‘Eyebrows on fleek!’ I said to myself approvingly this morning as I cast a final glance in the mirror before leaving for work. An odd turn of phrase, meaning in this context ‘perfectly groomed or styled’, but one which has exploded into the public consciousness in the past couple of years, thanks to social media services and to the Internet in general.
We’re familiar with the concept of videos, images and news stories ‘going viral’, which is to say spreading rapidly online, and the same can be seen happening with individual words and phrases. ‘On fleek’ owes much of its recent popularity to its use in social media contexts – Twitter, Instagram and the like – and in memes. It has even been picked up by celebrities and a couple of major US restaurant chains, which has no doubt further increased its currency.
But who can be credited with coining the phrase? There is some evidence in the Urban Dictionary, a crowdsourced online dictionary of slang, of ‘fleek’ on its own, used to mean ‘nice’ or ‘awesome’, but these definitions were submitted several years ago. For ‘on fleek’ in its current form, it seems we have one Kayla Newman, known online as Peaches Monroee, to thank. In June of 2014, the Chicago teenager filmed herself declaring her freshly done eyebrows on fleek. She then posted the clip to Vine, a video sharing service, where it has since been played over 40 million times. Newman has said she had never heard of ‘on fleek’ before and it was just something that came to her at the time. She could surely never have anticipated how far and how fast the neologism would travel.
Even those of us in the English-speaking world who don’t document our lives in tweets, Instagram photos and Vine videos may well still have come across ‘on fleek’, although of course we may not all be inclined to use the expression ourselves or even understand its meaning. While ‘on fleek’ has infiltrated even the mainstream media and googling the term returns around half a million results, many people are perplexed by it, and it is often not so much being used as having its meaning, origin and rise to fame discussed.
Though the term is still most often used to compliment someone’s eyebrows or other aspects of their appearance, it is now also being applied more generally. Now just about anything, from pizza to someone’s personality, can be deemed ‘on fleek’. Dictionary editors track emerging trends in language through the use of corpora – huge databases of language – such as Oxford’s New Monitor Corpus, which contains material going right up to March 2016. Items described as ‘on fleek’ range from the usual eyebrows, hair, clothes and wardrobe to food, sense of humour, Pope Francis’ American tour and plans for criminal justice reform.
It is, however, uncertain whether the phrase will secure itself a permanent place in the English language: slang does not always endure and it may only be a matter of time before ‘on fleek’ is superseded by a newer coinage. The question then is just how long will ‘on fleek’ remain on fleek?
About the author: Kallah Pridgeon, an avid social media user, is an assistant editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press where she works on dictionary apps and the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries website.
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