fighting.

I do worry that the young are missing out. The satisfaction of landing a good old-fashioned oath against your enemy, instead of assigning them a carefully delineated socio-cultural category drawn from a lexicon of online hate, is not one I’d want to live without.

However much of an old-fashioned twat that makes me.

Simon Evans is a spiked columnist and stand-up comedian.

Picture by: Harry Grout.

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Topics UK


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