“Today the evidence of linguistic change, like climate change, is all around us.”
The Prodigal Tongue, Dispatches from the Future of English* by Mark Abley
My last post got me thinking about trendy lingo, its origin and journey to either becoming mainstream or joining the linguistic pantheon of dated slang. Groovy! More broadly, how are words and phrases created, and how do they spread? That’s a question linguists and sociolinguists have grappled with for ages.
It’s very rare to be able to trace the true origin of a word – that is, that moment of genesis when it first rolled off of someone’s tongue. Who was the very first person to use “cool” to describe something as praiseworthy and not cold? Who knows. Through reconstruction** we can trace the evolution of words and language from predecessors, e.g., Spanish, French and all the other Romance languages derive from Latin, but we can’t with any degree of certainty pinpoint the time and place a word was first produced – an exception being words coined in literature and other media (example to follow).
How words are propagated is another story. Social influencers of the day play a large role in popularizing new words and sayings; so musicians, actors, leaders, athletes – those people in the limelight that have our ear – are all instrumental in making lingo go mainstream. “Fo’ shizzle,” Snoop would concur.
As would one of George W. Bush’s communication advisors, Frank Luntz.
Early in W.’s administration, Luntz strategically coined the phrase climate change to mitigate the harshness of the more candid global warming which until then had ruled the day. In what seemed like one fell stroke of this cunning linguist’s pen, the American media and masses, conservative and liberal alike, abandoned global warming opting for the kinder, gentler climate change. Mark Abley used it unironically in the quote at the beginning of this post.
Coinage aside, there are many ways that words are organically created, often a result of the linguistic gymnastics our brains perform with the grammatical rules we acquire inherently as humans. Here are examples of words that have entered our lexicon, some more mainstream than others, categorized by the linguistic phenomenon responsible for their creation.
Backformation – the process of reanalyzing (essentially misparsing) a word to create a new one
- orientate < orientation
- conversate < conversation
- commentate < commentator
Reanalysis – the process of misparsing a word to create new stems, prefixes and suffixes
These came about because alcoholic was reanalyzed as alc+oholic, yielding -oholic as a nominalizing (= noun-making) suffix that was then appended to verbs like shop and work.
Blending – merging two words to make one
- smog = smoke + fog
- flustrated = flustered + frustrated
- crunk = crazy + drunk; some claim this derives from chronic (the noun, not the adjective) + drunk
- bromance = bro + romance
Borrowing – words incorporated into one language from another
- sushi (Japanese)
- yoga (Hindi)
- vamoose (Spanish)
- voilà (French)
- uber (German)
- fridge < refrigerator
- diss < disrespect
- jel < jealous
- bellig < belligerent
- urban myth < urban legend
Coined by a professor at the University of Utah, urban legend has experienced a significant shift toward urban myth. Climate change, as discussed above, could also be considered a paraphrase of global warming albeit contrived. Phrases, idioms and refrains are prone to paraphrasing.
I once listened to a co-worker lament being the victim of “reversal prejudism” instead of reverse discrimination. I’m not claiming prejudism will sweep the nation anytime soon, but this is a great example of paraphrasing, reanalysis and nominalization all in one: prejudice is reanalyzed as prejude+ice, the backformed verb stem prejude gets appended with the nominalizing suffix, -ism; and voilà prejudism.
But for the better part of a century, no other source of American slang or word creation has been as prolific as black urban culture. Hip words have hopped from black ghettos and hoods to white suburbia with increasing rapidity since the 1930’s when “cool” was supposedly first used in jazz circles to describe something as fashionable. (It’s not just lingo that has migrated, but a general black urban aesthetic that has become mainstream especially among today’s youth. Think Justin Bieber and his incongruous skinny jeans with a saggy seat. But back to words.)
Following is a list of those that have essentially gone mainstream, a euphemism for “used by white people”. Some are dated, and some quite recent. Feel free to add more in the comment section below.
You’ll hear these on the playgrounds and in the halls of white suburban schools all over Middle America and not think twice.
bail – take off, leave high and dry
biyatch – bitch (often gender neutral)
bling (bling) – shiny jewelry, ostentatious adornment
chill – relax(ed)
cool – this word will never not be cool, or so it seems
diss – criticize; truncation of disrespect
down – with it, in the know
game – skill, expertise
hate / haters*** – to speak or think ill of
ho – whore
hood – neighborhood
mo’ fo’ – mother fucker
my bad – my mistake
peeps – people
player – promiscuous guy with positive connotation
props – compliments, kudos
sick – cool (not sure if this comes from black urban slang; seems to be a favorite among white skaters, skiers and surfers)
the man – the authorities, those who hold power
yo – hi, hey
You’re more likely to hear white people use these in bigger cities.
all up in your grill – in your face, in your business
baby mama/daddy – the mother/father of a man’s/woman’s child
baller – cool (guy)
benjamins – hundred dollar bills
boo – gender neutral term of affection usually for a significant other
bust (a move e.g.) – go, leave, depart, make a move
dope – cool
fly – cool
fresh – cool
front – to pretend, lie
hit it / hit that – to have sex with
hold up – hang on, wait a second
ill – cool
ish – shit
kickin it – hanging out
mad – very, e.g., mad cool, mad sexy, etc.
mang**** – This actually doesn’t come from black urban slang but from imitating Latinos with Hispanic accents saying “man”. Word final ‘n’ in Spanish is often velarized meaning the back of the tongue raises toward the velum creating a slight ‘g’ sound.
off the hook – cool
peace out – bye
phat – cool; competing derivations are from various acronyms including “pretty hips ass and tits” and “pretty hot and tempting”
pimp – adj. cool, stylish; v. to make cool or stylish
son – like dude, e.g., Whattup son?
straight up – downright, honestly
tight – cool
trippin – worried, going crazy
vibe – to get along with, to hit it off with
whack – crazy, messed up, not cool
word – yes, affirmative agreement
These are rarely used by white people or used facetiously.
crib – house
crunk – crazy/the chronic + drunk
fiddy – fifty
fo’ sho’ – for sure
‘Naw mean? / ‘Nawm sayin’? – Do you know what I mean / I’m saying?
po po – police
Never heard these used by white people:
bladee blasé (also blasé blasé) – blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda
bugaboo – a stalker
It’s brick (outside). – It’s cold.
jawn – thing
type – very; the new mad, e.g., That’s type crazy/cool/weird.
this that and the third – a filler phrase like ya know, et cetera, blah blah blah
What’s good? – the new ‘Sup / Wassup?
whatever the case may be – used as a filler like ya know
Ya feel me? – the new Ya know whaddime sayin’?
* If you find any of my posts remotely interesting, Mark Abley’s The Prodigal Tongue, Dispatches from the Future of English is a fun book full of linguistic tidbits.
** For more on reconstructing language and the comparative method, see here.
*** You’ll notice I used this in a previous blog post, and didn’t think twice about it.
**** The first time I came across this was in an instant message at work from a young white guy originally from Texas and a Pepperdine graduate who moved to Utah to ski. He wrote it “mang.” Shortly after, I heard it crop up on the ski slopes. Indeed, much urban slang is used by young ski bums and snowboarders. I call it skibonics.