January 31, 2008

Tell It Like It Is

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Not gonna lie, my introduction to that particular phrase occured during Cornell Days. I was an overenthusiastic prefrosh already self-conscious about my own Midwestern slang, and having never heard what was supposedly normal lingo in the East made me feel even more of an outsider. What did they mean, “not gonna lie?” Shouldn’t it be assumed that you were generally telling the truth when you spoke?
In my time here, I’ve encountered more unfamiliar slang than if you dropped me in China for my college experience: “Bro,” (sometimes pronounced bro but more often as “brah” — you can imagine my confusion when hearing guys greet each other), ay baybay (surprisingly not used as a sleazy pick-up line), a series of obnoxious abbreviations: “that’s legit,” “ridic,” “obvi,” and my current favorite, the inexplicably viral “chyea boy.”
Slang, (or lingo, or lexicon) — be it as counterintuitive as “not gonna lie,” or as awesomely arbitrary as “chyeaaaaaaaa boyyyyyyy*,” is an often-overlooked part of our education here at Cornell. Whether intended ironically (i.e.: “word”), or unintentionally dominating an entire sentence (like “like”), the informal things we say are a constant presence on our campus, an unseen signifier of who we think we are. This intrepid reporter’s question is: is there slang that exists only at Cornell?
Unless you count that oh-so-dirty word, “prelim,” the general consensus is no. If there is anything disappointing about Cornell’s lexicon, it’s that we lack our own version of “that’s so Rufus!” (Remember that scene in Never Been Kissed?) I found it especially surprising; I came from a high school that thrived on created terminology.
But why doesn’t Cornell have its own lexicon?
According to Frank Cody, Society of the Humanities Fellow, this happens because “high school is a much more concentrated environment than a college campus,” especially one as spread out as Cornell. Not to mention, he adds, “high schoolers are more anxious about defining themselves through common stereotypes than college-age students [hopefully] are.”
As disappointing as that may seem (quick, y’all, make up something crazee), we more than make up for it. Because of our diversity — racially, regionally, and stereotypically (we’re talking “dude bros,” “sorority girls,” “hipsters,” — as blatantly one-sided as you can get, apologies), our language ends up being an eccentric mix of East coast, West coast, and everything in between**. In fact, our use of language makes us, dare we say, cosmopolitan***.
There are the supposed regionalized phrases: all those SoCal terms like “dude,” bro (but pronounced “brah”), tchya (the earlier form of “chyeaah), tight; the NorCal “hella;” the southern “y’all,” the Midwestern “for sure” and the east coast’s “wicked” and “that’s legit.” But although many of these terms have regional roots, today many are more strongly associated with certain (stereotyped) sub-groups.
“A hipster in Wicker Park will have more in common [linguistically] with a hipster in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn than with his/her neighbor on the south side of Chicago,” explains Cody. Therefore, slang associated with, say, SoCal surfer culture may be reappropriated by northeasterners (and Cornellians) who want to emblemize that identity, in the same way that hip hop culture has been reappropriated by white suburban teenagers throughout the decades (aka: my using “chyeaaaaaaah boy,” and sounding like a fool).
Simultaneously, there are those stigmatized words we try to avoid so we aren’t associated with their accompanying stereotypes. “Like,” “I mean…” and text/IM speak tend to be high on that list, all of which are negatively associated with valley and preteen girls. In fact, it’s interesting that, although the above examples are linked to gender, in practice the distinction is actually generational. “Adults commonly project all of their problems with youth onto the word [like],” according to Cody.
While some may only use certain lingo — obnoxious as OMG or not — ironically, over time their use becomes normal. Because really, how many of us started out saying “word” in complete seriousness? As with anything, our attentiveness to what we say fades from overuse.
With the advent of Facebook, YouTube and, of course, Urban Dictionary, localized slang became available to the masses; as each term’s popularity spread, its coolness decreased, like with anything. In other words, when I started saying chyea boy, cool people (whoever you may be) shook their heads and went searching for a new way to express enthusiasm.
Cornell, much like the internets, brings together distinctly different slang. But the fun part happens when all the crazy things we say get thrown into the melting pot, and sentences like, “Word, bro, I mean, like, that’s maaad hella tight,” fly out of our mouths on a day to day basis. To the nearby Ivies who feel compelled to speak like OEDS, complete with fake British accents, we may sound like teenagers with turrets, but we know the truth: our talk is “mad cool.”

Sammy Perlmutter ‘10, Arts and Entertainment Editor, also contributed to this feature.

*In the writing of this feature, it came to my attention that I actually do not know the proper spelling for the above phrase. Is there an exact number of As and Ys, or can they be used as liberally as one likes? Must one use a T before the CH? I consulted Sun Style, but to my chagrin it had not been updated recently enough to answer my question. Mike Jones was unfortunately unavailable for comment.
** Meaning the Midwest, the South and Canada.
*** Meaning psuedo-globalized, not the pink fizzy drink made popular on Sex and the City.