Linguistic movement or verbal shortcut?
By ROBIN FRIEDMAN | The Allentown Times | May 12, 2006
“What’s good, yo?”
“We straight, dawg, jus’ chillin’.”
“Oh, snap, that’s so wack, man.”
Need a translation? Here it is:
“What’s up, hey?”
“We’re feeling well, friend, we’re just relaxing.”
“Oh, [expletive], that is so lame, friend.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, it is so.”
But which scenario is the more colorful one? Carol Pulham thinks that’s pretty obvious.
“Slang is wonderful,” says the professor of English and provost of Cedar Crest College. “It’s fast, expressive, creative and rich.”
James Bloom, professor of English and American studies, and chair of the English department at Muhlenberg College, thinks so too.
“Some of the most interesting words we have are slang words,” he says. “The F word has a particularly long and rich history.”
Both Pulham and Bloom subscribe to a linguistic movement known as “descriptive,” consisting of scholars who believe any language that’s commonly used belongs in the dictionary, including those four-letter, soap-in-your-mouth beauties.
“Some people want to pretend to live in a world where people don’t say those things, or pretend the things those words describe don’t happen,” Bloom argues. “The main consideration, in my opinion, is being understood.”
This movement essentially believes in “message intended, message received,” that is, so long as people are successfully communicating, it’s “bangin’, you know?” (“It’s good, know what I’m saying?”)
“Sometimes I’ll overhear a conversation that may go like this: ‘And he was like, I’ll meet you there, and I was like, okay, and he was like, don’t be late, and I was like, I won’t.’ In that conversation, ‘like’ is obviously being used to mean ‘he said’ and ‘I said,’” Pulham observes. “As long as everyone understands this, communication is taking place-and in no worse way than another kind of communication.”
The opposite of descriptive is “prescriptive,” whose followers believe dictionaries should teach people how to properly use language, going so far as to call their opponents “laxicographers” (instead of lexicographers) and accuse them of promoting illiteracy.
“The early function of dictionaries was to tell people how to speak. But who is the authority on language?” Pulham argues.“If experts say a word is incorrect, but 99 percent of people use it, what is really correct? And how far back do we go? In Chaucer’s time ‘don’t have none’ was considered proper. Today it isn’t. What is true English? What is good English?”
Perhaps slang does have a degrading effect on public discourse, as its opponents often charge, but the outcry against it only attests to its power. Slang is, by definition, more clever than standard English. It’s catchy, and it can produce flashes of humor and even poetry.
“Slang is a tool that can be used effectively or crudely,” Bloom says. “For me, it’s always a question of how well the verbal resource is being used, not whether or not it’s morally appropriate.”
Though the greatest number of new terms come from technology (“Google,” “texting,” “Botox”), informal language comes in second place, and since these words do have a tendency to come from vice or sex, they can be offensive. (“Beat” and “smash,” for example, both mean “to have sex.”)
“I don’t know if you can call them bad words,” Pulham says. “Because then you’d have to say sex is bad. Maybe you can say they are things that are not appropriate to talk about in public.”
Ask the teens in Peter Iles’ English class at William Allen High School about this controversy and you’ll see a group of self-styled descriptives through and through.
“The dictionary should not regulate. It should define,” declares Lamar Long, 18, speaking for everybody.
To these teens, slang is language; it’s the way they talk and think and feel. It’s vernacular and idiom, expression and dialogue, with all its own rules for proper usage. After all, any American teen in any American high school in any American city can spot a fraud a mile away, man.
“Adults sound funny when they use slang,” says Heather Chernega, 18. “It’s really annoying.”
The inherent attraction of slang is that each generation has a chance to shape its own lexicon, and in so doing, exercise imagination and originality. The end result is a playful body of language that at times is used for no reason other than because it’s fun to use.
“Ghetto,” for instance, a word that dates to 1611, when it was used to refer to a walled section of a city restricted to Jews, now means “jury-rigged with cheap components.” (Does this make “ghetto” anti-Semitic? Nobody thinks that, though many infamous slang words, which will not be printed here, are indeed slurs.)
