News & Politics

Why This Decade Sucked, #2: Geeks Spittin’ Like Gangstas


We will, in the closing days of this wretched decade, list the Top Ten reasons why it sucked. We’re behind schedule, so here are four for the price of one. Previous reasons: social media ruined the internet, artists joined the farm league, New York turned into America, guilty pleasures without guilt, and various others.

Like everyone, we enjoyed the video in which a little girl yells, “I want my money bitch!” at Will Ferrell. What’s not to like?

But it got us thinking about one other thing that developed in the ’00s that no one seems to mention: the explosion of incongruous persons affecting the speech of hardcore gangstas.

The idea isn’t new. Having a dignified person suddenly act street is an old comic trope, though classically the perpetrator usually gets the usage wrong (like the professors in Ball of Fire: “I think it is known as an ‘up-stick'”).

Late in the last decade, we noticed young persons of middle-class and collegiate background peppering their speech with ghetto slang. Here too incongruity was the joke: few were seriously intending to “step,” nor to “brawl,” when they said so.

But this really got out of hand in the ’00s, as these youngsters entered the editorial professions. Suddenly it became acceptable for pencil-necked scriveners to spit hard on a freestyle.

In recent days we have seen a Twitter dispute between internet entrepreneurs headlined, “Andrew Baron and Jason Calacanis have beef.” Other internet wags show a tendency to get all gangsta over New York Times wedding notices. For a Jobs for Justice fundraiser, Young Philly Politics inveighed its patrons to rock out with their cocks out.

Even aficionados of board games have come up with variations like “Straight Up Chess,” and otherwise well-behaved mom-bloggers give their pets names like “Cholo.” Nominations for poets laureate, too, have been affected.

The subsidiary causes are various. Shows like Oz gave suburban viewers access to more authentic street language. A watershed may have been Tha Schizzolator, an internet device popular in 2004 which rendered text entries into the colorful patois of Snoop and gave office time-wasters more opportunity to work on their rap-world dialect skills. And of course the general tendency to indulge what used to be guilty pleasures has affected language, too, and drawn the pleasing cadences and consonance of hip-hop and hard rock into what used to be polite speech.

It’s odd, in perspective, and kind of obnoxious, but does it suck? No and yes. It’s terrific that street language still informs standard speech. That’s what keeps it breathing.

The only downside we see is this. We are increasingly a nation of managers, facilitators, and key-clackers. We don’t create much more than “information.” Declining youth employment means fewer up-and-comers get any experience of what used to be called real work before they are corralled into offices. We get more effete by the minute.

It may be that the tendency of desk jockeys to affect street language is a reaction to that. Deprived of contact with the physical world except on dance floors and at Chelsea Piers, and vaguely missing it, they seek to feel it through tough speech. The humor attached to it is an acknowledgment that it’s second-hand and denatured — like frat-house talk compared with that found on loading docks.

But over time we forget that it’s a joke, and begin to think ourselves tougher than we are. In the day-to-day, this doesn’t make much difference, as the folks who play this game mostly mix with one other, and do not take the opportunity to try their routines out among actual roughnecks. In the longer term, geeks talking street may become the intellectual establishment’s equivalent of the bellicose talk favored by a certain class of American politicians and the voters they mirror — the “bring ’em on” crowd that lately ruled.

It may be that in some future matter of global judgement, a new ruling class may get with the times and, though unprepared to throw (at least in the right direction), announce to their enemies, “If you wanna step, motherfucker, let’s go to war.”

The language will be new, but the results will probably be the same.

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