‘Unalive’ as Online Lingo for Death or Suicide: A Tool for Young People to Open Discussions

by Madison Thomas
'Unalive' as Online Slang

Emily Litman, during her middle school years, often heard children proclaim, “I just want to die” when grounded by their parents. Now, in her role as a middle school teacher in New Jersey, she witnesses a modern adaptation when students lose phone and TikTok privileges – they proclaim, “I feel so unalive.”

These young students, grappling with English, are now incorporating ‘TikToklish’ into their vocabulary. Despite their limited experience with English words like “suicide,” they understand ‘unalive.’

‘Unalive’ stands for death by suicide or homicide, serving as an adjective or verb. This term, and others like ‘mascara’ (referring to sexual assault), have emerged on social media platforms as creative circumvention of explicit or violent content censorship.

Language, a dynamic entity, has always evolved, with teenagers often pioneering new words. However, the advent of the internet has accelerated this process. Now, words coined within digital boundaries to evade rules are spilling into real-world spoken language, especially among the youth. These new words hint at ways for young people to safely navigate serious conversations, albeit with a casual tone that might be deemed too nonchalant or dangerously naive by adults.

The use of ‘unalive’ does not necessarily diminish the gravity of the subject matter, as per experts. Andrea Beltrama, a linguistics researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, describes this phenomenon as “lexical innovation.” Users of ‘unalive’ aim to convey the severity of suicide, with the expectation of the recipient understanding the intended message.

Suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-24. The suicide rates for this age group surged more than 50% from 2000 to 2021.

The term ‘unalive’ could foster more profound conversations among youths, creating a sense of community and trust. These conversations can potentially bridge the gap between young people and adults who use the more explicit words, such as “suicide” or “kill.” This situation parallels the rise of phrases like “Let’s go Brandon,” a euphemistic expression of disapproval for President Joe Biden.

Just as “Let’s go Brandon” gained momentum following its origin at a NASCAR race, ‘unalive’ also found its niche amongst TikTok users.

Dr. Steven Adelsheim, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, urges against overreacting to this linguistic shift. He believes that young people understand the implications of using ‘unalive’ as a term for suicide.

Amber Samuels, a therapist based in Washington D.C., has observed her clients using ‘unalive’ and similar euphemisms. She emphasizes that circumventing explicit language around topics like suicide and sexual assault can actually foster conversation and awareness, countering a culture of silence and shame.

Meanwhile, Lily Haeberle, a senior at Indiana’s New Palestine High School, sees the benefit in terms like ‘unalive’ for casual references. She believes it softens the harshness of certain subjects when discussed humorously.

This trend is also present in youth video gaming culture, where “unaliving” characters only to have them “respawn,” or resurrected, is a common occurrence.

Emily Litman, however, remains conflicted about the implications of using ‘unalive’ as a euphemism for suicide. While she appreciates the fact that it encourages conversation on the topic, she wonders about its potential harm or help for struggling youths. Regardless, she recognizes the increased comfort levels of young people discussing these topics compared to her own experiences at their age.

Jeff McMillan, an experienced editor at The Big Big News, is also a part of the AP Stylebook editing team. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JeffMcMillanPA

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about ‘Unalive’ as Online Slang

What does ‘unalive’ mean in the context of online youth language?

In the context of online youth language, ‘unalive’ is a euphemism for death, specifically by suicide or homicide. This term is used as a workaround to avoid censorship on platforms that restrict posts discussing explicit or violent content.

Who first coined the term ‘unalive’?

The specific individual who first coined ‘unalive’ is not mentioned in the text. However, it seems to have emerged from the young users of social media platforms, particularly TikTok.

Why is ‘unalive’ being used to discuss suicide?

‘Unalive’ is used to discuss suicide as it allows young people to navigate serious conversations in a way that feels safer and less direct than using explicit terms like ‘suicide.’ This linguistic shift, also known as a ‘lexical innovation,’ is seen as a way for youths to create a sense of community and trust.

Does the use of the term ‘unalive’ diminish the gravity of the subject of suicide?

According to experts such as linguistics researcher Andrea Beltrama, the use of ‘unalive’ does not necessarily remove the seriousness from the conversation. It’s a way to communicate about the topic of suicide with the expectation that the recipient will understand the severity implied by the term.

How has the term ‘unalive’ permeated beyond online platforms?

The term ‘unalive’ has jumped from virtual spaces into real-world spoken language, especially among young people. It has also found its way into youth video gaming culture, where ‘unaliving’ characters only to have them ‘respawn,’ or resurrected, is a common practice.

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MrRoberts July 15, 2023 - 1:47 am

interesting article, but shouldnt we focus on why kids are feeling this way instead of what words they’re using to express it?

TeachMom July 15, 2023 - 8:36 am

As a teacher, I have heard my students use “unalive” a few times. Guess it’s time I understood what they really meant. Scary.

SarahJ July 15, 2023 - 2:47 pm

didn’t realize kids today are using such coded language. it’s kinda smart but also a bit worrying? are we avoiding the real issues here?

Jake_the_snake July 15, 2023 - 6:36 pm

I mean, unalive sounds a bit weird to me but then again I’m not exactly hip with the kids these days lol. Language keeps evolving I guess.

GamerDude95 July 15, 2023 - 11:07 pm

We’ve been saying “unalive” in the gaming community for years. Its all fun and games until u realize the serious side of it.


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