Let's travel back about three decades to a time of leg warmers, crazy hairstyles, and a whole other language. Learning about slang from the 1980s might set you on a path of memories or it might introduce you to an entirely new language. Chances are you've heard some of these phrases before; slang tends to permeate the generations. With "barf" and "bitchin,'" we even found some holdovers from the 1950s! Here are some of the most popular phrases from the '80s.
One of the signature qualities of slang is that it presents stylish ways to say simple things. Here follow words that simply mean "yes," "no," "good," and "more of." We've also included a few simple exclamations and the defining verb/adverb/conjunction/quotative, not just of the 1980s, but of the entire post-1980 American vernacular: "like."
You might think that one word meaning "yes" -- with maybe the occasional "yeah" or "sure" -- would be sufficient for English. The 1980s thought otherwise. These are the classic 80s affirmatives.
- Big time
- For sure
- I kid you not
- Most definitely
- No doy
- Yes way
Once again, you might imagine the single monosyllable "no" could cover the full range of negatives, '80s or otherwise. Not so much. Context matters!
- No can do: To say that something is not possible or you refuse to do something
- Psych: Used in the context of stating an untruth and then saying, "Psych!" to take it back
- Tough: Used in a similar context as "too bad for you"
Indicating approval of something is more complex than it might first appear. Calling a dog "a good boy," a snowfall "a good amount" or a football tackle "a good hit" call for different usage of the word "good." Slang often makes those differences explicit with more nuanced word choices.
- Most triumphant
When you're looking for an intensifier to indicate "more of" something, or you want a more interesting word than "very," you may choose one of these "mad awesome" variants of the '80s.
Round out the basics with these slang terms from the 1980s.
- Like: "Like" has so many meanings that we've linked a whole page, but in the '80s (and indeed today), "like" is most often used as a broad quotative, indicating that the following phrase (or image) reflects something significant about the speaker's subject.
- Whoa: A surprised exclamation
- Yo: A casual greeting
Even as mainstream culture spoke of "morning in America" and "new optimism," actual people in the 1980s outdid themselves in ways to call things bad. Here follow just a few of the ingenious insults of the 1980s.
- Airhead: Insulting name for a person, implying that they're stupid or empty-headed
- Bag your face: An insult calling a person ugly
- Barf bag: Ugly
- Barf me out: Exclamation stating that something or someone disgusts you
- Bite me: An aggressive rejection
- Blar: Disgust
- Bogus: Bad, undesirable
- Chicken: Cowardly
- Clydesdale: Someone large and unattractive
- Dip: A foolish person
- Ditz: An unintelligent person
- Harsh: Unpleasant
- Heinous: Severely unpleasant
- Lame: Uncool, boring
- Mall-maggot: Young, unpleasant person who hangs out in a mall
- Mental: Crazy
- Mung: Disgusting thing
- Narbo: Idiot
- Ooglay: Extremely ugly
- So '87: Out of date
- Space cadet: Clueless, ditzy person
- Spaz: Lame, unattractive
- Wannabe: Someone who wants to achieve or be of a certain class but can't
- Warped: Twisted, messed up
The '80s were rich with ways to show approval, too. Multiple subcultures contributed, as well as a cross-cultural trend toward hyperbolic, multisyllabic, deliberately old-fashioned slang - like "bodacious" and "most triumphant" - to describe minor successes.
- Bad to the bone: Cool, stylish
- Betty: An attractive woman
- BFF: Acronym for Best Friend Forever
- Brill: Positive, short for "brilliant"
- Choice: High-quality, attractive
- Clutch: Successful, especially at an important moment
- Deadly: Stylish, cool
- Fave: Shortened form of "favorite"
- Fine: Attractive
- Fly: Looking good
- Fresh: Stylish, exciting and new
- Funky fresh: Stylish, exciting, especially in reference to music
- Glam: Well-dressed, beautiful, short for "glamorous"
- Gnarly: Cool, badass
- Homeboy: Male friend
- Homegirl: Female friend
- Legit: Cool, real
Slang exists in large part to comment on the dominant culture of its day. It provides a unique, up-to-date vocabulary that people can use to talk about phenomena in their daily lives in ways dictionary English doesn't allow.
The 1980s were rich in terminology that identified and often satirized perceived class and cultural signifiers.
- Adult child: Someone's child grown to adulthood
- Bimbette: A spoiled, unintelligent woman; a disparaging and misogynist term
- Boho: Short for "bohemian," living an unsettled, artistic, countercultural lifestyle
- Boy toy: A casual boyfriend
- Chocoholic: Someone very fond of chocolate
- Cocooning: Staying at home, away from perceived threats
- Couch potato: Someone sedentary, inclined to sit around watching TV rather than be active
- DINK: Short for "double income, no kids," a mildly pejorative term for usually upper middle class childless couples
- Hacker: Computer expert, especially someone adept at breaking computer security
- Jock: Athletic person, sometimes used pejoratively to imply lack of intelligence
- Nerd: Studious, intelligent person, often used pejoratively to imply lack of social life and physical strength
- Valley girl: Originally a reference to teenage girls from California's San Fernando Valley, extended to mean young women who adopted California slang and fashion
While the roots of hip hop extend earlier in the century, the 1980s represents the beginning of hip hop's massive influence on mainstream culture and language. Easily the most linguistically important musical genre of the last 40 years, hip hop necessitates its own section, separate from other musical genres and subcultures.
