Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Chill, Baby, Chill

It's amazing how certain words cross over from marginalized communities into the mainstream.

I remember when only people from New Orleans and Texas said "bling-bling", and a "shorty" was actually somebody who was vertically challenged. In fact, I'm sure some of the old heads who read this blog can remember just how cool they sounded the first time they told a lame to stop "dissing" them. Check out this Time article for an interesting history of slang. (Hat tip to Undercover Black Man.

It's kind of jarring when a word first crosses over into the wider world. If you've been using the word for a while, initially there's a rush of pride at being a trendsetter, but that's quickly squelched by the realization that you now sound just like everybody else.

I thought about the journey words take from the ghetto to the penthouse the other day when I heard former President Bill Clinton tell a crowd to "chill out." Here's the story if you missed it.

Chill out.

Man, that's taking it back. That phrase is so lame my totally uncool mother used to say it to me when I was still a little lunatic. She would try to look all hip and then say "Take a chill pill, dude."


I can't really remember when the words "chill" or "chilling" were first introduced to the world, but I'm sure the first cats who used them never imagined in a million years that they would get tossed into a political speech by a former President of the United States. (This link give some history for the word.) I'm sure when cats in the 'hood were posted up in their Cross Colours, "just chilling," they never thought that a good ol' boy from Arkansas would be talking like them in 25 years.

The point of this little exercise in nostalgia is to note exactly how intermingled we are in this country despite the huge gulfs that seem to separate us. We may not live together, eat together or go to school together, but somehow we just can't seem to truly cordon ourselves off from different races, classes or cultures. Oh, people may sneak a few things past each other, but for the most part everything individual cultures think is theirs alone eventually gets co-opted by the larger world.

Involuntary assimilation is an interesting concept. For many black people, the word assimilation immediately conjures up images of an ashy brother with a conk eating mayonnaise sandwiches and watching reruns of "Friends." Those of us indoctrinated by pro-black rhetoric see assimilation as a fate worse than death, and consequently handle the word "Uncle Tom" like it's a red, black and green grenade.

But, deep down, most of us know that it's impossible to live in America without assimilating, without picking up a bit of someone else's slang and jamming to their music. Part of being human is adapting to the larger culture. Seriously, if I randomly threw out the phrase "Soup Nazi" how many of y'all wouldn't get the allusion?

Clinton's comment, made in defense of his wife's right to continue her toxic campaign, was one of those melting pot moments that so many of us view with cynicism. Whenever somebody trots out that tired old "We are the World" spiel, many of us skeptics give them the massive stinkface with a side of eye rolls.

But, although Slick Willy has used this campaign season to defecate on black folks, when he wanted to sound cool and hip he fell back on one of our 25-year old slang terms. He probably didn't even realize that the words he used were once only heard in the ghettos and barrios. To him they were just an easy way to get his point across in a genial manner.

It actually wasn't that surprising since black people have been stereotyped as the "cool" kids just as often as they have been stereotyped as criminals. But, then again, I honestly can't pretend that white people are the only ones culture poaching since I use the word "dude" more than any surfer.

Bill's comment could have been made by any of us because we dabble and steal from each other. We're all patchwork quilts stitched together from the disparate pieces of our shared experiences. None of our music or slang is pure, none of our cultures are truly set apart. At a certain point words no longer have a color or culture.

It's just our culture. They're just our words.

(And no, nigger has not reached this point yet.)


WNG said...

I knew I wasn't the only black person in the country who says dude. KNEW IT!!!

Big Man said...

Man, everybody down here says dude. That's how we roll.

dewfish said...

dude, that was a good post.

The Christian Progressive Liberal said...

I bet if we go back to calling Bill Clinton "Slick Willy", he might drop gangsta and tell us "coons" to do more than "chill out".

For which we would have a very appropriate response like STHU.

I'm a girl, but I don't like it when you call me "dude" until you find out my gender. Apart from that, the kids come up with some mad words that make me laugh, and I make them laugh because I can use them in context and be thought of as "cool" (ask my grown nieces if you don't believe me).

I thought a "shortie" was someone's girlfriend...?

Deacon Blue said...

Mad props to you for this post, Big Man. Oh, man, now I've gone and done it, too... (My wife always get on my case when I accidentally use "hip" language of any decade from any cultural group, even my own...my 16-year-old actually finds it funny).

I don't think I could ever live long enough to "earn" the right to use the N-word, not even if God went and gave me immortality. I don't even feel right using it in an academic/neutral sense (e.g. Did you know so-and-so said N----?). I cringe when someone like Quentin Tarantino thinks they've got a pass on using it just because they've hung with some black folks.

Big Man said...

I can't grant you a nigger pass Deacon Blue, but I'm glad you're not bitter about it like some folks seem to be.

Oh, and I appreciate the comments folks. I wasn't sure about this post.

But, check out the one for Wednesday, I'm very sure it's going to be a good one.

Anonymous said...

Big Man Bub!! Great post homie!! I haven't read these in a minute but you are on point and I just lost my job for lauging so loud!!! (just kidding on the job part)

Lolo said...

Big Man, I so look forward to reading your posts and have actually missed them this past week.
This one had me laughing out loud too .. oh man, mayo sandwiches and all.

I don't know how to defend my appropriating any and all useful language that I come across because 1)I had to assimilate after moving to this country (plus, the woman who taught my mother to speak much of her english was a black woman from W.Virginia ... oh man, the garbled slang that gave birth to!) and 2)language is such an elastic and evolving thing that to restrict ourselves from new, to me, evocative terms and phrases would be akin to refusing to use spices and herbs not of my native upbringing. It's like salt to meat.

Gye Greene said...

Good post!

It drives me nutty when Americans say "No worries" (I noticed it about five years ago).

"No worries, mate" is **Aussie** slang -- dangit!!!


Raving Black Lunatic