Gen Z: generating change

millennialCan you name which generation you belong to? One of the things that even I, as a native speaker, have to look up in the dictionary is the difference between Generation X, Generation Y, baby boomers, millennials, etc., and in our most recent update we’ve added another label to the list: Generation Z – those born between the late 1990s and the early 2010s, who are typically assumed to be completely au fait with the internet and everything that comes with it.

Gen Zers are the most connected generation – they are digital natives with a wealth of information at their fingertips, giving them a unique perspective on society and culture – not only their own but that of their peers across the globe. They have never known a world without social media. Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube are among their most popular platforms, and we have seen plenty of new words and usages flood into the language as a result. Filter (sense 5), inspo and YouTuber have all been added in this update, for instance. While millennials – Gen Z’s predecessors – tend to see social media primarily as a tool for communication, which gave rise in the past to words and meanings such as selfie, blog, share, and vlog, Gen Z have shown that it can be so much more: a news source, a medium for entertainment, and interestingly, a platform for social activism.

In 2017 youthquake was named as Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year after British Gen Z voters created an upsurge in Labour votes. A mere two years later, we saw the linguistic results of a different type of youthquake, due in no small part to the actions Gen Zer Greta Thunberg and her young fellow activists, when climate emergency was named 2019 Word of the Year and all ten words on the shortlist were also environment-themed.

Another recent focus of social activism has been gender and sexuality, particularly in regard to ‘labels’. I put labels in inverted commas there because the trend seems to be strongly against allowing yourself to be defined by existing labels, leading to a proliferation of new terms. Among the most recent new additions to OALD online are Mx – a gender-neutral title – and Latinx – a way of referring to someone with a Latin American background without assuming or identifying their gender. Gender-fluid, genderless and third gender also appear. Our gender language has moved away from the strict binary division of male and female to become more flexible or ‘fluid’.

Inclusive language is particularly well exemplified through the development of the abbreviation LGBT (= lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender). The term first came into use in the 1990s and has since generated many different variants. Looking at corpora made up of texts from the internet enables us to track how the core term LGBT has become more inclusive in recent years. In our most recent corpus data, from 2017-2020, LGBTQ has become the most frequent term – the Q standing for ‘queer’ or ‘questioning’, thus including a whole range of people who don’t wish to be defined by a more specific term. LGBTQI and LGBTQIA – though much less frequent overall – extend the range even further to include people who are, or identify as, ‘intersex’, ‘asexual’ or ‘allies’.

Inclusivity is also shown in the new additions pansexual and pansexuality. The prefix pan– means ‘including all of something; connected with the whole of something’. Another word that uses the prefix pan– is one that has, of course, been on everybody’s lips this year: pandemic (pan=all + demos = people + ic).

Looking at the changes that can be attributed at least partly to Generation Z, it seems that this generation is certainly making its mark, socially, politically and, of course, linguistically.

Stacey Bateman is a Senior Editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. Born in the late 1980s, she is a millennial/Gen Yer.


Author: Oxford University Press ELT

Every year we help millions of people around the world to learn English. As a department of the University of Oxford, we further the University’s objective of excellence in education by publishing proven and tested language learning books, eBooks, learning materials, and educational technologies.

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