The further adventures of “AF”

In the two years since I first wrote about seeing “AF” — the abbreviation for the intensifier “as fuck” — in various interesting places, I’ve kept track of its spread from the fringes to the mainstream, or at least a major tributary of the mainstream, of popular culture. In April of this year, when I noted its use in New York subway advertisements by the food-delivery service FoodKick, I speculated that this was the first time AF had appeared in a commercial context. Well, I was wrong. It wasn’t the first. And it certainly hasn’t been the last.

“I’m feeling myself because my boobs are swoll AF”

 

This ad for Thinx “period-proof underwear,” with its ostentatiously hip vernacular, was one of several that the company placed in New York subways in May 2016. At the time, the campaign attracted attention not because of its language but because one of its models was a transgender man. (Not the model in this picture.)

The Thinx campaign lasted only a month. But it was an opening salvo.

In early July of this year, I began seeing a cryptic billboard near the San Francisco Civic Center exit from the westbound Bay Bridge.

“Mobile Marketing Lit AF”

Note, once again, the ostentatiously hip vernacular. (Lit, which once meant intoxicated, now means exciting, or merely excellent.) Leanplum describes itself more conventionally on its website as “email for the mobile era.”

On July 30, I opened an email from Everlane, the San Francisco–based clothing and accessories manufacturer, announcing the imminent arrival of new nylon backpacks.

“Stronger. Lighter. Colorful AF.”

Everlane evidently was proud enough of this locution that it repeated it when the bags became available for purchase.

“Durable. Lightweight. Colorful AF.”

And then, just as I was musing that I’d been seeing “AF” a lot but had never heard anyone say it, I started watching a new Netflix Original film, The Incredible Jessica James, and within the first 40 seconds our heroine (played by Jessica Williams) says this:

“Drinking is basic AF.”

And she pronounces it as an initialism: AY-EFF.

Jessica is being sarcastic in this scene, but about 50 minutes later she says “AF” (AY-EFF) more sincerely.

“I already know your bathroom is gross AF.”

How widespread is this usage and pronunciation? It’s hard to tell, but we have some clues. (And by we I mean my Strong Language colleagues Ben Zimmer, Blake Eskin, Gretchen McCulloch, Kory Stamper, and Stan Carey, who generously helped out with research and anecdotes.)

“A.F.” (with punctuation) has appeared since 2014 in Connie Eble’s “Campus Slang,” a long-running series of slang collected from students at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Since Fall 2015, it’s appeared with a phonetic guide:  /æf/  Which means it rhymes with ideograph.

But a 2015 Buzzfeed poll found that “ai-eff” (aka AY-EFF) was almost twice as popular as “aff,” although neither pronunciation got much love.

Has anything changed in two years? Well, in April 2017 Kory Stamper was interviewed by Terry Gross for NPR’s “Fresh Air” about her new book, Word by Word (which is both lit and literate, by the way). Here’s a bit of how it went down:

GROSS: So do you feel like as a parent and lexicographer you’re seeing how language changes generationally by listening to your own children?

STAMPER: Oh, absolutely. My youngest daughter just turned 17. And I’m the carpool mom for one of her activities. And what I will do is I will wait until all the teenagers get in the car and they get talking and they have sort of, you know, done the first five minutes of being used to being in the car with Mom. And then I will listen to the language that they use, the slang that they use. And as their season progressed, I got more and more comfortable with interrupting them and saying — wait a minute. Wait, what’s that mean? — or, oh, so you say, you know, she was nasty af (ph) instead of A-F. Is that how you say it? You say af? You don’t say A-F?

GROSS: A-F?

STAMPER: A-F, as F-word.

GROSS: Oh, oh, oh, right.

STAMPER: Yep.

GROSS: Got it.

STAMPER: Also af.

(LAUGHTER)

 

In an email this week, Kory wrote: “I have verified with said 17-y-o and the 21-y-o via text that ‘no one says /ae-eff/_MOM_.’ I don’t think they’d intentionally fuck with me  — it behooves them to have me seem cool. :)”

But! Here’s Gretchen McCulloch with another data point: “Just asked my own personal Young Person Whisperer (age 23) and she says she uses ‘af’ all the time but always pronounces it as the initialism, and that /af/ sounds totally weird. So it seems that there may really be a split here, possibly between teens and 20somethings?”

Or not, says Stan Carey: “Could geography be a factor? It was popularized online, and quickly, but only among a small proportion of speakers. So different groups, physically distant from one another, could easily arrive at different ways of saying it, given the options.”