- B-boy: Dancer, originally "break boy," referring to breakdancing
- Beatbox: A person who can imitate the sounds of a synthesizer, sampler and/or turntable deck with their voice
- Bomb: Good
- Bombdiggity: Very good
- Cold lampin': Relaxing at home, not doing much
- Def: Good, originally short for "definitely"
- Dope: Good
- Down: Aware of or willing to, often in the phrase "down with"
- Drop science: Share knowledge
- Herb: A man without social skills or style
- Hood: One's hometown or area, short for "neighborhood"
- Hype: Energy, excitement; can be used pejoratively to indicate someone capable of generating energy but with nothing substantial to back it up
- Ill: Very good
- Jams: Music
- Posse: Group of friends
- Scratch: To manipulate a record to musical effect
- Step off: Depending on context, can mean either "to depart" or "to engage in an activity with my group of friends"
- Stupid: Very much, extremely
- Sucka MCs: Originally describing bad rappers, extended to mean anyone uncool
- Yo mama: A mild standardized insult, originally stylized version of "your mother"
Hip hop's outsized influence shouldn't obscure the fact that the 1980s produced many other influential genres of music. Both electronic music and heavy metal entered the mainstream in this era.
Nostalgia brought back old subcultures like mods, rockers and their inheritors, the punks. In many cases, 1960s and '70s slang came with them, with "acid house" following the naming convention of '60s vintage "acid rock." Fast, raw music and fashion had been associated with "punks" well before the Sex Pistols took the word mainstream in the late 1970s too.
- Acid house: A genre of electronic music associated with slow rhythms, psychedelic samples and other musical techniques intended to induce a contemplative, even hallucinatory state
- Bootleg: An illegal recording of music or video
- Deep house: A genre of electronic music associated with comparatively slow rhythms, melodic sampled vocals and an overall soothing, mind-expanding tone
- Gothic/Goth: Culture associated with Gothic music, characterized by slow rhythms, melodic vocals and dark, sad lyrics; also the heavily made up, dark-toned, tattooed look and culture popular with the genre's fans
- Headbanger: Fan of heavy metal, a genre based on distorted guitar, fast rhythms and dark, often political or mystical lyrics
- Mod: Musical and cultural throwbacks to the 1960s Mod movement, favoring rockabilly, reggae, R&B and ska, or the skinny suit and tie, flashback fashion and culture of the genre's fans
- New jack swing: R&B incorporating aspects of hip hop and electronic music
- New wave: Electronic pop that reached its peak in the 1980s, or the heavily made up, futuristic fashion of the genre's fans
- Poppin' and lockin': Dance style based on moving between specific set poses
- Punk: Music based on simple chords, high volume and relatable, often aggressive lyrics; also, the tough, ragged, pierced and deliberately shocking look and culture of the genre's fans
- Waver: Someone who enjoys new wave music and culture
Surf culture and surf slang have an ongoing relationship with American English. The significance of surf slang waxes and wanes with the influence of Hawaii and California on colloquial English, but it's always present.
Thanks to defining '80s pop culture moments like Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, both of which featured extensive use of surf slang, surf culture loomed large in the 1980s.
- Big kahuna: Big man, powerful person, person in charge
- Cowabunga: A statement of praise and excitement
- Hang ten: Expression meaning to chill or relax; originally from the act in surfing of hanging all 10 toes off the edge of the board without losing balance
- Hotdogger: Showoff, from showing off in surf culture
- Tubular: Good, originally from the shape of a curled-over wave ideal for surfing
Sometimes slang is simple. The following words are simply convenient ways of describing common actions.
- Blitz: To run quickly
- Bogart: To keep to yourself
- Book: To depart quickly
- Burn out: To wear yourself out, to overwork
- Chill: To relax
- Freak out: To lose control
- Go together: To date someone, to be in a relationship
- Gotta motor: I need to leave
- Peg: Accurately define
- Ralph: Vomit
- Scarf: Eat quickly
- Veg: Relax, originally an abbreviation of "vegetate"
- Wig out: To lose control
Here are a few example sentences to put these '80s words in their proper context.
- Quit scarfing down those burgers! You're gonna ralph all over the seat of my car!
- Yo! If we don't get tickets to the New Order concert, I'm totally gonna freak out.
- You got tickets? Most triumphant! Any other wavers coming?
- Awesome night, but I'm gonna head home and veg out. I got an early night at work.
- Bogus! Your boss is such a spaz about opening on time.
Look at the list of 1980s slang words and phrases again. Do you notice that you might use them in everyday speech today? Chances are that you do, since these words were not reserved explicitly for conversations in the 1980s. Some of them came into existence before the decade began, and some of them, such as "so '87," did not appear until later on in the decade.
In any case, looking through old slang is a worthwhile lesson about language. You might think that you invented "wicked" or "yo mama," but they have actually been around for awhile. If you think we missed your favorite, be sure to read our list of '80s catchphrases.