“OK boomer” Phrase Hints at Generational Tension, Gap in Slang Terms

Slang can often be divisive.

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Pejorative use of the term “boomer” to describe baby boomers is causing tension, NBC News reported. Although baby boomers have described themselves with the term for half a century, younger generations’ use of the term has struck a nerve. Slang can often be divisive.

Older man and young man reading
Some millennials are saying “OK boomer” as a verbal eye roll in response to opinions of baby boomers. Photo by Roman Samborskyi / Shutterstock

While still relatively new to public use, the phrase “OK boomer” is quickly taking on a life of its own akin to a verbal eye roll by younger generations to dismiss the opinions of those born during the post-World War II “baby boom” of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Raised in vastly different economic and social backgrounds, millennials and boomers often find themselves at odds with each other in terms of personal beliefs and values. Despite the obvious disparity between the two, radio host Bob Lonsberry even went so far as equating “boomer” with a well-known and centuries-old racial slur against African Americans in its level of offense. While certainly questionable in its intent, “OK boomer” is just the latest example of many in which a slang term ruffles some feathers.

What Counts as Slang?

“Slang is informal; but it’s not just informal, it’s impertinent or irreverent,” said Dr. Anne Curzan, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. “We could think here about the difference between, for example, a phrase like ‘to have a senior moment’—which is informal for when we forget something—versus the moment when we have a ‘brain fart’—which is also when we forget something, but that one feels irreverent. Slang is also not just nonstandard; it actively challenges the standard, and we saw it with ‘brain fart’ in the way that that’s working with a taboo term.”

“Challenging the standard,” as Dr. Curzan puts it, or questioning the norm, is something often associated with our teenage years and even our early 20s. It’s little wonder, then, that phrases like “OK boomer” arise from a younger generation at odds with the ideals of people their parents’ age.

Slang of Yesteryear

You’d be hard pressed to find someone these days who calls something “groovy” without being at least somewhat ironic, but outdated slang terms come from a much more distant past than merely the disco days of the 1970s.

According to Dr. Curzan, the year 1895 gave us the terms “ice wagon”—meaning a person who is unintelligent—and a “grind”—meaning someone who studies too much.

“In 1895, ‘chiselly’ meant unpleasant and to ‘flim’ meant to cheat,” Dr. Curzan said. “A ‘fruit’ was a lenient teacher and to ‘jump’ meant to absent oneself from class or to cut class.”

Slang is like any other trend in that it rises and falls with the fashion of the day. “Yolo,” an acronym for “you only live once,” had a very short-lived time in the limelight. The same went for “bae,” an acronym for “before anything else” that described someone’s sweetheart. Oddly enough, though, “cool” has remained in the popular zeitgeist for a full century.

“It’s first cited in 1918 meaning sophisticated, fashionable, or up-to-date,” Dr. Curzan said. “The origins of ‘cool’ meaning excellent lie in African American English. It’s first cited in the [Oxford English Dictionary] with this meaning of excellent back in 1933. The weakened meaning of okay—as in, ‘Don’t worry; everything’s cool’—shows up by 1951.”

Fortunately, these days we have online search engines to help us decipher the meaning of new slang, which seems to pop up overnight. As for “OK boomer,” one can only hope that everyone involved will chillax.

Dr. Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English

Dr. Anne Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She earned a B.A. in Linguistics from Yale University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan.