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Translation, please

By Christina Minor Tribune-Herald staff writer

Saturday, March 29, 2003

OK, listen up. I've got the 411 on slang.

Wait, hold up. Don't be dissing this before you read it. I promise not to totally max you out with all the sweet trash talk.

When today's teens speak, some adults need a decoder to figure out what they're saying. Slang has taken on new meaning since the days of "far out" and "groovy."

According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary , slang is "language peculiar to a particular group; an informal nonstandard vocabulary composed typically of coinages, arbitrarily changed words and extravagant, forced or facetious figures of speech."

The 10th edition of the dictionary, which is currently in publication, also includes several slang terms, including skanky, trash talk and dis.

Jim Lowe, senior editor at Merriam-Webster, said slang terms find their way into the word book after a couple years of use. They have to appear in print before they can be added to the dictionary.

"Everybody uses slang," said Patricia Cubor-Avila, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of North Texas. "It's ever changing. It goes in and out (of style) pretty quickly."

Clay Butler, a lecturer of linguistics at Baylor University, said slang belongs to a narrow age group.

"There are always going to be 13-year-olds coming in to use slang, and there will always be 18- to 20-year-olds going out and no longer using slang," he said. "Slang to me is something that's deemed frivolous by adults. That's why adolescents use it."

Teens use slang as a way of expressing their individuality from adults and their peers, Butler said. They set themselves apart from others people by using slang, but at the same time they gain acceptance with those who use the same words, he said.

"That stage in their lives is controlled by others," Butler said. "They don't have to pay bills, buy groceries, make a house payment. The only way they can be noticed or reckoned with is by what they say. It helps teens to identify themselves from 'them.’ ”

Ryan Newberry, a senior at Midway High School, said some groups have secret words that others don't understand, but most of the time the words aren't different, just the definition. Newberry and his crew (or friends) will try new words and see if they catch on. Instead of saying cool or tight to mean something's good, they use Batman.

The slang term sweet means the best. Cool means average or pretty good, but sweet means really cool.

Instead of dissing someone, Newberry said, he talks bad about someone.

"I try not to use dis because I don't want to sound like a gangster thug or something," he said.

Erin Pack, a sophomore at Robinson High School, agreed that dis is not real common. And she definitely thinks awesome and cool are out. That's ’80s, she said.

And when asked if dude was still appropriate, her response was, "Ugh, don't use that."

For Pack and her friends, deck means stylish, fin means unstylish, and cheesy means dorky.

"Oh, wow," Pack said, when asked about popular slang words, "I didn't realize how cheesy teens are with slang."

Slang is typically used in two ways, said Connie Eble, author of College Slang 101 and Slang and Sociability . One is to help people claim an identity with one an each other. Professors will have their own jargon, doctors have theirs, college students create slang terms and so on.

The second reason is for people to identify themselves with others using the latest trendy words.

"Slang allows people to identify themselves with those they like and exclude those they don't," Eble said. "It allows people to talk about things they don't want others to know about."

But first and foremost, people need to realize that slang is vocabulary, said Eble, who also is an English professor at the University of North Carolina. It's not another style of language. It's just a twist to words that already exist in the English language.

"There are so many slang words that it's hard to keep up with them," Eble said.

Some slang words are revised versions of yesteryear. For example, wig out is the current way to say someone is really worried or upset about something. The older version was trip out or trippin’.

Teens used to say "don't be disrespecting me," but now the term has been reduced to dis and has taken on multiple meanings.

Other words have become so mainstream, most teens don't consider them slang anymore. Awesome, cool and clueless are three of the words used regularly in speech.

Some slang words are now considered passe. Phat (which means nice or good-looking) is no longer a popular word. And nobody says homies or posse any more. It's now the crew.

Slang usually travels fast. Music is one of the biggest avenues for slang to become mainstream. The popular hip hop musicians fill their songs with slang terms that only the coolest of the cool can figure out.

Jennifer Lopez used bling bling in her tune “Ain't It Funny.” (For the uncool, bling bling relates to diamonds, big money or flash and cash.)

Rap artists also help the continuance of the slang culture, as do television shows such as "Saturday Night Live."

"It used to be younger kids might get the slang words from their older siblings," Eble said. "But now younger kids have more mobility. They don't have to wait on the older kids to hear slang. I wouldn't be surprised if we don't start seeing it with even younger kids, like those in first grade."

But, Eble said, adolescents will offer an explanation of words to parents or siblings, if asked. Newberry sometimes has to provide the lowdown on terms to his parents.

"Sometimes when I'm talking to my friends, they don't always understand what I'm saying," he said. "They can't tell if something's good or bad. I don't think adults will ever understand the significance of what we use."

Christina Minor can be reached at 757-6901 or at



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