The first decade of the 21st century ended not that long ago, and it’s really only now that we as a society can begin to make sense of it. Yet the 2000s seem particularly difficult to talk about. People can’t even agree on what to call them. The two-thousands? The noughties? The aughts? As we […]
The first decade of the 21st century ended not that long ago, and it’s really only now that we as a society can begin to make sense of it. Yet the 2000s seem particularly difficult to talk about. People can’t even agree on what to call them. The two-thousands? The noughties? The aughts? As we sort that word debate, there’s one linguistic way we can look back on the era: 2000s slang.
A decade’s slang represents the largest cultural forces at play, particularly among teenagers (young people are the most likely to invent new words and phrases). In the 2000s, then, it was the millennials who were coming of age amidst wars in the Middle East, a major recession, the first Black president of the United States and the dawn of social media.
Meaning: generally, the jewelry or expensive accessories someone is wearing
Having “bling” or “bling bling” is a concept that originated in rap music, with various artists competing to show off their wealth with expensive jewelry, cars and whatever else (stacks of money were a popular option). The word is kind of onomatopoeia. While shiny objects don’t make a sound, people have represented the idea of “sparkling” with a sound that is somewhat similar to “bling” (think of those teeth-whitening commercials). The first time the word appeared in a rap song was in Dana Dane’s 1987 song “Nightmares,” though it was referring to the sound of a bell.
The phrase “bling bling” was introduced in the 1999 song “Bling Bling,” which featured artists from the New Orleans rap label Cash Money Records. In The Fader’s oral history of “bling bling,” many of the artists credit B.G. — the main rapper on the song — for the phrase. In the years since, Lil Wayne, who also appears on the single, has taken credit for coining it. Claiming to invent the phrase “bling bling” is possibly just another way of showing off a rapper’s bling, though. No matter who invented it, it blew up in the 2000s and helped define early 2000s rap. Yet like a lot of slang invented by Black Americans, it was co-opted by the mainstream culture and, after peaking in 2007, has fallen mostly out of use.
Meaning: to chill and relax at the same time
Chillax is a portmanteau of “chill” and “relax.” Considering those two words mean pretty much the same thing, it’s kind of a strange linguistic mashup. The doubling up of the words probably just intensified just how chilled and relaxed a person is. In the early 2000s, the phrase was associated with people who smoked pot and didn’t work hard.
The first time this phrase appeared in film (allegedly) is the 2003 horror film Final Destination 2. While that is likely what helped push the word into the general public, the earliest appearances of “chillax” were in the mid-1990s. In 1996, for example, “chillax” shows up in the lyrics of “Vital Nerve,” a song by hip hop trio Company Flow. It’s hard to know exactly where it originated, but despite being associated with 2000s slang, its use has only grown since then.
Meaning: “I get the joke you just made”
Slang, if you think about it, is a meme. It’s a word or phrase that starts in one place and then, depending on its success, spreads from person to person. It’s no surprise, then, that as meme culture was born in the 2000s, it started to spawn words and phrases that people would use both online and off. And it’s largely through memes that the phrase “I see what you did there” became a comedic way to let someone know, “I understand what you just did.” People used it on message boards, forums and chat rooms throughout the 2000s.
Despite its association with the internet, credit for the phrase’s original popularity is often given to the hit sitcom Friends. In a 1996 episode, the character Joey — who is the “dumb” character — is explaining that he rephrased one of his lines on the soap opera he appears on from “If we don’t get this woman to a hospital, she’s going to die” to “If this woman doesn’t get to a hospital, she’s not gonna live.” Phoebe sarcastically replies “Oh, ok, I see what you did there.” And while this is a small, one-off joke, it made the leap to the internet and has lived happily there ever since. It was so commonly used at one point that people could use the acronym ISWYDT without others even batting an eye.
Meaning: someone who is new at something
There are a huge number of internet-related instances of 2000s slang we could have chosen, but noob (or “n00b”) is one of the most iconic. From the birth of the internet in the 1980s to the end of the 1990s, it was a niche phenomenon. Only people willing to invest the time to learn how to work computers were on the web, so subcultures rose and fell. In the 2000s, though, all that changed, and by the end of the decade, almost everyone had at least some internet experience. The word “n00b,” at least during the start of the 2000s, was a way to weed out the internet old-timers from the new, inexperienced users.
Trying to place the exact origins of noob is a bit difficult, though. It’s a shortened version of “newbie,” which itself might be from U.S. military slang, or it could derive from the Australian slang term “newie.” It might also be a shortening for “new blood” or “new boy.” No matter where the phrase came from, “noob” was coined by a hacker collective called the Cult of the Dead Cow, which invented a lot of the early internet language you might know as leet speak (or 1337 speak). Leet speak eventually became a major characteristic of gamer culture, though whether people were using it seriously or ironically by the mid 2000s is hard to tell.
Meaning: not trustworthy, unpleasant
The adjective “sketchy” was derived from the noun “sketch,” or a quick, simple drawing. Originally, “sketchy” meant that something was incomplete. A plan that was “sketchy” was one that didn’t have a lot of details. At some point in the late 1990s, though, it started to mean something else: that something was strange or untrustworthy. And in the 2000s, this word firmly lodged itself into the youth lexicon, describing all kinds of people, places and things.
Why did this word suddenly transform its meaning? Nobody knows for sure. Lexicographer Mark Liberman guesses that it might be because of its resemblance to words like “skeevy” and “scuzzy,” which both mean things similar to the newer form of “sketchy.” How so many people started to shift toward this new meaning is just another linguistic mystery we may never solve. And that’s what makes slang so fascinating, really.
Meaning: that’s good/cool/sexy
Every generation has to invent a new way to say something is cool. If not, we’d still be calling stuff “the bee’s knees” or “groovy.” And while “that’s hot” falls in the same category of slang, it stands out because it was popularized by a single person: Paris Hilton. Heir to the Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Paris Hilton is one of the first people to become “famous for being famous.” She started a TV show in 2003 with her friend Nicole Richie called The Simple Life, where the two women moved in with a family on a farm to explore how the other half live. The show became a cultural phenomenon and launched Hilton’s catchphrase “That’s hot” into the world.
Since the show went off the air in 2007, Hilton has opened up about how the “dumb blonde” she played on The Simple Life is not a reflection of her real self. She used people’s expectations to craft a rich-person persona that allowed her to make lots of money. For extra proof Hilton literally owns the phrase “That’s hot,” having successfully sued companies that have used it on various products. Perhaps the greatest irony, however, is that she stole the phrase from her sister, Nicky Hilton Rothschild. In a lot of ways, “That’s hot” is one of the most quintessential 2000s slang phrases there is.
Meaning: “How are you doing?”
The phrase “What’s up?” has been used to ask people how they’re doing since at least the beginning of the 19th century. Listing it with 2000s slang might seem a bit odd, but there’s a reason this word became a symbol of the 2000s: a Budweiser commercial.
It started with a 1998 short film called True by director Charles Stone III. The two-minute film featured men calling each other on the phone and greeting them with a drawn-out “Wassuuuuuuuuuup?” The following year, Budweiser started airing commercials with the exact same concept, except with Budweiser bottles prominently displayed. The ad campaign, which largely aired the commercials during American football games, became extremely popular, and the ads stayed on the air until 2002. Even after that, however, it was parodied to death in movies and sitcoms, from Friends to the 2018 Ant-Man and the Wasp. Budweiser resurrected it once again in 2020 with a commercial referencing COVID-19 lockdown, and it’s unlikely “Wassup?” is going away anytime soon.