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No Need to Freak Out About Some Idioms, Even in More Formal Contexts

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble. This week on WORDMASTER: we're back with A. C. Kemp from She calls it the online home of American slang.

RS: We're talking about frequently used terms that her international students in her classroom might consider slang. A. C. Kemp teaches English at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she did a computer analysis for WORDMASTER on slang found in scripts from some popular TV shows and movies.

AA: "The first five you found most frequently used in these scripts were 'dude,' 'cool,' 'hot' or 'hotty,' 'whatever' and 'chick.' What comes after those? What's the next five?"

AC KEMP: "The next one is 'freak' and 'freak out,' meaning to be very upset or worried. After that was the very typical word, 'buddy,' to mean friend, and then, way down at number eight, 'awesome.' It was really huge in the eighties, awesome, and it's still used, but I think it's perhaps used less than it was.

"But what's interesting is that the next word on the list was one that I thought was kind of old fashioned, which was 'nuts,' meaning crazy or insane. And I tend to think of that as an old fashioned word, but I found it in a lot of different TV shows and movies."

AA: "Well, keep going."

RS: "No, there's only one more."

AC KEMP: "Well, there was a tie for the last one, and they both have very similar meanings, and both of them are a little bit vulgar but not too much. One of them is 'crap,' to mean something that's inferior quality, and the other one, which is used by teenagers all the time, is the expression 'it sucks,' to mean it's bad. And those were the last on my list of ten."

RS: "You know, you said this list surprised you. I was really surprised after hearing all the words that it surprised you, because the words seemed [like] words that I would associate with slang words that I hear all the time. Maybe it's because I live with a teenager."

AC KEMP: "I think what surprised me in particular was dude and chick being so popular, because I think that's changed in the last ten years. I think those are used more now than they were in, say, the nineties."

AA: "Now, one thing, getting back to, briefly, we were talking about the terms, idiomatic terms used as substitutes for more formal terms. What sort of advice do you give your students in terms of knowing when to use the more casual term or when to use the more formal term?"

AC KEMP: "Well, certainly in writing, you're going to use the more formal terms. But idioms, a lot of my students are surprised that they are so common, because they'll say, well, this is just something that you say to your friends when you're in an informal situation. And I'll say, well, listen to a politician's speech or listen to people on an interview show like, say, 'Oprah' and you'll find that people use these words even in more formal contexts, they'll use idioms.

"And so I think in most contexts you can use those. I mean, maybe not slang words. Certainly you wouldn't want to use 'dude' in a formal speech. But expressions like 'kick out' or 'screw up,' you do hear those. Even somebody like Bill Clinton will use those in a speech."

RS: "So do you suggest that your students listen to television, radio, all kinds of different media that they can, and kind of track certain words that you as a teacher may or may not highlight?"

AC KEMP: "Well, I think that depending on your situation, certainly if you have access to speak to a lot of Americans, that's probably the best way to learn a lot of slang words. But for a lot of people, they don't have that chance and so listening to TV or radio or watching movies is a good way to find those words. And sort of keeping a little notebook of things that you hear a lot can be a useful way to add those words to your vocabulary."

AA: A. C. Kemp is a lecturer in English language studies at M.I.T. and runs the Web site We'll post her top 10 list, along with her sources, at

RS: And that's it for WORDMASTER this week. Our e-mail address is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.


A. C. Kemp's list of most common slang words found in popular television shows and movies, in order of frequency:

1. Dude (man)

2. Cool (great)

3. Hot and hottie (sexy/sexy person)

4. Whatever ("I don't care"/"It doesn't matter to me")

5. Chick (woman or girl)

6. Freak/freak out (be upset)

7. Buddy (friend)

8. Awesome (great)

9. Nuts (crazy/insane)

10. Tie: Crap (something of inferior quality) and "it sucks" (it’s bad)


TV: "24," "House," "The Office," "Veronica Mars," "Desperate Housewives," "Gilmore Girls," "Lost," "Grey’s Anatomy," "Heroes."

Movies: "Along Came Polly," "Finding Nemo," "American Pie," "Crash," "Fever Pitch," "Kill Bill: Volume 1," "School of Rock."

Scripts were found on the Internet and were randomly selected from popular recent films and TV programs.