Corn Paninis and Accountants: How Seemingly Nonsensical Slang Came to Be Normalized
January 22, 2023
If a Gen Z’er shares your household - or if you’re also chronically online - you might already be familiar with “panini” and “panorama” as synonyms for “pandemic,” and that “accountant” might mean something other than the professional who manages your books.

But how do these strange, quippy phrases rise to pop culture mania? How do they even come to be in the first place?

In this case, ban-avoidance, and content-moderation dodging might be the mother of invention. The new vocabulary is also referred to as “algospeak” - language modifications used to avoid the infamous shadow ban, or the potential of being removed from TikTok’s For You Page, thereby drastically suppressing views.

Those critical of TikTok’s moderation policies say that the need for this alternative language indicates the platform is too strict in moderation. On the contrary, the platform defends its policies and processes to prevent intentionally harmful videos from ending up on screens across the globe.

What happens when you violate one of the TikTok policies (spoken, or unspoken)? The video may be removed, it may be hidden from the For You Page (where videos are suggested to users - and the main source of content distribution on the platform), and users who repeatedly have videos flagged may be removed from the platform altogether. Many users also believe that if a video discusses a topic TikTok’s algorithms don’t like, their views are suppressed in a practice that’s come to be known as “shadow banning.” It’s worth noting that social platforms - Tik Tok and others - have not confirmed this is true.

Avoiding a ban isn’t the only motivation for creative forays into algospeak: it’s also become a source of humor. Content creators may intentionally misspell words, or use phonetically-similar phrases either aloud or in their captions, more for fun than to trip up an algorithm.

The conversation begs the question: how does TikTok’s content moderation system actually work?

According to the New York Times, the platform has a two part system. First, content is scanned for violations of the community guidelines. Then, once videos are live, users can flag them. The system’s goal is to catch and prevent the distribution of videos that are violent, hateful, sexually explicit, or that spread misinformation. When a video is flagged in the automatic scan, it is either automatically removed or sent to a human moderator for further evaluation.

The system is certainly imperfect, and - like many social media platforms’ content moderation - has faced criticism for inconsistency and bias, especially around topics of sexuality and race.

Back to this new vocabulary - how about a little translation?

When the pandemic began, users commonly began referring to it as - perhaps most obscurely - the “Backstreet Boys Reunion Tour,” “Panda Express,” “panorama,” or “panini” as social media sites began hampering views of pandemic related content, in what they stated was an attempt to limit the spread of misinformation.

The corn emoji is more likely to refer to - ahem - adult entertainment than it is to reference the yellow vegetable, and an “accountant” is more than likely a sex worker than a CPA.

Will these euphemisms stick?

It’s difficult to predict, but experts say it’s unlikely. Between young people’s proficiency in “code switching” - or adapting their language to those they’re surrounded by - and the relatively low percentage of the English-speaking population that is actually on TikTok and similar platforms, it’s unlikely that most of this new vocabulary will stick around long term. That said, ubiquitous slang is difficult to predict; “cool” was once a niche term related to the jazz scene.


For more, see this Washington Post piece on algospeak.


Lauren Lyddon has helped people and organizations to tell their stories for more than a decade. Having tested her love of the creative through the pursuit of an MBA and undergraduate business degrees, she is a writer, editor, and lover of fiction in all its forms (especially theatre, well-written television, and novels). A West coast resident often operating on an East coast schedule, Lauren uses her business background and love of story to serve clients in writing, editing, PR, and more. You can visit her online at



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