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Naming Today

Rumors of Tribes

At one school, the popular girls were called the “chicken patties,” but the jocks were just the “jocks.” How teenage crowds get named.

Michelle Marie Murphy, First View of a Birth, High School Health Class, 2010. Courtesy the artist.

If you went to an American high school of a certain size, the social landscape was probably populated by some teenagers who were known by just one name, the “jocks.”

And from the 1950s to the present day, their sworn enemies were probably known by a greater diversity of names: the “smokers,” the “greasers,” the “scrubs” (kids in vocational classes, also known as “shop kids” or “shop rats”), and “shrubs” (who are also known as “rockers,” “metalheads,” “bangers,” “Hessians,” or “heshers”), as well as an assortment of “burnouts,” “skaters,” “punks,” “emos,” “hippies,” “goths,” “stoners” (who were known at one West Hartford, Conn., school in the early 1980s as “the double door crowd” because they hung out in the school’s entryway) and “taggers,” a relatively recent term for graffiti vandals.

These differences don’t exist only because there’s only one jockstrap and lots of ways to be a deviant (and thank god for that). The deviants, no matter where they are, may have such varied names because they’re less invested in the culture of a school, and are more locally and personally oriented, as Stanford sociolinguist Penelope Eckert put it in her studies of Michigan high schools. Jocks, who are more invested in the social structure of the high school, will have more institutionalized names. Steve Sussman, a psychologist at the University of Southern California, said he didn't know for sure why there are more names for burnouts. “If I had to speculate, it’s because if they’re into drug use, they use more code words generally,” he said. As drug slang changes, so do the group names.

There’s a lot that adults end up speculating about when it comes to high school crowd labels. Why do they change? How much do they vary from place to place? Where do new ones come from? Some labels, like “jocks,” stand the test of time, while others (“emos,” “wiggers”) rise with clothing styles and musical subgenres, and as much as one might like to imagine some high school in a tiny valley that time forgot where “greasers” battle “bebops,” those labels are no more. Obviously, American society changes, and mass media reinforce some names. But experts say that when they go back to schools they’ve studied before, they find that the crowd labels have been refreshed by some inscrutable linguistic tide.

If awards were given out for creative crowd labels, the kids at one New Jersey high school in the mid-2000s might win for naming their popular crowd in the aftermath of a food fight that happened in ninth grade.

I credit my son’s babysitter for getting me interested in crowd labels and clique names when she told me that the popular kids at her school were the “windswept hair people.” I thought, surely teen social landscapes have interesting names and rich naming practices like “windswept hair people.” But for the most part, as far as I’ve been able to tell, the labels don’t vary much, and if creative names exist, they’re not easy to hear about. Over the decades up until now, studious college-bound kids are usually known as “brains,” “brainiacs,” “nerds,” “geeks,” “eggheads,” or “the intelligentsia.” I collected high school names using Twitter and Survey Monkey and came across “crumbsters,” a label for the popular kids, and the “queer cult,” for the semi-populars, though if awards were given out for creative crowd labels, the kids at one New Jersey high school in the mid-2000s might win for naming their popular crowd in the aftermath of a food fight that happened in ninth grade, when one of the most popular girls shrieked and generally overreacted after she was hit in the face with a flying chicken patty. The popular kids became known as “chicken patties.” Depending on where and when you went to high school, you might have called them “preps,” “socialites,” “Ivy Leaguers,” “soshes,” or simply “the popular kids.”

Those four crowds—jocks, smart kids, popular kids, and deviants—are said by adolescent researchers to be standard in American high schools. Then there’s a grab-bag group: kids into drama and band (“drama fags,” “band fags,” “drama geeks,” “band geeks,” etc.), as well as “gang bangers,” “girly girls,” “cholos,” “Asian Pride” (and other racial and ethnic groups, like “FOBs”—a derogatory term referring to recent immigrants), “Gay Pride,” and depending on the region “plowjocks” (also ag students, or “aggies,” “hicks,” “cowboys,” and “rednecks”) and “Wangsters” (who are “wannabe” gangsters). At a highly selective residential public school from the middle of the U.S., upper-middle-class ethnic students were known as “teen girl squad” and “teen jerk squad,” while the mainly white, rural students were known as “second floor boys and girls,” because of where they lived in a dorm.

Another thing that seems to be true about teenage crowd labels: The ones that come up most frequently are the more generic ones. In all of the four high school classes that adolescent researcher Jennifer Riedl Cross interviewed in 2008, she found mentions of “jocks,” “preps,” “scenesters,” “scene kids,” “emo,” “farmers,” “nerds,” “geeks,” “stoners,” “potheads” “goths,” “skaters,” and “punks,” but mentions in only one class apiece for “girly girls,” “shy normals,” “anti-hygiene,” and “nothings.” Bradford Brown, an educational psychologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison confirmed this from his research, and he’s been studying teen crowds since the 1980s. He recalled the smokers at a Madison high school who were called the “graters” because they hung out around an outdoor heating vent, or the group of popular kids at another school, the “meadow muffins,” because they played in a field next to the school during lunchtime. Colorful names, yes. Frequent, no.

(But even “jock” isn’t universal. In some parts of the country the “jocks” have been called “Johnny Touchdowns,” “sportos,” “straps,” “meatheads,” “musclebrains,” and “muscleheads,” and sometimes there’s a distinction between “activity jocks” and “sports jocks.”)

