THERE'S A WEIRD WAY WE NEW YORKERS TALK that some outsiders may not fully understand. The cities of the Northeast each have their distinct slang and dialects. There’s the Boston accent, which just about everyone considers annoying. The Philadelphia accent, which is similar to the New York accent, but with a bit more Pennsylvanian-Southern Jersey in it. They each have their local slang and ways of pronouncing words. And then there’s the New York accent. Some of the slang terms we use in New York have become national over the years, and some of them derive from the hip hop culture, which of course started in New York. Growing up as a kid in the nineties I remember we used to use words like “wack” which meant bad or lame. “Mad,” which meant a lot, as in “I made mad money last week.” “Foul,” which was similar to wack, but was usually used when somebody wronged another person. And then there was “yo” which could begin or end just about any sentence, as in “Yo that shit was crazy.” It could also serve as a universal greeting, similar to “hi” or “hey.” We’d almost always answer the phone with a “yo.” Perhaps most controversial of all was the N-word. In the hip hop subculture in New York City, everybody used the N-word, regardless of what race you were, but it was always “nigga” and not “nigger.” This might take some people by surprise to see an Asian kid or a white kid drop the N-word, but it wasn’t about racism. It was just a slang term we used it to refer to anyone—regardless of their race. You could be talking about the whitest kid in the world and you might say, “John, that nigga’s mad crazy yo.” I don’t remember a single black person ever getting offended by this in all my years growing up.
But this was all back when I was a little hood rat. I had since matured greatly and slang terminology fell out of my vocabulary. But some of it still remained, and being around native New Yorkers—especially when drunk—brought it out. I’d like to think that one can be educated and intellectual and still keep some of the slang of one’s youth, or of one’s city. Slang allows you to personalize language. It allows you to create an in-group code. Sure, if used too much it can make someone look like too much of a hood rat or like someone who needs to grow up a little. So I made a conscious effort over the years to minimize my slang and upgrade my vocabulary. I also upgraded my social circle. I stopped hanging out with almost everyone from my old high school clique, most of whom were losers doing nothing with their lives. In college I made new friends. I sought out people I thought were bright and who had a decent head on their shoulders but who still knew how to have a good time. I wasn’t about to stop drinking and partying. I tried to learn new words and sound sophisticated. I even managed to fool a few people in the early years that I actually was a lot smarter than I really was. I even tried to get rid of my accent so that no one would know that I’m from New York. Perhaps in my new persona, that of the “sophisticated intellectual,” I felt the need to extricate myself from my working class Queens roots. I didn’t want to be judged as a simpleton because of it. The working class New York accent carries with it many connotations. Many of them negative.
This was all part of crafting my new image. I remember one of my teachers in high school telling me right before graduation that college would be a wonderful experience where you could reinvent yourself. That was exactly what I intended to do, although it didn’t happen immediately. I had no idea who I wanted to reinvent myself into upon high school graduation but I did know I didn’t want to be the person I was in high school.
And so when you read me and some of my friends using slang when communicating just remember that it’s due to us growing up in our environment as New Yorkers, not because we’re all a bunch of unsophisticated hood rats. (Although clearly not all of my friends are sophisticated intellectuals.)