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Sean Moncrieff: I’m trying to get to grips with Daughter Number Four’s sassy slang

She casts a withering eye towards me, suddenly transformed into a teenager. ‘Bruh,’ she says. I don’t get it

If Daughter Number Four has a friend over for a playdate or a sleepover, her personality seems to expand – as does that of the friend – and this is mostly expressed through sassiness.

Of course, the sass is in evidence even when Daughter Number Four doesn’t have friends over. She’s at that age. She’s not overtly cheeky or disobedient – at least not that often – it’s more that suddenly, there’s a veneer of irony slathered over a lot of what she says. (Yes, yes. Stones, licking, etc.)

An example: I bring Daughter Number Four and her cousin (staying for a sleepover) into the kitchen to eat breakfast. Meal times with these two always have to be policed as they seem to feel there are far more interesting things to do than eat, such as random giggling or staring into space. Also in attendance are Daughter Number One and Granddaughter Number One.

“Wheels!” says the granddaughter: meaning the wheels-on-the-bus song. Daughter Number Four and the cousin burst into that tune and several other toddler favourites while Granddaughter Number One claps along. The whole scene is cuteness on steroids.


I can’t interrupt this. So, I tell the girls that I’m going to have a shower but those breakfast bowls had better be empty when I get downstairs.

Daughter Number Four casts a withering eye towards me; suddenly transformed into a teenager.

“Bruh,” she says.

She has deployed this word before, and I’ve asked her what she means by it. She can’t entirely explain, and with good reason: because when I googled it, it seems to mean many things, depending on the context.

Ostensibly it means “Bro”, short for brother; a way for male friends to affectionately address each other. But you can also use it in that context towards a female. You can use it as an exclamation – Bruh! – in response to anything. If you know someone who is a bit too big for their boots, you can use it as part of a compound word to insult them. He thinks he’s Bruh-tastic. Or, in the child-parent scenario, it can be used to express fond, patronising exasperation. As in: Dad (or Mam), please stop saying stupid stuff. You’re embarrassing yourself. And me.

That a single slang term can achieve such nuance and complexity is highly impressive: it’s analogous to the way different tones in Mandarin can change the meaning of a word. Equally impressive is that Daughter Number Four somehow learned how to use it properly without knowing how that happened. She can’t (or won’t) say where she first heard it. She seems to find the question mildly insulting; like slang isn’t something you formally learn or copy from other people: that would be counter to the whole idea of it. You just know, bro.

It’s not quite rebellion, but it is the start of a realisation on her part that her generation is different from that of her parents. She and her peers have their own words, and part of the point is that us oldies won’t quite understand them.

Of course, there’s nothing new in this. Slang is nearly as old as language itself – the first dictionary of slang was produced in the 16th century – though what’s different now is how the process of slang innovation has accelerated and become difficult to keep up with: someone coins a phrase on TikTok, others like the sound of it and start using it online. Then it spreads into the real world, into classrooms and homes where adults notice it.

Once that happens, researchers at the various dictionaries start doing their thing and then publish their list of new words to be added. But when the adults incorporate it, it’s usually the beginning of the end: the kids will drop it and move on to other phrases. An old geezer writing about it in The Irish Times will probably have a similar effect. It’s over, bruh.