Friday, June 13, 2008

Baby Mama Drama

Something good thing might come out of the minor ruckus that's been spun up about that "Obama's Baby Mama" chyron [i.e., the bottom-of-the-TV-screen text scroll] that ran during a recent Fox News report and for which Fox News has apologized. Several of the stories about it, such as Politico's, have cited the Urban Dictionary as the definitive reference work on the meaning of terms like "Baby Mama." I think it would be a good thing if the news media, writers, and just anyone who likes vivid language, would check the Urban Dictionary now and then.

The Urban Dictionary is a collective on-line work, rather like Wikipedia, in which anyone may post his definition(s) for terms of interest. I often turn to it to understand so-called 'urban' language that I encounter, and I have found it an invaluable resource. ('Urban,' of course, is a euphemism, like 'hip-hop,' or 'street,' or 'ghetto,' or any other substitute you can think of for what is really meant: Black.)

I first went to the Urban Dictionary after hearing a teenage girl describe someone who was wearing a sleeveless T-shirt as "that guy in the white wifebeater." I learned that "wifebeater" is, in fact, the word by which that kind of shirt is now known. And what a perfectly expressive term! Sleeveless T-shirts are old-fashioned in a 1950-ish way, and even though they have come back in style with the urban (or hip-hop, etc.) crowd, they still just scream out certain social connotations the way Stanley Kowalski screamed "Hey, Stell-aaaaaaa!!!!! in Streetcar Named Desire. About one out of every three people you'll see in mug shot photos is wearing one. Calling that kind of shirt a "wifebeater" is sheer poetry.

Another term I came across and appreciated was "Baby Mama Drama," which a dictionary contributor cogently defined as: "when the mother, who you are not married to, of one or more of your children starts negatively inferring with your life," which she might do by getting on your back about things like finding a job, not seeing other women any more, etc. That is language ladened with meaning in a way that even Shakespeare would enjoy.

When I needed to know the difference between a "bitch-slap" and a "pimp-slap" in order to understand a witness statement in a criminal trial, the dictionary clarified that matter nicely. FYI, a bitch-slap is delivered suddenly with the back of the hand as a sign of social dominance, whereas a pimp-slap is delivered premeditatively with the palm of the hand and is disciplinary. There has to be some way to mediate language between social groups, and you could find worse ways than the Urban Dictionary.

The Urban Dictionary has become so popular that there is now a hardcopy version. Even though the thing was originally intended as a parody, it's become a genuine repository of cultural knowledge.

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