(Creative Director/Copywriter Doug Cook takes on the question of using slang...)
When I’m Out in the Street
I talk the way I wanna talk
--© Out in the Street, Bruce Springsteen, the River, 1980
Even in today’s color, motion, sound and graphics-saturated media environment, copywriters still spend ponderous moments choosing just the right word. (OK, Let’s say most of ‘em do.)
In many cases, it’s the difference between pushing for the outré and edgy just short of bad taste; versus maybe just settling for safe at the risk of boring. It gets especially dicey as we approach slang—and I don’t mean “techie” talk in the way of, say, elephant cage referring to a large array of antennae surrounded by a fence.
I’m speaking of that slang we know as “street slang.”
The Word on the Street
Take the word pimp, for instance.
Safe to say it’s most widely recognized usage refers to someone plying others for purpose of recompensed sex-related activity—not suitable for ad copy or polite company. Inevitably, it raises an eyebrow. A titter. A sidelong glance.
But like so many words, over time, “pimp” has assumed other connotations. It may simply refer to someone employing back-channel means to surreptitiously pass along information for money or favor; and, in an even broader sense, it has come to commonly refer as a verb form to the heavy aggrandizement or adornment of any object, person, place or thing, as in: MTV’s Pimp My Ride—originally hosted by rapper Xzibit; MTV2 soon began airing episodes of Pimp My Ride UK hosted by DJ Tim Westwood.
Ironically, that adaption actually brings “pimp” full circle, closer to its origins almost 400 hundred years ago: It first appeared in 1607’s Thomas Middleton book Your Five Gallants, seemingly stemming from the French infinitive ‘pimper,’ meaning to dress up elegantly and from the present particle ‘pimpant’—alluring in dress; seductive.
And the plot thickened quickly—a mere 29 years later, the same author, apparently making a career of it, used “pimp” as a verb, meaning to act as a pimp, in his book, The Bashful Lover.
A Modern Dilemma
You might rightfully wonder, what brings us to weigh this particular piece of street slang in such detail? The short version: We were in the throes of proposing a micro-site that would allow our client’s customers to highlight certain dynamic and fun attributes of its product and services in a fashion similar to Pimp My Ride. (They don’t sell cars, mind you—but let’s just say it’s in the home/office technology realm.)
So, the internal debate began—we could go full-force and just call it “Pimp my Crib” (or “Rig,” a sidebar debate). Or we could capture the same design flair and flavor, but hedge our bet a bit and entitle the site, “Trick My Rig." (OR - "Trick My Crib" - with "Crib" of course being recent slang for your domicile, residence or home-base.)
On one hand, agencies—especially on the creative side of the house—always want to be perceived as hip, with it, cutting edge and totally abreast of all things cool. Right?
In the words of The International Man of Mystery: Yeah, baby!
Agencies just as adamantly—hell, more so—want to win the business. And win business for their clients. (By the way—anyone see Glengarry Glen Ross lately?) Losing a new business pitch by going, um, “too hip for the room” puts you in the not-so-cool category faster than you can say “Cancel my car detailer.”
To Slang or Not to Slang
All of this brings us round to the very nature of slang—it’s ephemeral, trendy and of the moment. Somebody somewhere right now’s saying something that’s hip and cool and we don’t have a clue what it means. The whole point of slang is to close a loop to a select few of whom exclusively speak your language.
And as to advertising and mass communication, it is a Catch-22: If it’s broad enough to be understood and appreciated by millions of “average”—let’s say middle-aged white folk between 35 and 65—Americans jingly-jangling with plenty of walkin’ around cash, then by definition the subcultures who actually create street slang have long since left it at the curb, so to speak.
And so, it was oh so nice (Neil Diamond?) to have this basic assumption brought home by no less an authority than Jonathan Green, author of Green’s Dictionary of Slang.
At 6,000 pages and some 17 years in the making, it’s by many furlongs the most comprehensive resource of its kind. From the introduction: “Slang is the language that says no. Born in the street, it resists the niceties of the respectable. It is impertinent, mocking, unconvinced by rules, regulations and ideologies. It remains something apart. And for many, that is where it should stay.” (You can hear Mr. Green here from the April 8, 2011 broadcast, On the Media, with Ad Age columnist Bob Garfield: http://www.onthemedia.org/mostemailed/
Our decision? Though you can make the case that some clients (and consumers) would be duly impressed with the chutzpah of going full-bore with Pimp My Crib, we ultimately chose Trick My Rig for its ability to capture the essence of what we were after—the homage aspect, if you will—without winging ourselves in the foot.
Where do you go to find the very latest, freshly minted street slang? Why, out on the street, of course.
The trick is in knowing which street.