Cultivating culture: from ‘snowflake’ to ‘yeet’

Emily Morris, Managing Editor

Budding colloquial phrases “low key” sprout “out of thin air” in every generation. Potentially elusive and non literal phrases aren’t just a confusing communication gap between generations, colloquialisms and their roots also “spill the beans” about generational culture. 

Although your middle school English teacher may have avoided “ain’t, “fixin’ to” or “gonna,” those words aren’t wrong. In fact, Dr. Hunter Lockwood, linguistics lecturer, noted “informal and colloquial language is not ungrammatical or lazy.”

Language mirrors the culture around it, and that connection is where new words and phrases can develop.

“Snowflake” 

For example, the current political climate gave the word “snowflake” some additional popularity. “Snowflake” — aside from being a granule of snow — is also a term for someone who is overly sensitive, generally used by those on the political right side toward the left, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary

This word actually “snowballed” — “snowflake” isn’t only a modern political creation. Using “snowflake” as a colloquium dates back to the 1860s in Missouri, where it was originally used to describe someone who disagreed with the abolition of slavery and favored white people. 

Between its political origin and resurgence, “snowflake” has also been used to describe a negative term for a man acting white, or synonym for cocaine in the 1970s and a synonym for unique and beautiful in “Fight Club,” a 1999 movie. Although none of these meanings stuck, “snowflake” has stuck around and evolved to fit the current culture and conversations in its varied uses. 

“Rather than saying that personalizing language adds to culture, I like to think of culture as performed through people’s use of language,” Lockwood said. “This happens at every level of language, from the sounds of your vowels to the patterns of your stories.” 

“Bury the hatchet” 

Dating even farther back, “bury the hatchet” became a non literal English phrase in the 1600s and unlike “snowflake,” has maintained roughly the same definition for 400 years. “Bury the hatchet” means that people or groups are making peace about a disagreement.

Before its commonality in English, “bury the hatchet” wasn’t a colloquialism at all — the phrase was actually meant more literally. 

“The American English expression “bury the hatchet” was actually borrowed from speakers of Native American languages,” Lockwood said. “ It was a metaphor used among many tribes in North America (including the Great Lakes regions).”

Although “burying the hatchet” can simply be a metaphor for reaching an agreement, some Native American cultures also literally buried a hatchet as a ceremonial practice, specifically as an act of diplomacy between European immigrants. These immigrants then began using “bury the hatchet” as an English phrase in the 1600s, even though it was originally part of Native American culture. 

“Yeet” 

Colloquialisms don’t always fit into historical boxes. “Yeet” emerged roughly in 2008 as a blip in Urban Dictionary’s mixed bag of generational, edgy and click-bate words. Usually dictated as an exclamation or while throwing something, “yeet” is defined as “discard[ing] an item at a high velocity.”

While colloquialisms evolve through the years to surrounding culture and some have the same meaning for centuries, some words, like “yeet,” are products of a current generation. YouTube, Vine and TikTok launched the use of “yeet” roughly in the spring of 2014 with another major resurgence in 2016

“Since we perform and mark our identities and relationships through language, language variation cuts across every social variable imaginable,” Lockwood said.  “Some colloquialisms are more stable than others — some sayings survive through time and spread across multiple languages, while others disappear without a trace after only a short time.” 

Thus far, the term has generally stayed in the confines of Generation Z, but that doesn’t mean the term isn’t here to stay. Because language is a reflection of culture, language can be just as variable. 

“In the end, only time will tell whether a word or phrase will be yeeted into the next generation.”