In this Highsnobiety op-ed, Lorena Cupcake explains why the phenomenon of declaring certain “internet slang” words “over” is actually deeply wrong-headed.
Zedd had only one request for the New Year. “It’s 2017. Can we pls stop saying “lit”? Thanks.”
Best known for his collaborations with Top 40 stalwarts like Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber, the Russian-born production wunderkind was wandering into a world where his words – and his directive to stop using one in particular – had implications he was unaware of. When a Twitter user pointed out that he was policing the use of AAVE, he responded, “wtf is AAVE?”
While he’s since apologized for his misstep, his request was emblematic of a culture that borrows words from African American Vernacular English and African American subcultures, mislabels it “internet slang” and then discards those words when it gets bored. It’s an annual trend: if you look back a year ago to early 2016, MTV was promising ten new words to learn in the same breath that they declared “basic” and “squad” as dead as glitter roots and clip-in man buns. This year, Vogue ran its own list of the most “overused” words on the internet, and, again, it was full of AAVE.
What’s never acknowledged in the rush to throw words like “lit” and “fam” in the waste bin is that every single word on these lists existed in African-American communities – often for years – before high-profile placement in media lead them to be clumsily run into the ground by non-black people looking for cultural cachet.
The origins of these slang terms are often discarded in the rush to Columbus someone else’s long established practices and signifiers, and late adopters may not be aware of the full context of words they bandy about. For example, Vogue’s list helpfully explained that “sus” is short for “suspect.” However, it didn’t mention the homophobic connotation of the original usage – as seen in a 2015 Bossip article outlining “Birdman’s Most Suspect Moments” – because, presumably, its staff didn’t know about them.
(Fuccboi (or fuckboy) received a similar transformation, by the way, transforming from an anti-gay pejorative to the perfect term to describe the (heterosexual) loser hitting on you in the club last night in your group chat.)
Not only are the backstories of these words often incomplete or straightforwardly wrong, they’re often not correctly attributed to the people (or cultures) who created them. America has a long history of failing to credit black inventors: Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell stay fresh on the tongue of every science fair competitor while names like Lewis Latimer – the son of former slaves who helped invent both the light bulb and the telephone – fade from the history books like they were written with disappearing ink.
(A quick bit of history, in case you’re curious: The Patent Act of 1793 allowed any citizen or citizens of the United States to lay claim to the invention of “any new and useful art, machine, manufacture or composition of matter.” At the time, enslaved Africans were not considered citizens, so black inventors couldn’t claim patents for another 77 years, during which time the US Patent Office denied their applications.)
The pattern repeats itself today. Kayla Newman, a Chicagoland teen who coined the term “on fleek” in a viral clip posted to the recently-shuttered video-sharing app Vine, watched her brainchild proliferate throughout the greater cultural consciousness as she remained largely in the shadows while brands like Taco Bell and IHOP jumped on the “fleek” bandwagon.
Thanks to the clever work of marketing agencies who employ the exact same culture-vulture millennials posting Dark Kermit memes to their personal accounts and tweeting “daddi” at Drake, whenever there’s monetary benefit to be gained from an association with black culture, it usually goes to corporations instead of black originators and creatives.
The African American LGBT community, and particularly trans women of color (TWOC), contributed words like “drag” and “shade” to the lexicon decades before they were popularized on RuPaul’s Drag Race. At the same time, TWOC experience discrimination that is compounded by the fact they are both transgender women and women of color, including staggering rates of homicide, police violence and sexual violence.
Lead by the incredible popularity of the Kardashians, signifiers of dark-skinned beauty are being co-opted by lighter-skinned people like never before. Cornrows are deemed “chic and edgy… on the right person with the right clothing,” re-dubbed “boxer braids” and classified as “new” and “fresh” only after they’re removed from black bodies.
In a similar fashion, a company can make thousands of dollars selling a T-shirt that says “Not Your Bae” while people whose speech patterns differ from the white-sounding Standard English are discriminated against in the workplace and school. One study found that speakers of African American Vernacular English may earn 3-4% less money over their lifetimes than people from similar demographics who speak Standard English.
Bearing that inequity in mind, perhaps it’s time for corporations and websites to fall back and stop filling up their plates greedily without giving anything back in terms of vocal and monetary support to the actual creators, who may not themselves be allowed to indulge without facing economic and social repercussions.
To use another food analogy, it’s great if you try the nam kao tod at your local Thai restaurant and love it. It’s something that’s being offered, you’re partaking in it respectfully and paying the creators what they think it’s worth.
It’s different if you try nam kao tod and start selling Crisp Rice Salad Bowls at your trendy Silver Lake food truck; popularizing a distorted version of the dish through magazines and social media. And it’s definitely different if, once the trend has died down, you declare crunchy rice ball salad “over” without once thinking of the chefs who turned you on to the dish they’ve been making forever.
The same applies to words like “lit”, “slay” and “woke.” The fact that non-black people discover these words and run them into the ground doesn’t make them a passing “trend,” and it’s not up to non-black individuals, corporations and websites to declare that they’re passé, because they never belonged to them in the first place.
Non-black people need to consider the lack of credit given to black creators of the language we use on a daily basis, as well as grasping how obnoxious it is to label elements from another culture “off-trend.” That’s something to think about the next time you hear someone declare certain “internet” words “over.”
For more social commentary, here’s why Nicki Minaj should be your role model (for real).
- Lead image: Chris Colls