Ideas

The Word

Watch the birth of ‘on fleek,’ live!

The Web lets us track how a teenager’s slang coinage caught fire

Last June, a Chicago high school girl who goes by the nickname Peaches Monroee got her eyebrows done for the first time. Then she posted a short video on the video-sharing site Vine boasting that her brows were “on flick,” meaning “on point,” and pronounced “on fleek.” A star—and a phrase—were born. The video spread through Vine, YouTube, and other social media sites; people began posting remakes; and then, in the mysterious way of viral memes, it exploded. Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, and Chris Brown all recorded tributes or incorporated “on fleek” into their lyrics. Corporations like IHOP and JetBlue used the term in their marketing. Finally, “on fleek” hit mainstream saturation point at the end of February, when “The Today Show” covered the term. “It’s good, it’s a good thing?” said cohost Natalie Morales, searching for a definition.

The show’s awkward exploration of “on fleek” was, wrote news site Fusion.net, a pretty safe sign that “the term is on its way out.” But what remains thrilling about “on fleek” is that, unlike with many new words, you can witness—in a six-second video—the very moment when it was coined. This ability to track words from their first originators and watch in real time as they spread is something very new in the Internet age—and “on fleek” offers one particularly vivid example.

For many decades or even centuries, slang has been born in obscurity, often coming from a marginalized group, like African-Americans in the United States, before entering the mainstream via speakers with feet in both camps. This is how, for instance, slang originating among black jazz musicians found its way, via the Beat writers, into the mouths of white suburban teens in the 1950s. The general pathway is much the same today, said Taylor Jones, a doctoral candidate in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania who studies language change online: “The media are changing, but I don’t know that the underlying process is changing.”

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What has changed today is that a term like “on fleek”—also traveling from African-American slang into a broader lexicon—now leaves archived and searchable footprints of its journey, on social media sites like Vine, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. And with “on fleek,” there’s the additional and extremely rare delight of actually being able to watch on video the very first time that a phrase is ever spoken. “Fleek” had existed before Monroee, going back to an Urban Dictionary entry from 2003: “fleek” meaning “smooth, nice, sweet.” But in Monroee’s Vine, she is riffing, inventing on the spot a new way to talk about great eyebrows. “I never used ‘on fleek’ before,” she told me when we spoke by e-mail last week. “I decided to make the video and I just said it.”

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Jacob Eisenstein, a computational linguist at the Georgia Institute of Technology who studies the spread of new language on social media, said that this sort of recorded genesis moment is very unusual. “I think most of the changes that you see in language in social media are probably from nonfamous people, but it’s usually pretty hard to find the patient zero,” he said. Studying language change on Twitter, he was able to track the very earliest uses of the now widespread abbreviation “ctfu”—“cracking the [expletive] up”—in 2009, in Cleveland. But he never found the first person to invent the term.

The changing calculus of online fame also played a major role in “on fleek”’s explosion. Vine is notorious for its creation of overnight celebrities like Jerome Jarre, a French college dropout in New York whose whimsical videos now have 8 million followers. It seems ideal soil for a word like “on fleek”—invented by an ordinary but extraordinarily charming person like Monroee—to germinate and take root. “On fleek”’s initial spread, even before Ariana Grande performed a version of the monologue on MTV in August, took place mostly on Vine, where Monroee’s video has now been played over 28 million times.

“Bae” and “YOLO,” by contrast, depended on Pharrell and Drake songs to make it big, as Emily Brewster, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster who has covered “on fleek,” pointed out: “The fascinating thing about ‘fleek’ is how it seems to have spread very quickly without appearing in a song, movie, or other mainstream cultural vehicle.” Jeetendr Sehdev, a branding expert at USC, told me he thought that the short length of Vine videos, which forces would-be Vine stars to be exceedingly creative and strategic, as well as the video looping (in which six-second videos are played over and over again), gives Vine a “hypnotic” effect that was “especially powerful at propelling language into the culture.”

Today, “fleek” is acting much like any other word: adapting to its circumstances, evolving into some new forms. Monroee herself said that now she often uses different versions of the phrase, like “fleek it up” or “you’re on fleek.” Jones recently mapped some constructions related to “on fleek” against the Twitter geocodes (a location tag) of the people posting them. He noticed that one term, “fleeked out,” was showing up disproportionately in tweets from Southern California. “It’s more than likely that some people in LA, in actual spoken language, innovated,” he said. Watching a word spread like this, Jones said, is something “we haven’t been able to do up until, possibly, now.” Whatever happens with “on fleek” and its derivatives, it’s likely that in coming months, we’ll have the pleasure of watching many other words be born and die before our very eyes.

Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.

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