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Culture, Leisure

Slang Lag

by Brandon Edmonds / 13.08.2010

Dating younger is a fetish. It tends to end badly. One of the (more minor) things sealing the impossibility of ah inter-generational romance, besides life experience, or whatever, is slang dissonance. Or slang lag. Yours is older. Theirs is kind of up to the minute. Or vice versa. Slang lag. Slang has always been a youth marker. A differentiating factor. As much as taste in music and fashion. If not more so.

Watch an old James Dean movie from the 1950s and a big part of the rebellion he was giving a master class in for an entire generation of post-war youth (who’s own children now run the corporations running us) was linguistic. He talked different. He had a poetic rage that turned self-expression into a liberating cry. Watch Marlon Brando in this screen test for Rebel Without a Cause – the role Dean would famously get. It’s an amazing lesson in early adolescent signs – the very ones that still (barely) animate the Twilight cast.

Watch to the end for his shit-stirring grin. The way Brando smirks through the casting process. He has the world’s most charming fuck you quality. There’s the twitchiness, the slouch, the animal yearning, the sudden anger, the maudlin vanity. And most of all the language. “I’m gettin’ outta’ here! If we have a little dough and a gun we can leave.” That escape urge is written into the raging DNA of teenagers everywhere. I’m getting outta here. It’s for all time. But the slang isn’t. The clip is mostly dated by beatnik expressions. The lapsed speech. Brando doesn’t say ‘rad’ or ‘douche nozzle’. He doesn’t say ‘honeyz’ or ‘bro’.

Nothing ages you quicker than slang. Slang is the linguistic equivalent of rings around an old oak tree. Even ‘dude’ that most domesticated and prevalent of slang slung is hard for me to say unthinkingly. I tend to use ‘dude’ in quotes (which probably makes me a douche). Using ‘dude’ without an ironic inflection makes me self-conscious (douche, definitely). Saying ‘dude’ gives me 80s Nerd movies dejavu. It goes with overdone Breakfast Club categories like jock, rebel, princess and kook. It is wreathed in nostalgia. Dude.

I see Keanu Reaves giving death a wedgie in Bill & Ted. I see Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. River Phoenix. It’s sort of sad. That a term so manifold and bendable – so popular – increasingly evokes the tattered ends of my own Nineties youth, flapping in the cold wind of mortality. Saying dude is performative for me. An act. A storied little index of my cultural history. Even ‘like’ still connotes 90s teenage sass to me. When it’s an antique by now. Nobody says it. Who says ‘like’ besides pre-teens in family movies?

‘Rad’ is doing the rounds lately. Being a neo-Marxist douche means it pains me to use it. It’s the truncation of radical. It bespeaks the political passivity of Generation Y to me. That bone deep defeatist thing of we’re all just whistling Dixie in the Matrix so fighting capitalism is pointless. Nothing is real. It’s social media over social meaning. Which is just me being an over-generalizing douche. I love ‘douche’. That was the best thing to come out of my dating younger. She used ‘douche’ a lot. It was new to me. Still packed a punch. It was dizzying when she upped the ante and called me a ‘douchebag’. Once we made it to the airlessly sublime promontories of ‘douche-nozzle’. That was a good day.

Slang is folksy. It’s the language of the commons. It has a charge to it when used appropriately – for shock, for self-release, for throwing grenades at a world that won’t bend to your will. That satisfying charge is why brands so often use slang communicating with consumers. It’s a commonality. A quick fix blast of easy populism. Don’t let them. Keep inventing new terms of abuse.

This country is awash in slang; s’camto, tsotsi taal, funigalo, zef praat. It’s vibrant and springs eternal from the fissures between 11 official languages. Slang is commercially attractive, it instantly imparts shared meaning. A sense of belonging. Corporates love slang. Look at MTN’s use of “Ayoba”, the World Cup’s “ke nako” or our own appropriation of “mahala”.

The great slang era was the 1920s and ‘30s: attaboy, baby, bimbo, gams, baloney, the bee’s knees, gatecrasher, lollapalooza, butt me – as in give me a smoke, nookie, on the level, palooka, sap and sugar daddy. It was a moment of great social upheaval as the Depression bit deep before the war that ushered in the global Pax Americana (now unraveling in our own time).

Is this era remotely as rich in popular verbal forms? The high water mark of contemporary slang so far is Snoop Dogg’s shizzle-dizzle shtick which fizzled quick. It’s a reflection of the shallow self-promoting era of personal branding that Snoop never stopped mentioning he was the source on his reality-show. Owning slang is like incorporating wind. Douche-nozzle. Slang lives or dies by the social currents in the culture. If those currents are conformist and passive – slang wilts. Corporate values take hold. Buy, sell, exfoliate. Corporate speak reigns. Shop, surrender, suspend disbelief. Others have noticed.

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