I am a lover of the English language, and this includes slang! Being from the United States with parents who grew up in the 80s has naturally led to certain terms appearing in my vocabulary! It got me wondering what some of their favorite 1980s American English slang terms were, and if I could bring them back into my vocabulary. Check out what I found, featuring my made up friend Kyle and his buddies!
My parents stress that these were often together, and only added to each other’s intensifying! Totally awesome would be used to describe something that was ‘absolutely cool,’ whether a person or a place or a thing!
“Kyle’s this totally awesome guy that I really like.”
This slang term refers to a speech pattern called ‘uptalk’ that was often associated with young women from Southern California at the time. The movie Clueless is a great reference of this type of speech pattern! When used to describe someone, I imagine it was not in a positive light…
“She sounds like a valley girl when she’s trying to impress Kyle!”
Linking to Clueless from earlier, this is Cher’s favorite phrase. Before its slang usage, as if was used to comment on the case of something, and giving the explanation of possibility. However, alone in its informal slang form, as if is utilized to express doubt or incredulousness at a possibility.
“Kyle thinks Sheryl will be happy with just being friends? As if!”
I used to think this was parody, but my dad insists this was something people said. It originates from surfer culture but was absorbed by more than that subgroup. Its use points out the ‘exceptional’ in regular scenarios.
“That movie we watched at Kyle’s house was tubular. I loved it.”
Dude maintains a long history, extending from the turn of the 20th Century – check out linguist Valerie Fridland’s book “Like, Literally, Dude” for more! It often describes men more than other groups, though this is changing. Dude is still found in contemporary American English slang, but my parents stressed that theirs needs a long ‘u’ sound to truly encapsulate the 80s usage and add emphasis!
“Duuuuuuuude did you see that trick? Unreal!”
One of my dad’s favorites, meaning ‘cool’ or ‘awesome,’ that grew in popularity in the 80s despite originating from the 1960s.
“Kyle’s new car is absolutely bitchin’ with its new wheels!”
Synonymous with ‘big deal,’ big whoop stresses a ‘who cares’ mentality and became popular in the 80s. ‘Whoop’ means a sound that calls attention, so to use big whoop was often meant to emphasize the dismissal of something.
“So Sheryl has a crush on Kyle. Big whoop.”
This one does not come from today’s foodstagram culture, thank you very much! It has origins in the 80s, coming from an article in New York Magazine discussing people who know a lot about food.
“Sheryl is such a foodie. She’s always cooking new things for us!”
Gnarly comes from the word “gnarled” meaning twisted and often linked to trees. However, in the 80s, gnarly was used as a way to point out the exceptionally good or unreal in something.
“His trick had a gnarly landing that I haven’t seen before.”
This is NOT the piece of clothing that keeps your neck warm. In the 80s, scarf was used as a verb to describe quickly eating food, especially if one was hungry!
“Man, when I got home from Kyle’s game, I scarfed down an entire box of mac & cheese alone.”
Don’t confuse this one with a person named Ralph! In the 80s USA, ralphing meant ‘vomiting,’ not something your friend Ralph did – though Ralph could ralph!
“At the last party, Kyle drank too much and I caught him ralphing in the kitchen.”
Gag me with a spoon
Similarly to ralph, gag me with a spoon also involves retching. Instead of actually ‘throwing up,’ it emphasized the disgust of an action or experience. People would use it when they were strongly put off by something.
“If I ever have to kiss Kyle, please gag me with a spoon.”
My dad insists this was often used to describe attractive body parts, and my inquiries show me this seems to be true. It’s also posited that bodacious is a combination of ‘bold’ and ‘audacious. This explains how it can be used as both ‘outstanding’ and ‘attractive.’
“Kyle was excited to invite all the bodacious women to his party.”
Not inherently linked to the previous bodacious, bod does refer to someone’s body. It was a shortening of the word ‘body,’ often in the form of a compliment.
“Kyle’s been working on his bod for all his surf contests.”
In the era of John Cusack’s Say Anything boombox, it makes sense that amped would be a popular word to use! Amped up is a common combination, meaning ‘energized’ and ‘excited’ for something like a concert, an event, or an opportunity.