“It’s when you use a screwdriver to change the channels on your TV,” offers Dustin Pastula, 18.
“Or when you have a front door with no knob,” adds Sherrick Layfield, 18.
“Or when you have a telephone held together with tape,” finishes Rushane Scott, 18.
“I was showing a movie the other day with a projector and I was using the wall instead of a screen and my students said it was so ‘ghetto,’” explains Iles.
“Mad,” meaning “extremely,” is one of those one-size-fits-all slang words that can be used for almost anything. (“Mad-hot,” “mad-funny,” “mad-cool.”)
“But it shouldn’t rhyme,” explains Shelly-Ann Forrester, 16. “You shouldn’t say ‘mad-bad.’”
Slang is used equally by girls and boys, these teens say, and by both blacks and whites. Slang can come from one’s neighborhood, television, music or Urbandictionary.com, the most mad-cool slang site on the Internet.
“It’s not about race,” says Yancarlos Sanchez, 17. “It’s more about area code.”
Back in the Stone Ages, however, before the dawning of the Internet, it wasn’t until 1961 that Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Third Edition, published since 1898, let the slang genie out of the bottle.
Instead of polling a handful of academics—the way dictionaries were historically written—its lexicographers turned to popular publications. The result was a revolt; the edition was attacked as “monstrous,” “deplorable” and “a scandal.”
Pulham is unimpressed. “Everyone thinks the language they grew up with is the best language-the right language. Language changes all the time. That’s the one rule. It’s so ego-centric-this kind of lashing out against language.”
Today, all dictionaries include slang. It used to be at least ten years before a new word was considered for inclusion; now it may take as few as four years. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Eleventh Edition-the latest one, published in 2003-includes 10,000 new words, many originating from slang, like “gangsta” and “goth.”
Yet, dictionaries make wrong calls all the time. The Eleventh Edition, for instance, includes “phat,” a total embarrassment, according to the teens.
“Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with it,” admits Sharee Gibbs, 16.
Slang is, after all, short-lived by nature. In order for slang to stay slangy, it has to have a feeling of novelty. Slang is like fashion; never “in” for long. We tire of even the most popular words, and by natural selection, only the strong survive.
That’s why, according to the teens, words that were mad-popular just a short time ago are now obsolete: the aforementioned “phat,” as well as “sweet,” “excellent” and “awesome” (which all mean “good”). “Tight” and “hot” are, well, “tight” and “hot” (also meaning “good”).
Likewise, “homie” and “dude” (which both mean “friend”) are way too 1990s, and even the newer “dawg” is being replaced by a more inexplicable “son,” say the teens.
At least one reason slang is so loathed by adults is because it’s typically been the turf of the young, Pulham believes.
“Because teens have a lower social status, adults feel threatened by them,” she says. “They think they’re wrecking the language. They’re affronted. How dare you change my wonderful language?”
But, “beef” aside (meaning “to start a fight”), wasn’t everyone once young?
In the 1930s and 1940s, it was the swing and jitterbug culture that invented the hip talk of the day; in the 1950s it was the beats and fast-talking radio disc jockeys; in the 1960s, it was the hippies. Today’s slang originates from hip-hop culture and rap music.
“Sometimes slang is used because of an inability to articulate,” Pulham admits. “But sometimes it’s the perfect word for the perfect thing.”
Only one word in the entire history of American slang has appealed to every generation since the Great Depression.
And, it’s “cool,” literally.
“I love that word,” Pulham says. “The complexity lies in the fact that anyone who tries to be cool cannot ever be cool. That contradiction is its complexity.”
“Cool” is positively prehistoric by slang standards; it originated during the jazz culture of the late 1930s. But every generation since then has embraced it as its own.
Many slang expressions meaning the same thing as cool-bully, groovy, hep, crazy, bodacious, far-out, rad, swell-have not had the staying power or continued universal appeal of cool. There is no reason why one word stays alive while others get consigned to the scrapheap of linguistic history.