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White Men Can’t Talk

MSNBC correspondent David Shuster got into hot water when he said that Chelsea Clinton was being "pimped out." In trying to use so-called street lingo, he made the same mistakes any foreign language speaker makes when idiomatically out of their depth, with similarly hilarious results, observes Brad Rourke.

by
Brad Rourke

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February 10, 2008 - 1:15 am

There is a priceless moment in Oliver Stone’s unfairly maligned The Doors, when our heroes are prepping to go on the Ed Sullivan Show. They are met by a stage assistant, a real twerp, who informs them that, “The network guys have a problem with one of your lyrics. ‘Girl, we couldn’t get much higher.’” He goes on: “You can’t say ‘higher’ on the network, so they asked if you could say instead: ‘Girl, we couldn’t get much better.’”

The band looks at him, bemused. He finishes with: “Could you dig that?”

That dork’s use of the word “dig” in this context perfectly illustrates what often happens when mainstream folks try to appropriate street talk: they get it wrong, either by not understanding proper usage, or just plain sounding silly. While we play such things for laughs, they ring true because we see the same thing every day.

I remember a song by a milquetoast rapper named Vanilla Ice, called “Ice Ice Baby.” You probably remember it too. It’s your standard 1990′s fare, filled with braggadocio about the protagonist’s many fine exploits. I can’t help laughing when I hear some of the lines in the tune. Vanilla says he is “Rollin’ in my 5.0″ at one point. We all remember the angular 5.0 liter Mustang that was popular then. Vanilla spends three couplets on his “5.0,” with evident pride not just in its fanciness but also in his street cred for knowing such slang. Thing is, that’s not what the term “5-0″ meant at the time — it meant “police,” as in “Hawaii 5-0.” (Vanilla, whose real name is Rob Van Winkle, is a far more mature person now and a new crowd has come to enjoy his music.)

All this came back to me as the David Shuster saga unfolded. In an intemperate moment, our chalk-stripe-suited host says that Chelsea Clinton is being “pimped out” by her mom’s campaign.

This has generated a firestorm and Shuster is now suspended for uttering such a derogatory remark. For my part, I would have wanted to suspend him for not understanding the language he was trying to use. He pulled a Vanilla Ice.

Dig: “Pimped out” means “made very fancy,” as a stereotypical pimp might decorate something. There are overtones of exploitation, too, as in when something is “tricked out” — that is, made alluring enough for a trick.

What Shuster probably meant to say was that he felt Chelsea was being “pimped,” as in “exploited.” It’s a small slip, like Vanilla Ice’s slip when it comes to his car, but it matters. On its face, Shuster’s remark meant the campaign was dressing Chelsea up. In context, it was incoherent. In trying to appropriate so-called street lingo, he botched the job and made the same mistakes any foreign speaker makes when idiomatically out of their depth, with similarly hilarious results.

When I was in high school, I hosted an exchange student from Belgium. He fancied himself quite the Casanova, but most of my friends thought him the opposite. We taught him that the term “doughbrain” was our slang expression for “ladies’ man.” I regret it, now, as it was just mean — but, man was it funny at the time.

If I were advising my exchange brother now, I would say to watch out and double check what idiomatic expressions mean, because you might just wind up sounding like a real Newman.

I guess David Shuster could use the same advice.

Addendum: Looks like I made a mistake, and relied on my recollection and the lyric sheet when it came to Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” — instead of re-listening to the song itself. He doesn’t say “five-oh” (which is what I remembered) but says “five point oh.” Commenters who have pointed that out are right. Kicking myself. You should, too!

They’re also right that it knocks a big leg out from under my point, but not entirely: Shuster sounded really silly saying “pimped out,” like a suit trying to talk street, and (this much I still maintain) misusing the term in that way.

Brad Rourke writes a column on public life called Public Comments, produces an occasional videolog called Taxonomies, is a founder of the Maryland neighborhood blog, Rockville Central, and is in a band called The West End.

Brad Rourke writes a column on public life called Public Comments, produces an occasional videolog called Taxonomies, is a founder of the Maryland neighborhood blog, Rockville Central, and is in a band called The West End.
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