“We’re amped up for Kyle’s party this weekend! It’s going to be great.”
Psych has a long history for its relation to ‘psychology,’ and it shouldn’t be confused with the popular 2010s show involving a fake psychic and his best friend. However, the show Psych is a great example of the slang use: he plays a psychic that psychs people out, or ‘fakes’ them out. Tone is important for this one! It can sometimes be on its own, as well!
“Psych! I knew you’d believe that it was a real driver’s license!”
Ohmigod / Oh my gawd
Spelling aside, it’s nice to see the origins of today’s OMG! This was often used as a separate comment on a situation, sometimes of shock or surprise.
“Ohmigod, did you hear Sheryl and Kyle kissed at the party?!”
Bogus is an older word, but its evolution into its slang variety became common in the 80s. Originally it pointed to counterfeit currency, but its use in the 80s meant ‘unattractive’ or ‘ignorant.’
“Kyle’s comment the other day was so bogus, man. He shouldn’t have said it.”
Differing from today’s American English use of radical or its mathematical origin, 80s English speakers used it to mean ‘incredibly cool.’ Something could be radical to emphasize the degree of the speaker’s excitement.
“Kyle said that the new show on MTV looks absolutely radical and we should watch it!”
Eat my shorts
This is one I actively use today and didn’t know it came from the 80s! ‘Shorts’ here signifies underwear, and is featured in John Hughes’ classic from 1985, The Breakfast Club. This phrase is used often as a spit back or in conjunction with competition.
“Kyle looked at the other team’s goalkeeper and said eat my shorts after scoring!”
Take a chill pill
This one has its roots in 80s college campuses and was used to ‘tell someone to calm down.’
“Sheryl needs to take a chill pill. Kyle isn’t into any other women right now.”
I feel this one persists today seeing as I use it in my own life. After a long day working, studying, or exerting any type of energy, one can veg out meaning ‘to disengage and relax,’ often linked to watching television.
“I can’t wait to get to Kyle’s house after school and a veg out watching a movie”
We can attribute the 80s for terms like bazillionaire and gazillionaire to describe people with heinous amounts of money, which we still see exacerbating to this day!
“Kyle’s dream is to invest in a surf company and become a bazillionaire overnight.”
This verb is proximally linked to vehicles. The 80s slang meant ‘to leave quickly’ and though not used a lot today, I’ve heard it used similarly before!
“We’ve gotta motor if we’re going to make it to Kyle’s surf contest on time.”
Wannabe is linked to pop music through the Spice Girls’s titular song and became more popular in the 80s. It means to ‘strive to emulate’ and is a collapse of the phrase ‘want to be,’ used in articles to describe characters and people.
“Shannon is such a Sheryl wannabe, always following her around like a puppy.”
It’s fair to assume righteous is linked to religion, and its slang use is: it describes something as ‘heavenly’ or ‘wonderful’ beyond the imagination.
“The food Sheryl cooked for the party was totally righteous. I’ve never had such good chicken!”
Have a cow
No, this was not after you moved to the country and someone gifted you a cow. Rather, it was a phrase to describe someone getting ‘overly emotional’ or ‘reacting strongly’ to something.
“Kyle had a cow when he saw Sheryl was talking to Ken after class!”
Though this phrase did not originate from the 80s, my parents attest it was very common to use. It is linked to being in unfortunate circumstances, and could be directed at someone as an insult or used to describe something negative that had happened.
“Kyle got screwed by Ken. Ken asked out Sheryl while she was seeing Kyle!”
Homeboy / Homegirl
These groups originate from before the 80s but grew in their popularity to describe people from the ‘same home or background,’ depending on what your definition of home was. It was a fun way of addressing friends.
“Sheryl, where are you going, homegirl! We need to hang out soon.”
To the max
One of my dad’s favorites, and a great one to combine with loads of the other slang words. To the max means ‘extreme’ or ‘maximum,’ and would often describe situations or actions.
“Kyle took that last trick to the max and it won him the surf championship!”
So there you have it! Fun 80s slang approved by two California 80s kids! I hope you enjoyed this dive into 80s American English slang just as much as I did. Now I’ve gotta motor, got some totally awesome and tubular homegirls to catch up with!