Jelly, butters, derp: Do you understand the language kids use online?

Children are superb linguistic innovators, so parents need to both understand the technology and the interactions that their children are involved in

Claire Hardaker
Friday 13 September 2013 14:41 BST

The internet is all things to all users.

For the entrepreneur, it is a wealth of business opportunities. For the scholar, a bottomless vault of knowledge. And for the child, an endless supply of fun and games - plus a few minutes of peace for mum and dad!

Most parents are also only too aware that their child's future success in education and at work can depend heavily on how thoroughly they master this new, digital era. Little wonder, then, that so many children are now online - whether on phones, computers, or consoles - and that those children are getting increasingly younger. With the internet's abundant advantages, though, come the drawbacks, such as potential cyberbullying, trolling and other online issues.

Whilst parents are busy at work, doing school runs, and making dinners, children are spending time each day on their various devices at home and school, absorbing the complexities, skills, and slang that go with each new technology. It can be difficult to feel confident about protecting our children online when they seem able to reprogram the newest gadget straight out of the box, whilst we've yet to figure out which batteries it needs. And how can we supervise every second of those many hours in which children are now online?

For those who have taken the step of monitoring their child's behaviour online, we come to the next hurdle: language. In a nutshell, children are superb linguistic innovators. If there is no word to express quite how they feel about triumphing over the ultimate boss in their video-game, well, then make one. They delight in modifying existing words, coining new ones, and even pinching terms from fiction, internet memes, and other cultures. For the adult, trying to check a chat log for signs of cyberbullying may feel like wading straight into another language. Why not see how well you can translate these three short phrases? (Answers below.)

1) "u jelly?"

2) "she's well butters"

3) "he's a prep, derp jock"

If nothing else, this should demonstrate that protecting children online, and teaching them to be good internet citizens, takes more than simply a net nanny software, a wifi filter, or a fixed internet schedule. In reality, it needs active input from parents and teachers who understand the technology and the interactions that their children are involved in. And it also takes sites helping those caregivers by providing them with the tools, information, and support they need to create a positive environment in which children can safely practice their online skills.

I’ve been working with Disney's Club Penguin to look into the words young people are using as their ‘digital dictionary’ as part of the It Starts With You online safety campaign which empowers kids to take the lead in spreading positive behaviour online and give their parents the tools to better support them. However, online safety cannot be the preserve of just one group. It starts with us all. For instance, offline, we teach children safety and manners as a whole community. Parents, teachers, neighbours, and more besides, all work towards ensuring that children cross the road safely, don't talk to strangers, and are considerate to each other. We need to teach children the art of being both safe and kind online in just the same way. Where children, parents, teachers, and websites all take a proactive role in making this happen, we can only succeed in creating a safer and more positive online environment, not just now, but for generations to come.


1) "Are you jealous?" Jelly derives from jealous. Found in several online memes.

2) "She is very (well) ugly." Butters derives from butt ugly.

3) "He's a stuck up, stupid, arrogant individual." Prep derives from the US term, preppy girl (a stuck up girl) in turn derived from preparatory school. Jock also comes from US culture. Derp represents the sound/character of stupidity, and appears extensively across several internet memes, along with the female character, Derpina.

For a full quiz on the words children use online, click here

Dr Claire Hardaker, Linguist at Lancaster University and working with Disney’s Club Penguin

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