Most of these names were collected from two review articles, “Adolescent peer group identification and characteristics: A review of the literature,” by Steve Sussman et al., published in Addiction Behavior in 2007; and “The challenge of adolescent crowd research: defining the crowd,” by Jennifer Riedl Cross and Kathryn Fletcher, published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence in 2009. Keep in mind that the names are arranged by the publication dates of the source articles. Additional names were collected via an online survey I organized in June 2013 and via interviews. Rather than create a cumbersome timeline with multiple lists from the same year, I collapsed lists that clustered around certain years. This means that the intervals of three to four years are arbitrary.

 

The relative stability and blandness of certain crowd labels may have something to do with what kids need labels for (and they do need them—more about that in a bit). Basically, Brown said, once you leave the enclosed classroom of the elementary school, “you have a bigger sea of humanity that needs to be navigated without much oversight or guidance.” New middle-schoolers and high-schoolers now have to deal with far more people than they can have individual relationships with. You need some way to make sense of who might be a friend and who might be an enemy. And communicating about where you think you and others belong only works if your crowd labels are conventional enough for people to understand. I don’t know what a “grater” is, but I know what a “band nerd” is.

You can tell a lot about the social uses of crowd labels from their absence. For instance, people who went to smaller high schools don’t report having crowd labels. It’s not that they were closer-knit, it’s that the school’s population was closer to the number of individual social relationships the human brain can process (called Dunbar’s Number, it ranges between 100 and 130). Also, the first teenage crowd labels in America date to a 1942 study by August Hollingshead (who reported three labels: “elites,” “good kids,” and “the grubby gang”). Not until the 1940s were there a lot of high schools large enough to be all-encompassing social worlds.

Using a crowd label as a kind of mental shorthand explains why idiosyncratic ones might not happen that often—the more generic the name, the more usable it is.

We also know that crowd labels in middle school differ from those in high school. Early in middle school, kids call each other names like “the runaround crowd,” “the door crowd,” “the skip rope crowd”—a map of concrete activities that go on at recess. But, Brown said, by the time they’re in high school, they use their relatively more mature brains to map their social worlds in more abstract terms. The result are true crowd labels—“jocks,” “punks,” “brainiacs”—that don’t refer to actual individuals in the lunchrooms and hallways, but to categories that teenagers carry in their heads. Using a crowd label as a kind of mental shorthand explains why idiosyncratic ones might not happen that often—the more generic the name, the more usable it is.

Meghan Bridgid Moran, a health communication scholar at the University of Southern California, said that youth tend to group each other along several dimensions, such as school sponsored activities (“band geeks,” “jocks”), general behavior (“goodie-goodies,” “bad kids”), and a broader cultural category (“hipsters,” “bros”). There’s ethnic-related naming (“Asian kids”), school-specific naming (such as the places where kids hang out), and musical preferences (“emo,” “rockers”). Whether or not names are becoming more or less diverse Moran couldn’t say, but she noted that “youth may use the same names over time, though the meaning changes.” Two “emo” kids, one from 15 years ago and one from 2013, would have a hard time recognizing each other as part of the same crowd, because the music and clothes differ.

Steve Sussman remembers being a subject of teen crowd label research himself in 1969 or 1970. Researchers came into his high school and gave him a sheet with the labels “collegiate,” “radical,” and “greaser,” and asked him to circle the one he most identified as; he wrote in “independent.” This brings up one longstanding shortcoming of crowd label research: Even if they let teens generate their own crowd labels, the adults collapse them into a few types. Another problem is that teens are allowed to put themselves in only one category, but Jennifer Riedl Cross thinks it’s important to let teens claim multiple labels—in one of her studies, 76 percent of the kids indicate they belong to multiple crowds. In general, there seems to be confusion about labels as identities that someone claims and as flags on a social landscape. Which labels refer to crowds? Or cliques? Groups? Gangs? Sub-cultures? For instance, teens calling themselves “normals” (or “regulars,” “averages,” or “ordinaries”) make up the largest group in most research studies, and interestingly, they rank this as the most desirable group, rather than the high-status one. Researchers treat “normal” as a crowd label, but Cross says “normal” is actually how teenagers want to think about themselves. “We need to pay closer attention to ‘normal’ to better understand the entire crowd phenomenon,” she said.

But make no mistake—no matter where crowd labels come from or how fast they change, kids need them, Brown said. They use the labels to regulate social interactions and provide them with a provisional lifestyle that will get them through the chaos of adolescence. As they get older, they rely less on crowd labels. Parents need crowd labels too. That's what they’re going to use to talk to their kids when they’re still young about how to fit in and how to relate to other people.

While Brown agrees that stereotyping is a problem, he’s uncomfortable with various efforts to make a problem out of labeling, such as anti-bullying messages, multicultural curricula, and a general atmosphere of political correctness. For one thing, it makes his research harder; kids won’t tell him the labels. It also distances them from adults who might understand what the teens are going through.

“It gets challenging for kids to use the labels outside a circle of immediate trusted friends,” he said, “but [the labels] are still there. When I hang around kids in a youth group and I’m driving them somewhere, I’ll catch them using the labels. So I know they’re still there.”

TMN Contributing Writer Michael Erard lives in Portland, Maine, with his wife and son. His book about the science of polyglots, Babel No More, is now out in stores. More by Michael Erard