How Citizen Sociolinguists Work: Pow!

Today I spent the morning at a local high school in conversations with teens—participants in a collaborative research project I am working on with Mr. Z, a uniquely mellow and gifted High School English Teacher. For now, Mr. Z and I are tapping into the linguistic and Internet knowhow of his 11th grade students, our crack team of Citizen Sociolinguists. As is typical, after only 10 minutes of talking they had taught me—and each other—a few new words and a few new ways of exploring language.

Let me give you a taste of our method–and share with you our discovery of the word weg. We were all just back from Winter break, having made many new language discoveries during our travels or while hosting holiday visitors. Most of us hadn’t traveled much farther than various remote corners of Philadelphia. Jack, however, had ventured south to visit family in Virginia Beach, where he noticed another 16-year-old using a word, which for now we will call “pow.” Jack couldn’t remember the actual word, but he was using “pow” as a placeholder.

What? How could he remember the word, but not what the actual word was? He remembered what it did—which was just about everything. As Jack explained, someone who is really amazing can be “pow” or something really bad can be “pow.” You can say things like, “Those shoes, man. Pow.” This could mean that your shoes are very cool. Or horrible.

By now, the other boys listening were getting really distracted by the word “pow.” One of them kept making a slow motion punching gesture. Another kept saying “pow?” quizzically.

Jack insisted the word was not “pow.” He was just using “pow” until he could remember the actual word.

Jack promised he would find it, and began searching through his phone. After a minute or less, he came up with the word: “weg”!

How did he do that? The others were quick to point out that “weg” sounds nothing like “pow.” How do you find a word you do not remember and that means both “awesome” and “lame”? How do you look that up?

You can’t look in a dictionary: What would you look up? “Pow”?

You can’t do a Google search, though I suppose you could try asking a question like:  “What word would a teenager in Virginia Beach use to say something is either great or awful?”

You can’t ask the Professor sitting there. She has no idea—and the above Google search did not work.

So, how did Jack find the word “weg”?

He used one of the crucial tools of the Citizen Sociolinguist: Social media! He looked up his Virginia Beach friend’s Instagram and scanned the comments. Weg!

Do you have other ideas about what “weg” means? What methods do you use to look up words you don’t know the spelling of, or even what they sound like, and only (sort of) how they function? Post your comments here!