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Why do British people love to abbreviate things? An investy g

Brb, having a menty b about the cozzie livs x

It is on record that there is not much I enjoy about Britain (well, England). Generally speaking, I agree with George Orwell’s summary of this sad little country: “a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly”, permeated with a “stern and rugged fear of the police to a point where any public protest seems an indecency”. This, I think, often precludes any chance of things (housing, public transport, quality of life in general) getting better here. That said, there are a few things we do well: drinking, music and Greggs spring to mind. And of course, wordplay.

It never takes long for someone to come up with a catchy, silly abbreviation for any given phrase. The term ‘panny d’ is used in this GQ article from April 2020, less than a month after the UK entered its first lockdown – sorry, I mean ‘locky d’. Last summer we celebrated the ‘platty joobs’ (coined by Stath Lets Flats actor Kiell Smith-Bynoe), followed by the ‘statey funes’ in September. Most recently, a Depop Drama post went viral after a buyer submitted a screenshot of a seller referring to the cost of living crisis as the ‘cozzie livs’.

Menty b for mental breakdown; San Miggy for a San Miguel; latty flow for lateral flow test; genny lex for general election. The list goes on. You can basically guarantee that as soon as anything unusual or noteworthy happens in British culture, there will be a weird little phrase for it. What will the term for the coronation be? Because there will be one. ‘Corry nash’?

Tony Thorne is a linguist and lexicographer, and a leading authority on language change and language usage in the UK (he has heard that, unfortunately, “corriebobs” is the frontrunner for the term for Charles’ coronation). This kind of language, he explains, “reflects a general memeification of language and destabilisation of meaning that is popular with the young.”

According to Thorne, in the past slang typically spread by word of mouth, but since the advent of the internet, buzzy new words have been able to travel at lightning pace – which is why it might seem as though we use ‘slangier’ language now than we did 20 years ago. “This sort of language [...] used to be communicated just by word of mouth – in pubs, school playgrounds, across the neighbour’s fence,” Thorne explains. “It was too informal to use in most forms of writing. But now messaging and the internet means it can spread very, very widely and instantaneously.”

While the internet has changed the way slang catches on and spreads, evidently, this urge to come up with snappy words and phrases isn’t a phenomenon unique to Gen Z. Thorne mentions that ‘Maccy Ds’, the slang term for McDonald’s, was first widely popularised by young people in late 90s and early 2000s. “One contact tells me they’ve heard of holy communion being referred to as ‘haggers commaggers’ by outre priests in the 1930s,” he adds. “Playing with the sounds of words has been recorded since the first evidence of language itself.”

“It seems that speakers of English esteem wordplay and witticisms more highly than speakers of some other languages. The British in particular are addicted to punning, irony and  – a key word I think – irreverence” – Tony Thorne

“People elaborate, alter or abbreviate words in order to make them less cumbersome, alien or threatening, to make them more familiar and to add a reassuring element of humour,” he explains. “All of this enables people to take ‘ownership’ of words – for fun, to express their identity (knowing the latest slang formulations makes you an insider rather than being left behind) or to try to exert some control over otherwise overwhelming influences.” This certainly makes sense in light of the number of successive crises we’ve witnessed in recent years – calling a global health emergency a “panny d” or long-term economic turmoil a “cozzie livs” makes our current, troubling circumstances seem a little more bearable.

It’s worth noting that this is a phenomenon unique to the English language, too. Of course, every language has its quirks and its own slang, but English speakers appear especially keen to play around with words whenever the opportunity arises. “It seems that speakers of English esteem wordplay and witticisms more highly than speakers of some other languages,” Thorne says. “The British are addicted to punning, irony and – a key word I think – irreverence.” It’s a trait evident throughout history: Cockney rhyming slang was created because 19th-century Londoners thought it would be funny to say “dog and bone” instead of “telephone”.

This penchant for the absurd and silly runs through the works of some of England’s most significant literary figures too, such as Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, who pioneered the ‘nonsense literature’ genre. “Whimsy and nonsense is an enduring feature of British literary and popular culture,” Thorne continues. He adds that there’s also something quite camp about British humour, and credits queer culture and drag queens in particular with bringing slang to the mainstream.

Many people are critical of slang like this – one Twitter user even suggested that the coiner of the term “cozzie livs” should be executed (bit harsh imo). And, admittedly, there are a significant number of people whose use of these terms is uncomfortably earnest. It’s not been lost on people that it’s likely the “cozzie livs” Depop girlie was probably 1) a private school alum who will never worry about money in their life, and 2) trying to fleece someone out of £50 for a £3 charity shop dress. Similarly, a lot of the “platty joobs” brigade were painfully twee and middle-class – the kind whose kitchens are exclusively stocked with Emma Bridgewater crockery and genuinely think bunting looks nice.

But to me, this sincere and ardent use of these silly phrases misses a crucial element – the cringiness, the tackiness, the ridiculousness is part of the fun. It’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. In no world is “platty joobs” an eloquent turn of phrase – it just sounds funny and joobs rhymes with ‘boobs’, lol. People often joke that Shakespeare would probably be sent straight into a coma if he could see what the English language has turned into, but honestly? I think he would have loved “platty joobs”.