Trying to Stay Phat In a Trendy World

Making sense out of slang puts generations to the test

'Groovy" is resurfacing, "cool's" makin' a comeback, but, in the world of slang, "phat," which also means cool, is totally trendy today.

That's the scoop, at least, from 10 East Harlem students who put their ears to the curb and the crib and listened in New York City. During a two-year mission to document the history and culture of Manhattan, the students met informally, usually twice a week, and shared the street-talk they heard from the butcher, the baker, the barber, their friends, and others.

Photocopies of the students' encounters with slang - some colorful and comic, others more crude and rude - will be available at New York City public libraries this month, says Joanne Gray, director of youth services at the Union Settlement, an East Harlem community center that sponsored the low-budget project, "Street Talk: A Used Dictionary."

Slang, linguists say, has its roots in the tower of Babel, when the sons of Noah said: "Let us go down, and there let us confound their language that they may not understand one another's speech."

Ever since, slang has has been a preferred choice for casual communication. Now it is majorly popular among youth around the globe. This social dialect exists on Main Street, USA, as much as on Outback Avenue, Australia. A "dude" in San Diego is a "maaate" in Sydney. It appears in many languages - even sign language - simply because all it takes to create slang is to give conventional vocabulary a break.

What's in a word?

"Slang is a universal language," says Connie Eble, a noted linguist. "There is nothing peculiar about slang. It is a natural process, a very ordinary language."

A single slang word may have different meanings to different people, says Herbert Foster, author of "Ribbin' Jivin' & Playin' the Dozens." And to some, it may make no sense. Nonsense.

For instance, what the bank teller calls "cash," others may term: bread, dough, moola, bucks, buckaroos, cream, clams, or beans. As in, "You gotta have a lot of beans to rent a pad in Beantown." Translation: "You have to be rich to afford an apartment in Boston."

Jeffery Hanna of Wooster, Ohio, explains that he sometimes "takes the clue bus" (is not aware of the talk around him). "I need a translator when my four teenage sons and their friends are holding one of their typical, shorthand conversations," he says.

It took a while, but Mr. Hanna figured out a few: "'Outtie' is short for 'I'm leaving,'" he says. "'Hook me up with,' means, 'I would like to have,' as in, 'Hook me up with some of those mashed potatoes.'"

Hanna's sons could have similar trouble if their dad said: "Go take a long walk off a short pier." They may be more likely to relate to its modern counterpart, which the East Harlem students gathered: "Yo, raise up out of my face, B. Get to steppin'."

Occasionally, the two worlds meet, as in "cool," a term that gained prominence around 1964 and has haunted slang ever since.

Some slang terms are nationally prominent, such as cool, totally, as if, and gee. They spread mainly through television shows such as "Saturday Night Live" and MTV, and movies such as "Fast Times At Ridgemont High," "Stir Crazy," and "Clueless."

Remnants of regionalism

But many favored slang terms vary from region to region. For example: "Yo, B, chill out. Stop o-in."

Terri O'Neal, a seventh-grader in East Harlem explains, "It means: 'Hey, friend, calm yourself. Stop overdoing it."

By contrast, the top seven words in sixth-grader Rachel Baron's 1996 yearbook at the Urbana Middle School in Urbana, Ill., are: "Cool, dude, wuss up?, wahoo, nifty, and spiffy."

"Nifty, you know," Rachel explains, "it's like cool. You know."

That's the down side of slang: If you don't know, your ignorance may leave you feeling excluded or shut out.

"Slang is the early phase of a new word that sets up social boundaries," says George Broadwell, a linguistics professor at the University of New York, Albany. "Those who use it do a pretty good job of communicating in their social circles."

These social circles are separated either by residence, culture, age, gender, profession, or time. For instance, only Bostonians - and only some Bostonians at that - are likely to know that OFD means "originally from Dorchester;" "spuckie" is a sandwich; "Barnie" a Harvard student; and 'Saddadee' the day after Friday.

Similarly, in roadie slang, if you mention a "brain bucket" to a biker, he'll know you're talking about his helmet.

Slang exists because people want to show they are different, witty, or creative, says Jesse Sheidlower, who, as editor of the forthcoming "Random House Historical Dictionary of Slang," met with the East Harlem students for some brainstorming sessions. Others may use it to promote friendship, or even avoid being understood by standers-by.

New twists

But whatever the reason for using it, slang is more common than bubblegum under movie seats. And there's a constant interest in coming up with new terms because, as current slang seeps into daily discourse, it gradually loses its special status and becomes - conventional.

Indeed, terms as common as snack bar, ain't, sandwich, bikini, redcoat, and motel are cited as slang or former slang by various commentators, the Random House Dictionary notes.

"I shall invent a new game," George Eliot, the 19th-century author, wrote. "I shall write bits of slang and poetry on slips and give them to you to separate."

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