Liberman's urban slang needs a bit of rust-proofing

I love those cats on Language Log. I love how unpatronizing their attitude towards English usually is. But I've noticed that they tend to get themselves into a bit of fog when dealing with hip-hop slanguage. My personal theory is that hip-hop slang is far too rich and fast-moving for linguists to easily keep up. In "The ships, it shuts everything up", there are two separate head-scratching comments.

first heard back-end abbreviations -- like "stache" for moustache and "rents" for parents -- about 30 years ago, and I thought this fad was more or less over, except maybe as a way of forming nicknames like "Zo" for Alonzo Mourning (who probably got his monicker 25 years ago, anyhow). For example, calls za "an old way of sayin pizza, its stupid noone says it so dont".

Well, "za" is bougie college speak. No edge whatsoever (thus the Urban Dictionary comment). But there are many such abbreviations in hip-hop slang. Some examples:

  • "dro", for a particularly potent form of hydroponically grown marijuana (shortened from the slang term "hydro")
  • "lo" for Ralph Lauren Polo clothing
  • "nana" or "nanny", for female genitals, shortened from "punanny"
  • "gauge", a shotgun, shortened from "twelve gauge"
  • "zurp", for a codeine cocktail, shortened from "sizzurp", a corruption of "syrup"
  • The old school "fro" for "afro"

Of course there's the Rap Group "Tha Liks", who were originally "Tha Alkaholiks" (and pretty dang good, too).

And on the sports theme, one should really count "Bama".

Another quote:

I thought that cats was also obsolete slang, but apparently it's back on the streets -- with a difference. For the likes of Louis Armstrong, cats were the musical in-group, but it looks like these days, it's Dogs Out against "you cats".

"cats" never really went away, but it did become generalized from just members of the hip, cool set to refer to any person. According to American African Studies profs it came from the Wolof "kai" signifying "person" in compound words (they claim similar origins for "hip" and "cool"), so I suppose it might have just been finding its roots. "Cats" has been common urban parlance all through the hip-hop era.

[Uche Ogbuji]

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Pardon me for an extremely naive question -- I know nothing of linguistics -- but how does slang propagate? How do the inventors of (here, hip-hop) slang terms put the terms and definitions into the minds of the community of speakers? I can see how the terms might be distributed, e.g., over radio or compact disks, but how are the definitions transmitted without there being the kind of lexicon involved for those of us who are unacculturated?