Behind the Dictionary
Lexicographers Talk About Language
Geeking Out On "Fleek"
Over the weekend, The New York Times presented an interactive quiz on newly prominent slang terms entitled "Are You On Fleek?" But what does "on fleek" mean, and how did it get to be such a trendy expression, especially on social media? Our resident linguist Neal Whitman investigates.
This is the story about a word with a very sudden and very recent rise. The word is fleek, most often in the phrase on fleek, and often describing eyebrows, as in "My eyebrows are on fleek!" Though its origin story has been explained in several places, here I'll go beyond the recent narrative to explore what fleek meant before it hit big, and where the phrase on fleek might have come from.
The website Know Your Meme, in an entry from December 2014, gives a thorough rundown on fleek. The earliest attestation is a 2003 entry in Urban Dictionary. A contributor defined it as "smooth, nice, sweet," giving the example sentence "That was a fleek move you pulled on that chic[k]." The next entry didn't arrive until 2009, but the definition is essentially the same: "awesome," as in "That was a fleek game."
Interestingly, these examples have fleek all by itself, without an on in sight. Is this really the same fleek as we're hearing now? If it is, when did it morph into on fleek? We'll pick up this question later; for now, on with the chronology.
The word isn't recorded again until June 21, 2014, when a young black woman named Peaches Monroee (yes, with two E's) uploaded an eight-second video to Vine. In the video, she seems to be preparing to go out and have a good time, and halfway through, she asserts that her eyebrows are "on fleek." The video went viral, and it now has more than 27 million views.
There's no question that Monroee was the person who kick-started the ongoing fleek surge: A search through the Twitter archives shows that even as late as June 20, scarcely anyone was tweeting anything with the word fleek used to mean "excellent." There's one in January 2013 from someone who seems to be using it ironically when he tweets, "Fat neck on fleek." But in June 2014, the fleek flood began. Page after page of tweets about eyebrows on fleek, occasionally interrupted by tweets asking what fleek means.
In August, the singer Ariana Grande fanned the flames, by putting Monroee's words to music and singing them on MTV. The word's popularity continued to grow on social media, with hair, nails, and other body parts, as well as clothes and selfies getting on fleek. Soon, as an article in People magazine mentions, corporate brands began jumping on the fleek bandwagon, including Taco Bell and the International House of Pancakes, which took to Twitter to proclaim their food to be on fleek. Denny's did it too, announcing that their hash browns were on it.
hashbrowns on fleek— Denny's (@DennysDiner) September 30, 2014
Meanwhile, fleek's sudden popularity had now gone on long enough for it to start appearing in songs. A search on the Genius database pulls up numerous examples of songs containing the word fleek, including two that actually have "Fleek" as the title: one by B.o.B., the other by Lil Debbie. It's also prominently featured in the song "Feeling Myself" by Nicki Minaj. With few exceptions, all these songs were released in late 2014.
So where exactly did fleek come from? And why are eyebrows, even now, still the things that are most often said to be on fleek? One article on PopSugar.com suggests an answer for these questions:
Fleek—which is a variation of "flick," a word well known to makeup-lovers—is when eyebrows are perfectly groomed, filled, and shaped.
It's true that flick does have a cosmetology-related meaning. It refers to that thing some women do with their eyelids: coloring them to look as if the outermost eyelashes swoop upward to extend almost all the way to the ends of the eyebrows. This technique is also referred to as a feline flick. It's also true that fleek is a variation on flick, typically in the accent of non-native speakers whose first languages don't have the English "short I" sound.
However, eyelashes are not the same thing as eyebrows; there's no evidence to suggest how a variant pronunciation came to refer to eyebrows; I don't find any examples of feline flick spelled feline fleek; and the earliest example of feline flick that I've found is from 2005, two years later than the earlier Urban Dictionary entry. Although this suggested origin is better than a bogus acronym (as in the case of bae), I'm still not ready to believe it.
Fleek also happens to be a not-too-uncommon surname, especially in the Midwest. Aside from people's names, the most common usage of fleek that I saw in tweets prior to June 2014 was a euphemistic distortion of the F-word, as in "Oh, fleek," or "What the fleek is..." or "fleeking awesome."
In addition to names and naughtiness, fleek is a popular choice when a nonce word is needed. Sometimes these new creations are portmanteaus. For example, fleek has been used to refer to refer to fans of Glee (Gleeks) who dare to criticize the show; i.e. "fake Gleeks." Gleek can also mean "to squirt liquid (including saliva) through the teeth or from under the tongue," and if that's the case, then naturally a fleek is a gleek with food particles in it.
Other times, the word seems to have been chosen just as a sequence of phonemes that the creator thought was new. For example, a couple of Twitter users simply mentioned making up fleek as a new word just for fun, with no awareness that anyone else might have done so. And back in 1996, the Star Wars novel Shadows of the Empire featured "fleek-eels."
This kind of whole-cloth coinage puts to rest one of the more ridiculous opinions about fleek. Olivia Muenter, writing for Bustle.com, uses the line of attack preferred by people who dislike a word by asserting that it actually isn't a word. But then she goes a step further, saying, "it doesn't even really sound like a word."
What? If you want something that doesn't sound like a word—or at least not an English one—try gzrakp. Fleek, on the other hand, isn't even a borderline case, in the same sonic neighborhood as flick, flake, fleck, flack, and fluke. In fact, fleek sounds so much like an English word that you could almost say that it has always been there, but no one got around to assigning a meaning to it until recently.
So at this point, my best guess for the origin of fleek is that it was coined based on nothing but the phonetic space available to English speakers. It banged around for years, getting various nonce meanings attached to it, but the one that stuck was the one that was in the right place at the right time, in Peaches Monroee's viral video.
That just leaves the question of how fleek became on fleek. One hint is the fact that almost all of the sources that define on fleek provide another prepositional phrase beginning with on as a synonym: on point. The more recent Urban Dictionary entries do. So do some of the articles I cited earlier, as does Olivia Muenter, who even criticizes Peaches Monroee for not saying what she means in the most straightforward way: "instead of saying 'on point,' she just says 'on fleek.'"
What's interesting is that on point itself is an innovative usage, but one that's a few decades older than on fleek. The earlier meaning of on point is "in the lead position in a military operation," with the person in that position being the "point man." The more current meaning dates back to the mid-1980s, according to The Right Rhymes. How that change in meaning occurred is a story for another time, but what seems to have happened here is that the two similar meanings of fleek and on point resulted in the mash-up on fleek, in the same way that we've obtained idiom blends such as by far and away and the pink elephant in the room.
Meanwhile, the semantic broadening of fleek continues. Anything can be on fleek... or off. It's a word that just keeps raising eyebrows.