The Lamentable Death of Bae

A divisive word remembered

The International House of Pancakes set itself apart among chain restaurants this September when it tweeted, “Pancakes. Errybody got time fo’ dat.” But the American starch dispensary—whose claims to internationality include a middling presence in Canada, four stores in the Middle East, and a menu disconcertingly inclusive of burritos, spaghetti, and the word French—failed to distinguish itself the next month with its tweet “Pancakes bae <3.”

At that point, the term bae had already been used by the official social-media accounts of Olive Garden, Jamba Juice, Pizza Hut, Whole Foods, Mountain Dew, AT&T, Wal-Mart, Burger King and, not surprisingly, the notoriously idiosyncratic Internet personas of Arby’s and Denny’s. Each time, the word was delivered with magnificently forceful offhandedness, the calculated ease of the doll that comes to life and tries to pass herself off as a real girl but fails to fully conceal the hinges in her knees. (“What hinges? Oh, these?”)

This bae trendspotting is courtesy of a newly minted Twitter account called Brands Saying Bae, which tweeted its first on December 27. Yesterday morning it had 7,000 followers, and by evening it had doubled to 14,000. That is the sort of audience engagement and growth that corporate accounts almost never see, despite their best attempts at hipness through dubious cultural appropriation. Brands Saying Bae is reminding people, rather, that advertising—of which social-media accounts for businesses are a part—seeks out that authenticity, twists it out of shape, and turns culture against people. Our brains are cannily adapted to sense inauthenticity and come to hate what is force-fed. So it is with a heavy heart that we mourn this year the loss of bae, inevitable as it was.

Bae was generally adored as a word in 2014, even finding itself among the runners-up for the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year. (Along with normcore and slacktivism, though all would eventually suffer a disappointing loss at the hands of the uninspired vape.) Oxford’s blog loosely defined bae as a “term of endearment for one’s romantic partner” common among teenagers, with “origins in African-American English,” perpetuated widely on social media and in music, particularly hip-hop and R&B. The lyrical database Rap Genius actually traces bae back as far as 2005. But after nearly a decade of subcultural percolation, 2014 was the year that bae went fully mainstream.

It was in July, after the release of Miley Cyrus and Pharrell’s nonsensical collaboration “Come Get It, Bae” that Esquire asked with measured incredulity, “What the Hell Is Up With ‘Bae’?” Writer Natasha Zarinsky there proclaimed “the dawn of ‘bae.’” Of course, any time dawn is breaking, so is dusk. Slang tends to go one of two ways as it gets picked up by masses, linguist Tyler Schnoebelen told Time in the publication’s bae investigation that same month: A term either calcifies, or it bleaches.

Calcification would mean bae, in its current form, becomes solidly part of the lexicon. Bleaching would mean that bae persists as a grammatical entity but loses its intention, the force of its meaning appreciably diminished through generalization. That seems to have begun, like when people use an adjectival bae to generally express affection for anything. As in, when eating a particularly good scone, “This scone is bae.”

“[Bae] appears to be having its inflection point right now,” the head of U.S. Dictionaries at Oxford University Press Katherine Connor Martin told Zarinsky that same month, presciently, “and it will be interesting to see if it continues to pick up speed, or if becoming too widespread will damage its social reputation in the coming months.”

Oxford has been progressive in embracing social media in tracking the origins and rise of words, particularly the slang that arises in subcultures. Though lexicographers like Martin admit that it’s difficult to predict which words will break through to dictionary-level status, purists have argued that Oxford has lowered that bar too far in recent years. Others, who find themselves delving into user-generated content on Urban Dictionary as the sole resource for understanding what is coming out of the mouths and thumbs of the kids these days, would be fine with Oxford stepping in sooner as a reference for casual linguistic noise.

In the case of bae, Urban Dictionary entries date back years and have been very widely read. One user on the site defined it as “baby, boo, sweetie” in December of 2008, pegging its usage to Western Florida. Even before that, in August of 2006, a user defined it as “a lover or significant other”—though in the ensuing years that definition has garnered equal shares of up-votes and down-votes, with an impressive 11,000 of each. It’s impossible to parse how many of those readers disagree with the particulars of the definition, and how many are simply expressing distaste for the word.

Video blogger William Haynes, who would be among the down-votes, made an adamant case in his popular YouTube series in August that “unknown to the general populace, bae is actually an acronym.” So it would technically be BAE. And according to Haynes, it means Before Anyone Else. That theory has mild support on Urban Dictionary, though it first appeared long after the initial definitions.

