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Word! The Language Column
Meta-Cringe! On Boomers and Memes, Shibboleths and Youth Culture

Illustration: A male person who seems to be explaining something; speech bubble with the inscription "Cringe".
The ageing process of language has been tremendously accelerated by the democratization of the means of publication | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Languages are accessible to everyone online nowadays, even novelties like “Vong speak”. So it is usage that helps us tell cohorts apart.

By Dirk von Gehlen

Lenny Wosniak is a middle-aged private eye. Undercover investigations are his speciality. At least that’s what he tells prospective client       in the American sitcom 30 Rock. When asked for his credentials, he cites an investigation at a high school, for which he went “under cover” – or so he thought – by “blending in” with his “fellow kids”. By way of proof, we see a brief clip of the detective (played by Steve Buscemi) “in disguise”, i.e. wearing a grey T-shirt that says “MUSIC BAND” under a red hoodie and a baseball cap – also red – turned backwards on his head. Slung over his right shoulder is a skateboard, which he’s holding by one wheel, and – this is a dead giveaway –he’s casually carrying another skateboard under his left arm. He’s clearly an old codger decked out in the regalia of modern-day teens. And his only line in this five-second backflash is fittingly “square”: “How do you do, fellow kids?”

“Vong speak”

This scene takes less than five seconds, and yet it has propelled Steve Buscemi in the role of undercover sleuth Lenny Wosniak to the iconic status of an Internet meme. The private eye in the backwards baseball cap carrying two skateboards has become the symbol of ingratiating baby boomers (and some Gen Xers) who are trying way too hard to adopt the habitus of a cohort that’s actually quite alien to them: today’s youth. And “How do you do, fellow kids?” has become an overused catchphrase, a sort of verbal gag, in feeble attempts to boost TikTok views or reach hip young target groups by half-heartedly (mis)appropriating a little net culture. Ironically, it has also become a tell-tale sign of a person’s disconnect with the fact that they’re growing older – and so are some trends.

Because, as mentioned in my previous column on emojis, the ageing process of language has been tremendously accelerated by the democratization of the means of publication. One vivid illustration thereof is what’s known as “Vong speak”, a linguistic phenomenon that made a big splash in germanophone cyberculture just a few years ago. According to the German Wikipedia article on Vong:
Well-known expressions in Vong include the greeting “Halo, I bims!” (i.e. “Hallo, ich bin’s!” [Hello, it’s me!]), the expression of bewilderment or disbelief “Was ist das für 1 life?” [What kind of life is this?] and the postpositive prepositional phrase “vong … her” (used as an adverbial phrase corresponding to the colloquial “von … her” [in terms of …] as in “von der Logik her” [in terms of the thinking behind it]), after which the phenomenon was named. [Our translation of the German wiki article]

I would add that Vong was about deliberate solecisms and sometimes silly usage of language – as a way of expressing group membership. The German-Israeli comedian Shahak Shapira displayed Vong speak in all its glory in his translation of the Holy Bible – or Holyge Bimbel, as he calls it in Vong. That was just a few years ago, and yet in some contexts it already seems older than Martin Luther’s translation of the Scriptures.


The reason it seems so passé is not that nobody talks like that anymore: nobody really did a few years ago either. What’s different today is what might be called the “fellow-kids effect”. Anyone talking like that now would not be credible, they’d come across as masquerading and ingratiating, like Lenny Wosniak in the high school hallway. Because the age of Vong-speak is over – even its ironic use.

Which points up a noteworthy aspect of netspeak: It helps in making social distinctions. In the digital as well as analog realms, dialects define social boundaries: who’s an insider and who’s an outsider. Easier access to knowledge of all language forms, and their pronunciation, was supposed to level the playing field. The assumption was that if I can access all the existing knowledge in the world with just a few search terms, then I can also find out certain shibboleths and even how to pronounce them, which will give an “in” with groups that were hitherto off limits to me. But this hypothesis has not been borne out. On the contrary, as set forth in my previous Word! columns, actual language usage goes to show that language’s true strength lies precisely in its rapid mutability. Saying “I Bims” would have opened certain doors a few years back: now they’re more likely to be shut in your face.

The year of the meta-cringe

So language remains elusive. It’s often hard to tell which frames of reference will be triggered by which expressions. The way emoji references have changed is a case in point. Witness the trending ironic use of verbal memes, in particular, as older generations now take up once-divisive quips like “OK boomer” in semi-self-mockery or make fun of themselves for their own ignorance or tenuous grasp of the newest latest trends in net and youth culture.

In other words, Lenny Wosniak’s “fellow-kids” meme is often used by Lenny Wosniaks themselves. So it would be only natural to conclude this column with something like “I Bims 1 alter Mann vong Vergänglichkeit her” (Vong speak for “I’m an old man in terms of transience”) – punctuated, needless to say, with a self-deprecating wink. Then again, got to be careful: Vice magazine has just proclaimed 2023 the “year of the meta-cringe” and we don’t want to trigger one ourselves. The “Meta-cringe” is a neologism describing the next purportedly big trend in online culture, which involves taking irony to the next level. But there’s no need to jump on that bandwagon – we get the point: Language usage, both online and off, is bound up with a specific context in space and time.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.