“OK TikTok, I have a new word for you that my friends and I use that you clearly are all in need of,” Hallie Cain, 24, a copywriter in Los Angeles, says in a TikTok posted on March 30.
In the video, she gestures to another video of a girl who is describing “the type of people who get married at 20 years old” or have millennial “girlboss energy” and who wonders: What do we call this kind of person?
“I keep seeing videos like this,” Ms. Cain says in her TikTok. “The word, my friend, is ‘cheugy.’”
It’s not quite “basic,” which can describe someone who is a conformist or perhaps generic in their tastes, and it’s not quite “uncool.” It’s not embarrassing or even always negative. Cheugy (pronounced chew-gee) can be used, broadly, to describe someone who is out of date or trying too hard. And while a lot of cheugy things are associated with millennial women, the term can be applied to anyone of any gender and any age.
It’s not just a way to describe people. According to people who have embraced the word, the following are also cheugy: The Hype House, Golden Goose sneakers, anything associated with Barstool Sports, Gucci belts with the large double “G” logo, being really into sneaker culture, Rae Dunn pottery, and anything chevron.
“One of my friends said lasagna is cheugy,” said Ms. Cain.
Things that are decidedly un-cheugy, according to its progenitors: thrifting, making your own clothes, handmade products, Levi’s jeans, Birkenstocks, home decor not found at Target. “Looking good for yourself and not caring what other people think, that confidence exudes non-cheugyness,” said Gaby Rasson, 23, a software developer in Los Angeles who coined the term.
She said she started using the word back in 2013 while attending Beverly Hills High School. She wanted a way to describe people who were slightly off trend. But she couldn’t quite come up with the right term, so she created her own.
“It was a category that didn’t exist,” she said. “There was a missing word that was on the edge of my tongue and nothing to describe it and ‘cheugy’ came to me. How it sounded fit the meaning.”
The word spread among her classmates, then camp friends, then, when her friends went off to college, it took off on their campuses. “Everyone in our sorority knows the word cheugy,” said Abby Siegel, 23, a producer and former student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who said she learned the phrase at a summer camp that Ms. Rasson also attended.
But cheugy was in no way mainstream until Ms. Cain posted her TikTok. It quickly amassed hundreds of thousands of views, inspiring explainers.
Though cheugy has slight negative connotations, people who use the term said they often identify as cheugy themselves. “Everyone can be cheugy,” said Ms. Siegel. “Everyone has something cheugy in their closet. We didn’t intend for it to be a mean thing. Some people have claimed that it is. It’s just a fun word we used as a group of friends that somehow resonated with a bunch of people.”
The women also don’t claim to be the arbiters of the term. “It’s also totally open to your interpretation,” said Ms. Cain. “I’ll send something to our group chat and be like, ‘Is this cheugy?’ and some will say ‘yes’ and some will say ‘no.’”
Michael Cotos, 24, an actor in Los Angeles, discovered the word on TikTok and it immediately resonated as a niche descriptor. “I was like OMG, this is the perfect word,” he said. “It is a certain sub group of people that just don’t quite get it.”
Alex Lugger, 32, a boat marketer in Springfield, Mo., said that she self identifies as a bit cheugy. (She also learned about the word through TikTok.) “We were basic in our 20s and now we’re cheugy in our 30s,” she said.
Cheugy is just the latest in a long line of niche identifiers that have gained traction on the internet, where people relentlessly categorize highly specific archetypes in starter pack memes and videos. It’s no coincidence that cheugy gained traction on TikTok, a platform that has functioned as an escape from Instagram’s once dominant aesthetic, which is the pinnacle of cheugy.
Kelly Wright, an experimental sociolinguist and Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Michigan who studies language, said that with the rise of social media, “we see emerging words to define very niche categories of people, identities and behaviors. In their core, they’re marking shared events or a shared understanding of the world. These words that emerge from smaller communities have the potential to be picked up by wider audiences because of social media and that connectedness.”
Ultimately words like cheugy are as much about establishing who you aren’t as who you are. “A word like cheugy is a way of labeling an in group and an out group,” said Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist and the author of “Because Internet,” a book about how the internet has shaped language.
She said that though the notion of cheugy has probably been around for a while, the term itself is new and novel enough to be trendy itself. “Certain types of words go through trends just like clothing and accessories do,” Ms. McCulloch said. “They’re fashionable for a while and go out of fashion. The word for cool gets replaced every few years, cool sticks around as a background word. Groovy meant cool, now it’s dated. Coming up with a word like cheugy is a way to distance yourself from something that used to be really popular until very recently.”
As such, what is and isn’t cheugy is highly subjective and changing quickly. “It’s really easy to identify cheugy things on TikTok because TikTok is so fast paced and there’s so many trends that come and go,” said Ms. Siegel.
“I see stuff and I’m like, this is so overdone so I think it’s cheugy. Whereas if I didn’t see it on my ‘For You’ page, I wouldn’t think it was cheugy,” she said, referring to what is essentially the TikTok home page.
And for any millennials worried about being behind the trends, Ms. Cain said not to worry. “I think millennials have noticed that some things we used to consider cheugy are coming back in style and aren’t cheugy anymore,” she said. “When I was first introduced to the word in 2015, low rise jeans were cheugy. Now, six years later, low rise jeans are back in style and I don’t think they’re cheugy anymore.”