Dating has never been easy. But dissecting bad dates has never been easier, thanks to an ever more precise vocabulary about dating misbehaviors. As Tinder, OKCupid, Bumble, and other dating apps have become omnipresent, users have made household words of “ghosting,” “breadcrumbing,” and “cushioning.” These aren’t just clever descriptions for 21st-century relationship-avoidance techniques. They’re also a reminder of how emerging terms build on old ones. The most successful new words are often not very new at all.
The term “ghosting” — disappearing from a special someone’s life mysteriously and without explanation — has become one of the most popular bits of slang in recent years, and it’s inspired a few related terms. “Breadcrumbing” doesn’t include much more communication than ghosting, as the breadcrumber doles out tiny bits of communication, as if trying to maintain interest via the most minimal effort possible. As Samantha Swantek put it in Cosmopolitan, “Breadcrumbers will send you sporadic messages, slide into your DMs here and there, or throw you a like on Instagram just frequently enough so you don’t lose interest, but not too much so the relationship actually moves forward.” Hello, dating limbo.
“Cushioning” occurs when you have a main squeeze, but just in case that doesn’t work out, you keep one or more other people in the picture, either by texting or through the occasional rendezvous. Cushioning pairs well with breadcrumbing: By breadcrumbing several people, you cushion yourself from your main relationship failing.
A few terms are direct plays on “ghosting.” If a ghoster suddenly reappears in your life, as if they’d never vanished in the first place, that’s “zombie-ing.” Elle Wiseman, in Grazia Daily, laments another post-ghost behavior: “ ‘Haunting’ is something that makes our eyes roll — when the person who once ‘ghosted’ you returns to your cyber sphere in a lurking sort of way.” With terms like ghosting, zombie-ing, and haunting, no wonder dating can feel like starring in a horror movie.
Dating is a natural magnet for new slang terms. As Anne Curzan, professor of English at the University of Michigan and regular contributor to the Lingua Franca blog, said via e-mail: “We see in these terms the playfulness, irreverence, and poetry of slang. The words ‘breadcrumbing’ and ‘cushioning’ allow us to call out some bad dating behavior in a joking, lighthearted way.” Michael Adams, author of “Slang: The People’s Poetry” and “In Praise of Profanity,” pointed out how words help as navigate uncertain waters: “We’re social animals, which means we’re always judging — who’s in, who’s out, how the players play — and slang is our most social, most judgy language, the language of our intimacies, but also the language of shaming in tweets and captions.”
Will these terms stick around? You never know, but it helps that they’re built on established meanings. The trail of breadcrumbs goes back to Hansel and Gretel; extending this meaning to dating is easy. We’ve been using “cushion” as a figurative verb since at least the 1800s. Other new terms such as “benching” (sidelining romantic interests in a “cushioning”-like manner) and “window shopping” (interacting online without trying to actually meet) also have familiar meanings. While some brand-new terms do catch on — for instance, “swipe left” and “swipe right,” Tinder-ese for “reject” and “approve” — a longer history is always helpful.
The terms most likely to survive give succinct names to behaviors that are old as cave paintings. Ghosting is probably as old as exorcists. People have jerkishly kept their options open as long as options have existed, and well before daters discussed “benching” and “cushioning.” At some point in any potential relationship, you either swipe left or swipe right — figuratively or otherwise.
Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.