Just to further confuse matters, in a new episode of the Observatory podcast (produced by Blake Eskin), graphic designer Michael Bierut tells a story about asking his own 20-something daughter how to pronounce AF. She says “aahf.” Michael suspects she’s “fucking with him.”

Over to you, our sharp-eyed, keen-eared readers. Have you seen or heard “AF” in the wild? Do you ever say it, and if you do, how do you pronounce it? We’re eager AF to hear from you.

 

 

15 thoughts on “The further adventures of “AF”

  1. Maggie August 4, 2017 / 6:02 am

    I’m 22 and on the east coast. Me and all my friends say af rhyming with graph. As in “that shit’s gross af.” Sometimes we’ll even elide it into grossaff, but only with common ones, and I don’t think we do it seriously or expect others to understand.

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  2. Ingeborg S. Nordén August 4, 2017 / 6:19 am

    Pronouncing “AF” as [æf] seems illogical to me, like pronouncing “LOL” [lɔl]. I’d never use the initials myself, but when I see “AF” in someone else’s text I mentally expand it to “as fuck”.

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  3. Vilinthril August 4, 2017 / 9:32 am

    I’ve asked around in my most internet-native peer group (though I should mention only one of them is a native English speaker), all between 20 and 30, and we all agree that it’s either /eɪ̯ ˈɛf/ or “as fuck”, but never /æf/.

    Re Ingeborg’s comment, however, we are universally agreed that LOL and ROFL are to be pronounced as words, i.e. /lɔl/ and /ɹɒfl̩/.

    Like

  4. joecab August 4, 2017 / 10:44 am

    They used “hot AF” (pronouncing the letters) on a miniseries spinoff episode of the podcast Hello From the Magic Tavern: “Offices and Bosses 5: The I.T. Team” aired 2/8/17.

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  5. neminem42 August 4, 2017 / 1:33 pm

    32, California. Don’t think I’ve heard it said vocally, but if I did, I would 100% expect it to be pronounced as an initialism. See it online all the time, though, so I’m certainly used to it written down.

    Interestingly, though, thinking about other net acronyms, both me and people around me *do* often say “lol” verbally, which we pronounce as the word “lol” (also “luls”, same meaning, pronounced the same as “lulls”).

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  6. Katie August 4, 2017 / 2:38 pm

    I can only bring myself to say “as fuck” out loud. I’ve heard “A.F.” plenty. Never /aef/. It sounds super dorky to me to say it out loud. I would think teens would recoil at it. But then, I’m 34. Old AF.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. J August 4, 2017 / 3:25 pm

    23, UK. If I use it (which is rare) I use it as an initialism ‘Ai-eff’, as do my friends, but I’ve occasionally heard it as ‘aff’ by my younger brother & his friends, around 17-19.

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  8. Nancy Friedman August 4, 2017 / 5:08 pm

    An even further note: A friend just emailed to tell me that every episode of Season 1 of the HBO series “Insecure” is titled “___ as F**k” [sic]. http://www.hbo.com/insecure/episodes/index.html

    I’d missed this because I’m not an HBO subscriber.

    Like

  9. Maggie August 4, 2017 / 11:12 pm

    I have to say, I’m surprised by all the people saying they would pronounce it as the initials. I rarely hear that. However, throughout this article it’s written “AF”, not “af”, which would prompt me to say the letters.

    I asked a few friends (22 and 23 years old) and my 17-yo sister, and they prefer lowercase “af” and say it to rhyme with graph, but tend to vary pronunciation with orthography.

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    • Nancy Friedman August 5, 2017 / 12:35 am

      There’s also “asf” (as fuck), which I’ve only ever seen in lower case, and never heard as an initialism.

      Like

  10. rossmurray1 August 5, 2017 / 1:06 pm

    21-year-old son in Quebec assures me it’s A period F period. He also gave me a shirt that says “LIT,” so I don’t know if I can fully trust him or his judgement.

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  11. rcalmy August 5, 2017 / 2:27 pm

    Data from Wisconsin: I asked my 16 year old son, and he said he’s only heard it pronounced as the initials. When he asked why I was asking and I explained, he said “Oh, dear…”

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  12. Michael Moszczynski August 6, 2017 / 12:46 pm

    33, in my mid-20’s to early-30’s friend group, we all say A.F. as an initialism. Also, I’ve only ever seen ‘swole’ instead of ‘swole’

    Like

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