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The tragically millennial vocabulary of the Sam Bankman-Fried trial

The tragically millennial vocabulary of the Sam Bankman-Fried trial


‘What does the term YOLO mean?’

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Photo illustration of Sam Bankman-Fried, Caroline Ellison, Gary Wang, and Nishad Singh among imagery of courtrooms, finance, circuit boards, and server rooms.
These people were adults. This is how adults talk now.
Photo Illustration by Cath Virginia / The Verge | Photos by Michael M. Santiago, Bloomberg, Klmax, Whyframestudio, Yevgen Romanenko, Pixhook, Peter Dazeley, Jimkruger, Getty Images

It is one thing to type the world YOLO, jokingly, on Beyoncé’s internet. It is another thing entirely to hear it explained in a court of law. The trial of Sam Bankman-Fried has been, in its vocabulary, tragically millennial. (Disclosure: I am also a millennial.)

Christian Drappi, a former Alameda software engineer, was put in the position of explaining YOLO — “you only live once” — as well as the phrase “a YOLO thing” to anyone who might be unfamiliar. He was testifying about a recording of an Alameda all-hands meeting in which Caroline Ellison, then the CEO of Alameda, confessed to taking FTX customer funds. In the recording, Drappi said “I’m sure this wasn’t, like, a YOLO thing” in response to the confession.

Asked about the phrase, he explained:

When you do a “YOLO thing,” it’s something that’s spontaneous and not premeditated, and I wanted to have Ms. Ellison confirm that indeed, you know, they had meetings about this and there was a deliberate decision, as I suspected it would be.

Thing, it turns out, is kind of a theme. For instance, there’s “the thing,” which is, apparently, a bribe to Chinese officials. In an update document Ellison wrote to Bankman-Fried, there is a column called “idiosyncratic PNL stuff.” In it, there is an entry: “-150m from the thing?”

A screenshot of government exhibit 64, which shows a bulleted list of “notable/idosyncratic pnl stuff.” Below that are various line items, including “-150m from the thing?”
Who isn’t looking to avoid losing another $80 million, am I right?

“The thing” bullet point on the list led us to this exchange:

Prosecutor Danielle Sassoon: I would like to direct your attention to the middle of this list where it says negative 150M from the thing, question mark. What’s M?

Ellison: That means millions. This is negative $150 million.

Sassoon: What are you referring to here that was a negative $150 million expense for Alameda?

Ellison: I was referring to our payments to get the China accounts unlocked.

Sassoon: Why did you call it the thing instead of just saying the payments to get the accounts unlocked?

Ellison: Because I didn’t want to put in writing that we had paid what I believed were bribes to get these accounts unlocked.

Later in the document, which is, again, a business memo Ellison wrote for her boss, there is an action item reading “try to just push more on stuff generally I guess.” The word “stuff” is used 24 times in that memo alone. There’s “trading stuff,” “dev stuff,” and “BD [business development] and relationship stuff” among the assortment of stuff.  (I have embedded this document, which entered evidence as government exhibit 64, at the end of this article, for your perusal.)

The writers among us will remember the use of “I did a thing” when people were promoting their work. “Thing” itself is frequently used by millennials in telling ways — sure, it’s not as jarring as, say, “doggo,” but once you notice how frequently it is used, you can’t unsee it. There are fewer of these in Ellison’s memo: four uses of “thing” and six uses of “things.” Besides the thing, we have:

  • Personnel management (“hey this trading thing seems really important, let’s drop everything and crush this”)
  • “bad colobot fairs thing: -4m.”
  • “liquid FTT thing: -2.5m”

But the millennial-speak is beyond stuff and things. In the “Donation Processing” group chat, FTX executive Ryan Salame says he’s “not trying to be a dick,” to which Bankman-Fried responds, “Ah oof.”

A chat exchange in which Ryan Salame (Salams) texts Sam Bankman Fried, “not trying to be a dick just ensuring no issues with that level of access” and Bankman-Fried (Sam BF) replies “ah oof”
Why being a dick is a negative is an exercise left to the reader to work out.

Then, of course, there is the sad face.

A text message exchange where Nishad Singh says, of the withdrawals at FTX, that they are continuing at 120 million an hour. Caroline Ellison replies with a “:(“ and Sam Bankman-Fried replies “of” and “oof”

Sassoon: Nishad Singh then wrote you, “Continuing so far at about 120 million an hour.” What is that referring to?

Ellison: He is saying that there were continued withdrawals, about $120 million worth, in the past hour.

Sassoon: You wrote back with a sad face. Why did you write a sad face?

Ellison: I mean, I was terrified. This was what I had been worried about for the past several months and it was finally happening. I thought that at this point everything about FTX and Alameda was going to come out.

If Ellison liked “stuff” and “things,” Bankman-Fried liked “heh” and “yup.” Both alleged co-conspirator Nishad Singh and former FTX lawyer Can Sun gave testimony that Bankman-Fried responded to them with “yup” or “yup, yup.” He also seems to use “oof” a lot.

A text message exchange between Sam Bankman-Fried and Nishad Singh, during the height of the FTX meltdown, that is pepped with millennial-speak such as “yup” and “fwiw.”
Even during FTX’s darkest hours, the terminally online continued to talk like the terminally online.

Of course, some of the vocabulary was more banal. To wit, Singh was obliged to explain “FWIW” meant “for what it’s worth.” I think the Gen Xers among us are also familiar with this particular acronym.

I found this all lightly mortifying, even though it is obviously the tip of the iceberg in terms of millennial internet-speak entering the court system. Someone, somewhere, will explain to a jury what “cringe” is, and I desperately hope not to be there when it happens. 

There has been one saving grace so far, though: not a single Harry Potter reference. My fellow millennials, I am sincerely begging you to read another book — before I have to hear a witness read aloud in court an email written to their associates about how they are, in fact, a Ravenclaw.

As for you, Gen Z, don’t laugh too hard. At some point, we are going to hear an important court case involving terms such as “unalive” “corn,” and / or “le dollar bean.” I promise it’s only a matter of time.