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On Hip Slang

Amid the endless coverage of this year’s Glastonbury Festival I came across this enigmatic nugget from Time Out magazine:

‘Dermot O’Leary played a DJ set. It kinda slapped.’

Kinda slapped, says Time Out’s feature-writer Chiara Wilkinson. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing? I resolved to work out what this might mean, through Poirot-style deduction, without having to look it up in one of the ever-expanding online dictionaries of slang.

Clearly, the metaphor being used is slapping. But does knowing that really help?

On the one hand, it could be a compliment. The image here would be slap bass guitar playing, a core component of funk music. The technique involves hitting a bass string against the fretboard with the bony joint of the thumb, instead of plucking it. The result is a pleasingly percussive doink that combines with drums to build an irresistible groove. The pioneer of slap bass was bassist Larry Graham in the late 60s, and the technique was popularised in the 70s by William Earl ‘Bootsy' Collins, during his time with James Brown and, later, George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic.

If that’s the image, Dermot O’Leary kinda slapping in a field would most definitely be a compliment. One of my happiest memories was watching Bootsy Collins and the late Gary Shider, guitarist of Parliament-Funkadelic, in an extended funky workout at London’s Barbican.

In that case, Dermot O’Leary kinda slapping would mean he laid down an irresistibly funky groove. The ‘kinda’ would be there to add an affectionate, quizzical raised eyebrow to the sentence: ‘Sheesh, who knew ol’ Dermot could be that funky?’

On the other hand, it could be a patronising put-down. The image here might be, say, a wet fish slapping down on the deck of a trawler and flopping around helplessly.

If that’s the image, Time Out’s Chiara might be telling her readers that the hapless Dermot floundered around, out of his element. Dermot the gasping Dover sole, the excruciating dad-dancer of the Glastonbury DJ world.

The ‘kinda’ would then become an indrawn breath, through gritted teeth: ‘I’m trying to be kind in how I say this – but honestly, what was the man thinking?’

The other slapping image that pops unbidden into the mind is (let’s be honest) slapping a bottom. Or possibly Will Smith jumping onstage at the Oscars to slap the face of Chris Rock. But that doesn’t work at any level: Dermot’s DJing was the aural equivalent of a slapped bottom? What, slapping his own bottom? Slapping the metaphorical collective bottom of his jigging field-based listeners? Surely not.

The joys of hip slang.

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‘Do you got the juice?’

A few years back I went with an old friend to see Janelle Monáe perform live at Manchester’s Castlefield Bowl (think flamboyant American pop/soul/hip-hop). Half way through the set, as the atmosphere was reaching fever pitch, Janelle started shouting to the exhilarated crowd: ‘Do you got the juice? Do you got the juice? DO - YOU - GOT - THE - JUICE?’

Most people screamed loudly in affirmation. They clearly did got the juice, and knew exactly what Janelle meant.

The friend I’d gone with was of a similar vintage to myself. We looked each other in the eye and said ruefully (and simultaneously), ‘Probably not, actually’.

Context made the meaning of Janelle’s ‘Do you got the juice?’ clear, even for those of us who didn’t know her 2018 Prince-influenced anthem to self-esteem, I Got the Juice. Even for those of us who are obsessive about correct English grammar.

In context, ‘Do you got the juice?’ clearly weren’t the words of an exasperated woman whose partner has just arrived home from Sainsbury’s with a suspiciously light carrier bag.

The meaning of much hip slang can be guessed from the context.

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‘Bloody ripper’

Less contextually obvious was the moment an impossibly cool young Australian dude leaned over to me and whispered, ‘Bloody ripper’, and I stared at him blankly – not knowing if it was a compliment, a criticism, or possibly a death threat.

For six years in the late 1990s I was a parish priest in Finsbury Park, in inner-city north London. It was a wildly diverse community, and parts of it were still a red-light district. The area was home to lots of young adults in their 20s who couldn’t afford the posher parts of London that were a comparable distance from the city centre.

A young woman in the church got engaged to an Australian and asked me to lead the wedding. Most of the guests flew in from Australia – many of them seven feet tall with sun-bleached fair hair, looking as if they had left their surfboards at the door. The reception was held in the upper room of the local pub The Fox (which advertised itself, helpfully for seven-foot Australians, as ‘the Fox with the biggest portions’).

After the food, the surfers reflected on the earlier wedding service. One leant across to me and said quietly, without expression or inflection, ‘Bloody ripper’.

The context gave nothing away, so I smiled and nodded, clueless.

Was it a high compliment in the lexicon of Australian slang – an echo of ‘absolutely ripping, you chaps’, from the old country?

Was it scathing criticism – like ripping up an unwanted sheet of paper?

Or was it something worse – along the lines of: ‘Remember Jack the Ripper? Well, you know what happens to vicars who preach that badly at friends’ weddings…’

Did he mean I’d murdered the service, that I was a bloody Ripper?

A few months later, at another wedding reception, I found myself sitting next to an Australian family of four, of rather more puritanical leanings. I decided I couldn’t let the opportunity pass by to ask them the meaning of ‘bloody ripper’, so I retold the story with gusto, in what I like to think was an utterly convincing Australian surf accent.

The youngsters in the family giggled nervously, while the mother looked at me with a faintly disapproving air: ‘Well, it means good or excellent – but we wouldn’t say that sort of thing, would we children?’

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The Meanings of Slang

Originally the word slang meant the language of socially undesirable or marginal types, and it continues to carry a frisson of taboo. Slang is language on the edge.

Historically, slang has always been used as a badge of subcultural identity – identifying the speaker as an insider, an initiate, one of us as opposed to one of them. It marks the speaker as different from the rest: civilians, adults, those from a different class, ethnicity or sexual subculture, the unhip (a). Slang cheerfully baffles and excludes. Innit?

I’m as fascinated by the linguistics of slang as the next guy, dude, bro, Joe, chap, mucker, hombre, homeboy, cat or wasteman.

But I’d expect Time Out to be a bit more Janelle Monáe in its analogies – and less tousle-haired surf dude. A mainstream publication would be wise not to assume all its readers are hip to all the latest argot.

So this is a heartfelt plea to cool young journalists for a little context. Give us ossifying middle-aged readers a clue as to where each cool new metaphor is heading. What are you actually telling us?

For now I’m going with Dermot being unexpectedly funky. But who knows? I’m kinda slapping my forehead in frustration here, bro.

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(a) Jonathon Green, Slang: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press 2016)

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© Mike Starkey 2023

Pic: Matthew Henry, under licence from Burst


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