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'Goblin mode' is becoming part of people's everyday vocabulary. Language and meme experts share why.

A photo-edited headline described Julia Fox as going "goblin mode." Now, some corners of the internet are legitimizing the phrase.
Illustration of the words "Goblin Mode."
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

The term "goblin mode" began as a joke. A photo-edited headline falsely claimed that actor Julia Fox split from her ex Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, because he didn't like when she went "goblin mode."

"Julia Fox opened up about her 'difficult' relationship with Kanye West: 'He didn't like when I went goblin mode,'" the fake headline, shared on Twitter by user @meowmeowmeuw on Feb. 15, read. The image also appeared on Reddit around that time.

Goblin mode, which refers to a person who is generally messy, likely unshowered and acting "feral" due to laziness or an aversion to going outside, has been used on sites like Tumblr and Urban Dictionary for years. But the recent Fox meme gave the term renewed momentum online.

This cycle of a joke term entering the internet’s vernacular and, sometimes, making the leap into offline vocabulary has become more common. New terms, like "cheugy," are accidentally coined all the time on social media — whether the word is used in earnest or as satire.

Some experts say this happens because words that attach language to something that previously didn’t have an expression have the potential to gain traction.

"If you use a word and people see that it so accurately and succinctly captures the feeling of a moment or a sentiment or a style, then that expression really takes on power, and it's really easy to latch on to," Kristen Syrett, an associate professor of linguistics at Rutgers University, said.

Social media is a breeding ground for new words

On Urban Dictionary, an early entry for goblin mode defines it as a term for when a person loses themselves and resorts to becoming a goblin. Some entries describe the term as meaning someone who has become mischievous and goblin-like, while other, more raunchy entries define it as a sex act.

The term has also been widely interpreted as a way to describe someone who is slovenly, unkempt and lazy. While some see it as a harmless way to describe a messy phase, some have suggested the phrase is offensive. One argument is that some people who live with mental health issues or have disabilities are living in "goblin mode" not by choice but rather due to circumstance.

The term's wide-ranging definition likely stems from the fact that the Fox meme was a gag that offered no specific definition of what goblin mode meant, leaving it open for interpretation. The vague nature of the phrase, in which people could insert their own definition, is just one way in which social media can birth a new term.

Young people have always been a major driver of language shifts, Syrett said, but social media has been like gasoline on a flame.

"What we see in online communication is a younger generation that has taken control of this medium because it's a way for them to express themselves rapidly in a way that's not defined for them," Syrett said.

Memes also frequently invent terminology that becomes part of our regular vocabulary. In addition to goblin mode and cheugy, the insult "OK boomer" is a product of memes and the internet.

Those phrases defined the undefinable, which could be why goblin mode went mainstream, Syrett said.

Once you have a word for something, it can be shared. It becomes reality.

Shane Tilton, author of "meme life"

"The fact that you can have a term like goblin mode and have an image that so perfectly captures that ... it just captures it in a way that [feels like] 'I can't define it, but that's what it is,'" Syrett said.

Although memes are typically meant to be nothing more than jokes, the communication style can sometimes express an abstract feeling that no existing word articulates. So when a meme accidentally uses a word that puts vocabulary to a feeling, it spreads quickly.

"Once you have a word for something, it can be shared. It becomes reality," said Shane Tilton, an associate professor of writing and multimedia studies at Ohio Northern University and author of "Meme Life." "It was abstract, and you made it real."

Will the internet-created terms stick around?

While these phrases may spread rapidly on social media, Syrett said the real test is their staying power. Many words fade away or are relegated to a certain period or niche group on the internet, and they won’t always stand the test of time.

Syrett recalled a debate that members of the American Dialect Society had that focused on that very issue. When selecting a word that would define 2021, some members suggested cheugy encapsulated the year best, while others were furious at the suggestion.

"There was this really dichotomous reaction about that particular word, which was: Is it really a word that people are using, or is it getting used in a way that's not going to allow it to be productive beyond the next year or two?" she said.

Tilton argued that a phrase like goblin mode, which can apply to many situations in a person's life and may offer a way to describe a feeling or situation that previously had few descriptors, could have more longevity than some might expect.

However, he said it's likely that specific phrase will have cycles, fading in and out of the vernacular.

Language, he said, "goes as fast and as slow as we can explain our experiences."