"The struggle for language hegemony

I had six 14-year-old boys in my van the other night, a not uncommon event. My son William moves in this pack of eighth-grade boys as they skateboard or attend basketball games or parties. On weekend nights and throughout the summer, they move in this bunch from house to house for sleepovers, like a troop of soldiers on constant march.

Our house will be quiet for a few days and then the pack will invade and the place will be filled with the sounds and smells of boys, their shoes and socks and lacrosse sticks and skateboards strewn about.

I like this format for friendship. I had a lot of friends at that age, but sleepovers were something only girls did with regularity.

This particular night in the car, the boys were discussing the theft of one of their slang words. I hear these slang words pass in and out of their world. In fact, these boys are quite self-conscious about this process of creation. They even award points for new words or clever phrases.

The stolen word was “beast” — a beloved modifier describing immense power at something, like, “Ben Wallace is a beast at rebounding” or “that Gnarls Barkley video is a beast” or it was “a beast of a snowstorm last week.”

It seems a seventh-grader had used their beloved word that day and now it was tainted, compromised, destroyed.

They were demoralized by this loss. They had loved their word “beast,” but now it had fallen from grace; it was an untouchable term.

I wanted to tell the boys it didn’t matter, that language was shared and free and couldn’t be stolen, but I kept quiet. It wouldn’t have made a dent; the words they create at this age are as important to their identities as the clothing they wear, the sports they choose and the synthetic smells they engulf themselves with from an aerosol can.

After some discussion of other words that had been burgled from their lexicon, one of the boys remembered that they’d done the same thing as seventh-graders. Disagreement ensued, before soon all admitted to instances of having stolen words from eighth-graders the previous year.

There was a pause in the car before one of the boys spoke with mock gravitas. “I guess that’s the cycle of life,” he said.

The boys grunted agreement. Another pause ensued, and then they began discussing a school teacher whose speech impediment creates comic situations. I listened closely, knowing that at any moment I might bear witness to the birth of a new word, one they might only tacitly agree upon, testing it at first, using it gingerly, then perhaps awarding it a number, before taking it out into the classroom, the hall, the soccer field, watching as it gains currency, swelling to common usage, so common in fact that inevitably an underclassperson utters it, nonchalantly, or even maliciously, and in that instant making the word obsolete.



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