For Linguistics Influencer Adam V. Aleksic ’23, Language is Political

One of the Internet’s first and only “linguistics influencers,” Aleksic, who works under the handle @etymologynerd, spends his time post-graduation traveling the world and creating videos about etymology for an audience of over 1.3 million across TikTok and Instagram.


{shortcode-21cc3534b02e5a90dd1b6e61be0fe28423896a7e}dam V. Aleksic ’23 speaks many languages, bird included. Bird language, “spoken” through a complicated series of whistle tones, is one of his most popular videos, clocking in at 4.3 million views on Instagram. Why would someone want to create a language composed of tweets and hoots? “There’s no reason not to,” says Aleksic.

One of the Internet’s first and only “linguistics influencers,” Aleksic, who works under the handle @etymologynerd, spends his time post-graduation traveling the world and creating videos about etymology for an audience of over 1.3 million across TikTok and Instagram.

Aleksic describes a serendipitous start to his influencing career. “I was like, what do I do with my linguistics degree? It’s either academia or sell out or something. I didn’t like any of the options,” he says. “So I figured I’d give content creation a shot to see if the video thing would work out.”

When I ask him how much he makes off his influencer gig, Aleksic hedges, calling his earnings “a decent starting salary for a Harvard graduate.” For reference, almost 70 percent of Harvard graduates in the class of 2023 make more than $70,000 in their first year out of college.

Aleksic has been, in a word, influential. “There are so many people who I’ve gotten comments from saying, ‘You’ve inspired me to study linguistics or to take a linguistics class,’ and that is actually the greatest feeling ever.”

But Aleksic’s influence exceeds the world of linguistics. At Harvard, Aleksic began the self-described “choosening cult,” which is still going strong. Ever the linguistics major, “The Choosening” is a weekly tradition where members select a word of the week in an elaborate ritual held in the dining hall of Kirkland House. I ask Aleksic if he thinks of influencing as an extension of his former “cult” leadership. “I think it’s really interesting that the word ‘follower’ is what it is on social media. I’ve always thought that was a little funny,” he says.

He adds that the “key to both is being weird.”

“When I say weird, it would be weird if I were to lick my phone case right now.” Aleksic suddenly licks his phone, which he has been brandishing for dramatic effect. “There’s nothing wrong with licking your phone case. There’s no reason not to.”

“It mildly tasted good!” he adds.

He continues, “If you’ve got something you want to do, then you should do it. That’s what I think being weird is.”

Though Aleksic worships at the altar of the weird, his social media strategy is both determined by the dynamics of the industry and informed by his linguistics background. “Influencers uptalk with the end of our voices, we use macroprosody, which is the stressing of more words than is necessary,” he explains. “I will talk very quickly, intentionally, because maybe somebody will have to go back and re-watch my video, which is good for my retention rate. So I am kind of deliberate, and a little analytical about how I do my videos. I guess because I’m treating it as a job.”

Aleksic says he’s currently most interested in studying how social media is shaping our use of language. “There’s a lot of subtle ways that the algorithm is driving our language,” he says. “I feel that every day as a creator, my word choice is being affected and how I choose to self-censor some things.” Aleksic cites how political content, or even content that uses words or phrases the algorithm may flag as political, can be removed from certain platforms without warning.

“You can’t really separate language and politics, I think,” he says.

Aleksic explains that the censorship of language isn’t unique to social media. “You see people self censor the F word with an asterisk. And that’s the same thing they were doing in newspaper cartoons, because newspaper cartoons since the 1900s wouldn’t let people publish curse words. So they came up with grawlixes, which are those newspaper swearing styles,” he explains.

Aleksic’s videos range from silly, like a deep dive into whether the past-tense of “yeet” is “yeeted” or “yote” (spoiler: it’s “yate”), to informative, like an explanation of “Why Gender is a Linguistic Construct.” Aleksic not only embraces Internet slang but gives it thoughtful, thorough linguistic analysis.

“I think there’s also a lot of discourse about brain rot, and how it’s ruining kids nowadays,” he says. “Like they’re all saying ‘rizz’ and ‘skibidi’ and ‘gyat,’ and all that. I don’t think that’s that bad. Because younger kids are always coming up with slang. And we’re always saying that it’s the end of the world that they’re corrupting our language. That’s just how it happens.”

Aleksic gives me a mini etymology lesson for the word “unalive,” which is used on TikTok in place of the word “suicide” or “death.” Aleksic, who has conducted thousands of interviews with middle school teachers and parents, says that young people use the word to cushion discussions of the difficult topic of death.

“We’ve been euphemizing death as long as we’ve had ways to talk about it,” he says. “We have the word deceased, which comes from Latin ‘decessus’ which was a euphemism for the previous Latin word for death, ‘mortis.’ So the Romans were as scared about death as modern middle schoolers.”

For Aleksic, linguistics is both the description and communication of what we do know, as well as an insurmountable barrier between experience and our methods for articulating it. He explains that we can never know things that are too foreign to us.

“There is no way we will ever know what it is like to be a bat,” he says. “It’s just so different. To echolocate? To fly? What the fuck? We just do not know what it is like to be a bat. In the same kind of smaller way we do not know what it is like to be another person.”

Aleksic showed me his only tattoo, which also happens to be his favorite word: “umwelt.” It means “environment” in German, but in English, it means, in Aleksic’s words, “the world as it is perceived by a particular organism.”

“I really like the idea that we all perceive the world in our own unique ways,” he says. “Going through life with that lens makes us better people.”

—Magazine writer Serena Jampel can be reached at