I recently had the honor of meeting an award-winning literary sort, a man wry and restrained and overall quite utterly mature, who casually referred to having gone through a phase in his 20s when he’d been “pilly”—that is, when he’d taken a lot of recreational drugs. The word had a wonderfully childish sound to it, the tacked-on y creating a new adjective in the style of happy, angry, and silly. My writer-acquaintance, I recognized, was not alone in bending language this way. On the sleeper-hit sitcom Schitt’s Creek, for instance, one of the protagonists, David, speaks of a game night getting “yelly,” while his sister describes a love interest as “homelessy.” Meanwhile, back in real life, one of my podcast listeners informed me of a Washington, D.C., gentrifier who declared that a neighborhood was no longer as “shooty-stabby” as it once had been.
Pilly and its counterparts are not just charming, one-off neologisms; they’re signs of a broader shift in how Americans nowadays are given to putting things. More and more, adults are sprinkling their speech with the language of children. Young kids tend to simplify language, leaving out verbs (“Daddy home!” a toddler might say as her father walks in) or using words in incorrect but intelligible ways—plurals like feets and deskses are common; my daughter, at age 3, described herself as “a talky kind of a person.” The adoption of some of these linguistic tics by adults—in the form of pilly and many other terms—has given rise to a register we might call kidspeak. It’s a new way of sounding “real,” with a prominence that would challenge a time traveler from as recently as the year 2000.