Monday, June 10, 2019

Language is Awesome

(Note: today is a little blurry for me. I will make this post as coherent as I can.)

I was watching that show "Beyond Scared Straight" the other night and I'm ashamed to say that I found way too much humor in some of the episodes. One of the parents made a remark that was so funny I had to pause the show to call my girlfriend. First, I had to finish laughing.

First I have to tell you that back in the day, one of my mother's admonishments was "Your mouth's going to write a check your ass can't cash." Well, a parent on that show topped it. When her fast ass daughter was acting out, she told her that her alligator mouth was going to override her hummingbird ass. Man, that is freaking awesome. I'm saving that up for the next time I get to chastise a child.

In a recent post when I was discussing my potty mouth, I didn't get into how much I love the poetry of slang. I wonder if a lot of the popularity of pop music isn't more about the words than the beat. The first time I heard the phrases  "turn up" ( or "turnt" up) and "turn down", I knew they were going to be favorites. I heard "turn down" in a song by DJ Snake and Lil Jon. I'm not a huge Lil Jon fan and I still have no idea who DJ Snake is, but every now and then, I'll hear that song in my head and walk around for hours singing to myself, "Turn down for what?" One of my SILs - also too old or this mess - has started using the phrase.

Once, when my teenaged nephew accompanied me on a shopping trip, he introduced me to a trendy descriptor that I kind of love. I was looking for a specific brand of sandals but couldn't find a pair that I liked. Too pink, too orange, and too "why in the hell did they make a day-glo green pair?' Finally, I explained to the clerk the color I just had to have was muted pink on black. I wanted them to wear with a tracksuit of the same color scheme. I guess I was being just a little dramatic. My nephew made the remark that I was being "so extra". Listen. I knew immediately what he was saying about me. And I loved it. I was ashamed of being such a broke-ass drama queen, but I loved the phrase.

Words are just beautiful building blocks, aren't they? Each generation can change and rearrange them to fit the times. This is why we should read works of literature and prose from all time periods. We are missing out if we only focus on the here and now of art.

Speaking of the (not-too-distant) past, I was only about 13 o r14 when I first read Gwendolyn Brooks' poem "We Real Cool" and even then the intense wordplay aroused my brain. Later in my life, Nikki Giovanni's "And I Have You" and "Resignation" affected me in the same way. But those ladies are officially poets. What I also love is when wordplay just spills out of the streets and into the general lexicon. (By the way, I'm going to have to talk about those two ladies in another post.)

I enjoy just listening to people converse. Some of you might call that eavesdropping, but hear me out. It's not what people talk about but how they talk. The way a person uses language is such a part of their personality. I guess it's what comics call "delivery" It's why one of my nieces is so funny without even trying. (One of my favorite comedians is Kathleen Madigan. She mostly talks about her family and her fairly ordinary life. So why do I end up laughing until I can't breathe?)

Sometimes, when I am not eavesdropping, I pick up and decide to use slang words without knowing enough about them. I've always known that "bae" was a term of affection that older people don't (or shouldn't) use. What I didn't know is that it stands for "before anyone else". Well, damn. No matter what age you are, that's sweet.

To explain someone being upset by saying that they are "salty" is just too perfect. Back in the day, we'd explain someone angry as having their jaws tight or being "heated". I still use that one. I also personally love the term "slay". That so truly expresses someone on top of their game.

"Thirsty" is one of those terms I should not have used before I understood that it meant horny. I thought that when you were "thirsting" for someone, you were just attracted to them. Okay, so technically...

The first time I saw "GOAT" on social media, my silly ass automatically went into conspiracy theory mode. (Stop laughing.) When I found out it stands for "greatest of all time", I wasn't that impressed.

About 10 years back, my older nieces and nephews loved teasing me about staying up with current slang. Well, what goes around comes around and everybody ages. These days, they are getting the same teasing from my younger family members.

I wonder if most people even realize where a lot of the current social media slang comes from. Do they care? Or are they just slinging around phrases mindlessly (the way I did with "thirsty")?.

The now overused term "woke" has been appropriated by just about every internet hipster. I don't think many of them know anything about  William Melvin Kelley. Some of them might have learned about Marcus Garvey. My father taught me about the writings of Kelley and I was given an overview of Garvey at some point in school. I don't remember much about either. Now I have to add them to my list of things to research.

Of course, I know that a lot of black slang dribbled down from our slavery era ancestors. There are - or were - a lot of communities and groups of people who have their own patois.  A lot of us cobbled together languages made up of our mother tongue mated with American English. I think this is what Zora Neale Hurston was paying tribute to when writing phonetically.

Speaking of Hurston and cobbled language, if you really want your mind blown, go check out the Gullah language. My mother had relatives who grew up speaking what she called "Geechee". I wish now that I had paid more attention and asked questions when Mom talked about these people.  I met some of these relatives when I was very young so I don't remember much about their speaking style. (Now I have to go and look at the Gullah language Bible because... who knew?) Thank goodness for the internet.

Not knowing a language is one thing. You expect to feel excluded. What's crazy is that I can sit next to a person speaking English and have no idea what they are saying. I suppose every generation has its own sub-language made up out of their mother tongue. My younger nieces and nephews speak in 'slanguage' I call internet shorthand. Everything is acronyms and abbreviations spoken in rapid-fire bursts. And it's not just with the net-speak; it's the hieroglyphic texts. Adults who haven't kept up at all with internet slang can't read half the stuff on a kids phone.

We older folk should break out some of the slang we once used or at least were familiar with. I clearly remember my brothers and their friends using terms that would still work today. If someone was deeply in love, you'd say that their nose was wide open. Instead of expressing frustration by saying "doggone", you'd say "dag".

To go further back in history with black slang, check out this Glossary of Harlem Slang by Ms. Hurston. The term "jelly" was still in use when I was young and I had no idea what it meant until I was grown. As a matter of fact, a lot of music lovers have no idea what the term "jelly roll" means in the blues or why so many blues musicians include it in their names. I think Jelly Roll Morton is the most famous.

Update: A social media contact emailed to tell me that she and her friends say "Jelly" as shortspeak for "jealous". I cannot keep up with it, people. But now I know something new. Thanks, L.D.

Just for kicks, I'm going to link to this video of Bessie Smith singing "Nobody In Town Can Bake A Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine". Enjoy.

So, yes, language is awesome, but only if we use it to include, not exclude. And that's the main point of this post. Or at least, I think it is. I don't know, I started it yesterday and kind of lost my way with it. Oh well. Now I think I am going to go and read up on that Gullah Bible I just discovered.


"I'd like to think I'm a mess you'd wear with pride."
Yes. Absolutely.