February 2, 1989 C: 1:5
“Among the Fresh A Dweeb Is at a Loss”
By Brooke Kroeger
THE first time a 12-year-old walks out the door for ”some cold, cold lampin’,” parents know that something has changed. A teen-ager has arrived.
Though some words of the moment are ubiquitous, others vary from school to school, neighborhood to neighborhood and city to city, a function of both the similar and diverse realities adolescents encounter.
”It’s a sound and scientific fact of the field of linguistics,” said Geneva Smitherman, professor of communications at Wayne State University in Detroit. ”Language grows out of culture and experience.”
Erica Buehrens, 14 years old, is an eighth grader at Hunter High School and her sister, Mary, 11, is in the sixth grade at Public School 6, both in Manhattan. In a telephone interview, they dissected the language of their times, not at all concerned that their father, John, listened in as they spoke, trying to ”diss” them at every opportunity. (Diss – verb. 1. to show disrespect, to get the last laugh 2. to give someone the cold shoulder, as in, ”I didn’t really mean to ‘diss’ her, but she was getting on my nerves.”) The word cool, the girls explained, is still important, but hot means more. It means cool and extremely good-looking, because you can be cool but not very cute. (But no one says cute anymore.) You might call someone who is extremely cool ”fresh,” or if he or she is even cooler than that, ”stupid fresh.” A ”stud” is someone who thinks he is stupid fresh, but is not. The opposite, of course, would be a ”nerd,” a ”geek” or a ”geekoid.” Two sixth graders at St. Bernard’s School in Manhattan, William (Gibby) Harris and Jamie Ross, offered ”dweeb” as having with the same connotation.
Both agreed that when a boy and girl decide to be a couple, they are ”going out,” but ”going out” only rarely involves going anywhere. It usually means talking a lot on the telephone and holding hands in the halls at school. Boys usually do the asking, but sometimes girls do, Mary said.
”There’s still a base system,” said Erica, explaining how the physical progress of such relationships is measured.
”In sixth grade,” she said, ”first base is holding hands and second base is kissing on the mouth.”
For older children the system becomes more accelerated. ”Everyone always asks, ‘How far did you get? How far did he try?’ ” Erica said.
Jennifer Rudin, a 15-year-old student at the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan, said ”pseudo” is a prefix of choice to describe a person you do not think much of. This is often hyphenated to ”pseudo-rebel” or ”pseudo-hippie.” ”Cheesy” means phony. ”Gnarly” means disgusting.
Not surprisingly, ”deep” and ”intense” are both good things to be at the Professional Children’s School, a private school for children in the performing arts. ”Pretentious” is not.
Erica Buehrens said a problem youngster at Hunter is known as a ”J.D.” (as in juvenile delinquent), a ”druggie” or a ”pothead.”
It is not cool at Hunter to flaunt good grades, she said. ”I make straight A’s but I never talk about it,” Erica said. ”It’s cool to do really badly. If you are interested in school and you show it, you’re a nerd.”
In the suburbs of Washington, ”get a grip” is what you tell your mother when she ”loses it,” and such variations as ”chill out” and the more eloquent ”take a chill pill” are heard throughout the Northeast.
In Oakland, Calif., where Vanessa Mandel, 14, is in the eighth grade at the Head-Royce School, the language of youth is just about the same, save a few California touches.
Nerds can also be ”goobs” or ”tools;” the old Valley Girl terms ”rad” and ”icy” still describe the very cool, and ”funky fresh” means offbeat but fun.
Someone totally focused on school? ”A bookhound,” she said. ”And it’s past nerdiness.”
As in New York, a couple are said to be ”going out,” but no one talks about bases. Describing a French kiss, Vanessa said, ”You’d just say, ‘He frenched her.’ ” Delinquents, she said, are referred to as ”stoners” or ”losers.”
For seventh and eighth graders at the Children’s Storefront School, a private school in Harlem, delinquents are ”baseheads,” ”crackheads,” or plain old hoodlums. When you want to tell a delinquent to stay away from you, you say, ”I ain’t with it” really fast, so it comes out ”Ianwidit.”
Of course, if you are ”with it,” as the expression used to go, meaning you are a real pacesetter, you ”be down.”
Thomas Kochman, a University of Illinois professor of communications and an authority on slang, said black slang tends to be more provocative and has more ”vitality of imagery” than white slang. ”The words themselves would force you to figure out the reference,” he explained. ”White slang will be explicit and black slang, implicit.”
Victor Catano, 12; Carlos Dais, 15, and his brother Kimathi, 13; and Oneshia Hull, 14, at the Children’s Storefront explained that extremely intelligent students are sometimes referred to as ”brainiacs,” but that ”nerd” is rarely used.
When a boy and girl pair off, they are known to be ”messin’,” and if you want to know what they are up to you would ask one of them to, ”Fill me in on the scoop.” But if the answer is that your friend spent the weekend alone ”hanging out” (as such lack of activity used to be described), he might say he did ”some cold, cold lampin,’ ” an allusion to standing around a street lamp.
”Diss” is widely used at their school, the students said. ”Snap,” as in ”Oooo, snap,” is a related term that can mean a put-down delivered with great aplomb. Other words for ”cool” include ”fresh,” ”stupid fresh,” ”nasty,” ”hype,” and ”stupid hype.”
In Detroit, Professor Smitherman added, ”chillin’ ” is the latest word for ”cool” and ”des,” (from death), a common rap term, is used to describe something that is the ultimate of its type, like a ”des record.”
The students in Harlem offered up ”stink.” If Kimathi tells Oneshia that she is wearing some ”mighty stink boots,” he means he loves the way they look. But if he turns to his brother and says, ”you stink,” he means it is time for a bath.
Be careful with ”stink.” It can really foul you up.
National History Day contestants, please read this before you contact me.
The Suffragents won the Gold Medal in US History in the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was a finalist for the 2018 Sally and Morris Lasky Prize, presented by the Center for Political History. See “Summer Camp Newsletters” and Facebook posts from book-related appearances. Reviews, notices, and articles about my books are under their titles here. My articles are here.
Upcoming Events: September 23: Bentson Dean’s Lecture, College of Arts and Science, New York University. October 17: Suffragents Panel, National Archives, Washington DC.  March 27 Ephemera Society of America, 40th annual conference, Old Greenwich CT. June 4-6 “Métiers et professions des médias (XVIIIe-XXIe siècles),” Université de Lausanne (Switzerland).
Happened 2019: Exhibition Opening Remarks: “Women Get the Vote: A Historic Look at the Nineteenth Amendment,“New York Society Library. February 23: “Public Values in Conflict with Animal Agribusiness Practices,” UCLA Law School, Los Angeles. March 13:“ The Suffragents,” Scarsdale Woman’s Club, Scarsdale NY. March 24: League of Women Voters, Albany County at the Bethlehem (NY) Public Library. March 25: “Judges, Lawyers, and Women’s Suffrage: Recognizing the Men Who Stood with Women on the Front Lines,” Gender Fairness Committee of the Third Judicial District, CLE, NY State Courts at SUNY Albany Law School, Albany NY. May 15: “The Republican Suffragents,” National Women’s Republican Club, New York City. August 7: Panel, “From Emma Goldman to the Marketplace of Ideas: Marking the 100th Anniversary of Free Speech at the Supreme Court.” (page 40) AEJMC, Toronto. August 14: Webinar, National Park Service.