Word SLINGERS Slang gets its 'props' in the teens' English

October 13, 1993|By Deborah Work | Deborah Work,Fort Lauderdale Sun-SentinelFort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

Hovering in the shadows at her teen-age son's party, Carline Moore overhears this snatch of conversation:

"There it is. This jam is thick. Plenty of mad honeys, dope system."

"We phat. But I gotta flex. I'll be maxin' at the crib."

"I'm easin' here. Later."

"Later."

Come again?

For the uninitiated, it's the language of the hip-hop generation, and it can be heard in malls, on the street and in classrooms -- even prep-school classrooms.

Hoopty, hotty, hoochie. Slang is colorful, descriptive patter that eases communication among young folks while keeping parents and teachers at bay. If you talk to teens, you'd best be savvy because slanguage is always changing, always confounding. Just when you think you got it, you don't.

'Cause what unsuspecting adult would think that "juice" means power, that "skinz" is a well-built woman, and that "grip" is money?

Of course, teens are simply doing what adolescents through the ages have done, says Doctor Dre, producer, actor and host of "Yo! MTV Raps."

"They're just distinguishing themselves from older folks," he says.

Slang springs from a need to express, with new words continually passing through the language, and staying only as long as they are useful.

"By the time Webster's catches up with a word, people have stopped using it. One thing about slang, it's always changing," Doctor Dre says.

There is no question that inner-city kids are responsible for some of the most popular slang today. Words such as "yo," "dis" and "bad" have made their way from the streets to the suburbs, becoming a part of mainstream culture.

And that's not unusual, considering that "hip" and "cool" were invented by young African-American jazz musicians during the '40s and are now permanent fixtures in the American lexicon.

A perception that slang is created and heard only within the inner city, however, is misleading. According to Random House's "Thesaurus of Slang," it's created by all social classes as a more convenient, more private or more entertaining form of communication.

"Groups create their own language within a language," write Esther and Albert Lewin in the preface of the thesaurus. "Peers recognize each other through its use. It's a way of belonging."

Doctor Dre agrees that slang knows no color, class or boundary.

"Don't put color into it. Slang crosses all lines," says the good Doctor, who stays au courant by shootin' the gift with his 12-year-old nephew in New York. "Whether you do it for fun, or to communicate with your immediate group at work or home, everybody does it."

Some teens, however, say class and culture do influence the creation of slang. One Florida high school student, who goes by the nickname 'Lil Greedy, says he likes to use slang because it identifies him as a young black man and creates a distance between his world and what he sees as an oppressive Eurocentric culture.

"I don't always want to use the white man's language. Sometimes I want to use my own," he says. "We make it up, it makes sense to us, it's ours."

But even Florida prep school students have their own way of getting their message across.

They chill, blaze and rag with the best of 'em.

"To put it simply, slang says it better," says Josh Reed, a summer camp counselor at a prep school. "Slang is more intense."

Sure, verbal graffiti can entertain and enlighten. But Doctor Dre reminds that communication works only if those you're speaking to understand what you're saying. "It can hold you back if you step out and no one knows what you are talkin' about."

Chafirs, a 16-year-old high school student, says he knows when to use it and when not to.

"I don't talk this way if I'm finnin' to go on a job interview. Then I talk proper. But when I'm with my friends and tryin' to make a point, usin' our words is the best way to do it," he says.

Playing with language is a biological phenomenon, says Lynn Berk, a linguist at Florida International University in Miami. "People just love to play word games," she says. "Jargon is created to set groups apart. Professionals and politicians do the same thing. It makes you sound important, special."

Some words are so unconventional, though, that adults are clueless to their meaning. "But parents shouldn't get upset. 'Cool' was considered bad at some point, now everyone uses it," Ms. Berk says.

Parent Libby Snyder agrees, saying the best part about slang is that it is harmless.

"I don't always know what they are talking about, but that's OK," says Ms. Snyder, who has three children, including a 15-year-old son.

"I know it's not out of defiance, just searching for a language of their own. I just hope when they go out to look for a job, they revert to standard English."

But Ms. Snyder is hipper than she gives herself credit for being. She knows when she hears Mom Duke, the kids are talking about her. She knows a "mad jam" is a party worth attending.

"There's nothing like riding down the road with three teen-agers in the car. You hear it all," says Ms. Snyder, who lives in Coral Springs, Fla.

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