Katy Steinmetz in Time aptly mentioned another, more likely origin story earlier this year—one that also accounts for the uncommon a-e pairing—that bae is simply a shortened version of babe (or baby, or beau). “Slangsters do love to embrace the dropped-letter versions of words,” she wrote, noting that in some circles cool has become coo, crazy cray, et cetera.

The dropped-letter theory is corroborated by the best analysis I found on the subject, that of academic linguist Neal Whitman. Whitman is also a Midwestern dad still reconciling himself to boo as a term of endearment—“Maybe kids today find the idea of a ghost frightening someone with an eerie ‘Boo!’ about as sensible as a zombie snarling ‘Sweetheart!’ or ‘Darling!’”—so his explanatory navigation of Internet memetics is wonderful on multiple levels.

In a 2014 lexicography column, Whitman attributed the mainstream rise of bae to the “Bae caught me slippin'” meme, which consisted of people sharing pictures of themselves pretending to be asleep, ostensibly taken by others but clearly taken of themselves. In December of 2013, The New York Times said without hesitation that the phrase meant, “My baby caught me sleeping.”

More recent and linguistically novel is the meme, "You got a bae? Or nah?" which Whitman traces back to Vine user Tina Woods (Too Turnt Tina, a teenager with 1.8 million followers). “I haven't found her original Vine clip,” Whitman concedes, “but there are dozens of clips (like this one) labeled with the hashtag 'remake' and Too Turnt Tina's name, and they all consist of people chanting, 'You got a bae? Or nah? You tryna date? Or nah?' (Or nah is another topic for another time. Tryna you can learn more about here.)”

But, more pressing issues at hand, Whitman goes on to annihilate the Before Anyone Else origin story as “syrupy and completely fabricated.” He makes his case in six bullet points (three of which hew to Occam’s Razor). Pointing to recent tweets and Urban Dictionary entries promulgating the acronym origin story, Whitman is exasperated: “It’s amazing how easily people will believe it, based on nothing but the say-so of some ordinary person on the internet.”

Now the ordinary people on the Internet appropriating bae are the people who run the social-media accounts for commercial brands. That all of this might be affecting linguistic patterns in a broader way is interesting. The commercial appropriation of a word signals the end of its hipness in any case, but as Kwame Opam at The Verge called it, “appropriation of urban youth culture” can banish a term to a particularly bleached sphere of irrelevance.

The most egregious usage involves the lack of any joke, or even logic. In August, Pizza Hut tweeted “Bacon Stuffed Crust. Bae-con Stuffed Crust.” What the Brands Saying Bae twitter has highlighted is the absurdity of that gimmick, which is the same as is employed in a sitcom where an elderly woman says something sexual, and then, cue the laugh track. The humor is ostensibly to come from the juxtaposition of the source and the nature of the diction. Brands aren’t supposed to talk like that. Whaaaat? It’s the same tired device that killed OMG and basic. (IHOP also tweeted, in June, “Pancakes or you’re basic.”) Laughing. Out. Loud.

If it feels like no love is lost for those terms, that’s probably because most of us have come to either hate them or ignore them. They have been bleached like the terrible white-flour pancakes they are employed to sell. The shaky moral ground on which those empty, garbage calories are marketed to already-obese Americans is actually in line with the calculating nature of the corporate Twitter accounts that turn the things people love against them.

Chili’s would not likely address you as “bae” if you wrote to their corporate office, but they would if you tweeted to them. So will AT&T. Because that will surely diffuse whatever situation made you want to get in touch with AT&T. What’s acceptable on Twitter from a brand representative would come off glib in an email. That uber-colloquial tone is accepted by executives who are told they just don’t understand the platform, and that a platform necessarily defines standards of appropriateness. As in, this email is short, it’s sent from my phone. This tweet is casual, it’s just a tweet.

And a tweet is just a tweet for most people, a dashed-off instant of thought in real time. So there is slang, and little attention paid to capitalization or punctuation. But for brands, social-media accounts are a calculated exercise in marketing. No one cared about the Denny’s Twitter account when it was tweeting mundane self-promotion, but it got a huge following when it embraced the voice of the medium. The purported success of the Denny’s account was lauded in AdWeek and several other places this year. Of course the approach is the product of an advertising agency, in this case Erwin Penland.

Abandoning corporate rhetoric and embracing the id that manifests on Twitter may or may not be good for the reputation of a business in the long term. The quest for authenticity in a social-media presence is a quest for an authentic voice, and throwing out cultural buzzwords apropos of nothing is not authentic. At innumerable points in a rise to canonization, every linguistic novelty is stolen. When it’s stolen by people whose job is manipulation, its arc is complete.