Neologism Diaspora, or: Who, Exactly, is Responsible for “Bae”

by Charles Bramesco

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Neologisms, those curious little manmade additions to the dictionary, don’t come from nowhere. In fact, most of them follow a similar, four-step path from conception to proliferation: they trickle first from a place of authenticity down to the hip, then from the hip to the unhip, and then, eventually, they reach the culture-killers. Everyone remembers the first time they heard the word “bae,” the first time they felt comfortable enough to use it, and the first time they heard their mom using it (and thus stopped saying it forever).

It’s not quite an ironclad system, and it leaves a few extenuating circumstances to account for — on occasion a linguistic turn will enter the public consciousness fully-formed when spawned by a shared cultural touchstone — but most young-person slang terms that inspire the hand-wringing thinkpieces from gray-faced culture critics follow the four-step process of linguistic gentrification outlined below.

For our case study, let’s take the exemplar of “bae,” a slang term currently in the final stage of the process. There are oodles of terms that have followed a similar path — start to closely observe who in your life uses the term “on fleek”, and when — but “bae” is relevant, fairly ubiquitous, and clearly illuminates the path that slang terms (and, indeed, culture itself) follows…

  1. Culture Creators

Slang terms don’t spontaneously generate like maggots on meat, they’ve got to come from somewhere. Before factors like cultural appropriation or the intricate mind-game that is ‘being cool’ come into play, organic factors create the slang.

This is a naturally occurring phenomenon in any loosely connected group — think high school cliques developing their own little strands of jargon. But what separates inside jokes from culture-spanning neologisms has to do with the cultural space in which the term originates. When a term like “bae” flares up, it’s because it comes from a setting marked by authenticity, that eternally hot social commodity. The defining trait of a Culture Creator is the worthiness of emulation; to give way to a phrase capable of gaining popularity, the parties coining it must have some semblance of “cool.”

And now the racial politics of this linguistic diaspora in particular begin to reveal themselves…

“Bae,” and its myriad similar terms, originate in predominantly black and low-income neighborhoods. (Though this is a somewhat recent trend; ‘80s staples like “cowabunga” certainly don’t call such neighborhoods home.) The word’s definition is pretty clear — it’s a term of endearment, usually reserved for a significant other. The etymology, however, is a little trickier. A common misconception suggests that bae is an acronym that stands for ‘Before All Else.’ This has since been proven to be apocryphal, and the explanations that hold more water stem from simple logic. It’s generally agreed to be a permutation of the word “babe,” either resulting from a phonetic writing of a vocal shortening (in the fashion of cray, from crazy) or a repeated typographical error while using a computer or text messaging. Assisting the word’s proliferation was Pharrell’s single “Come Get It Bae”, and a handful of other rappers who’ve used the word in various verses.

In the beginning, ‘bae’ was cool, and to be cool is to have value. And that’s the funny thing about valued culture: it has a way of being stolen by white people.

2. Tastemaker Appropriators

The first social group to move in on newly-coined slang are The Tastemakers, the gatekeepers of what will or will not be understood as “cool” in the public understanding.

This group is a group characterized by youth and whiteness, collecting bits of culture like magpies and building personal identity around it, whether that be in the form of language, fashion, online presence, or, in the most unsavory cases, entire interpersonal relationships used to shore up street cred. (These are the people who love to make mention their “black friend.) The essence of cool has always been linked to authenticity, so when tastemakers cannot access authenticity themselves, they accept the next best thing and ape the realness of other social groups (There’s no denying that it’s hard to keep it real while scrolling Tumblr in your parents’ house).

Again, the racial component speaks volumes; personal-expression culture linked to coolness diffuses from black-dominated spaces to white-dominated spaces. This is no coincidence, either. The history of aggressive white appropriation of “cool” slang dates back to the advent of the term itself. Black men and women took up “be cool” as in internal mantra stressing the necessity of remaining nonviolent in the face of gross racial injustice — to lose one’s cool and speak truth to white power would mean certain death. Naturally, white folks coveted the unflappable magnetism of the cool aesthetic and the term began to depreciate, culturally speaking.

“Bae” depreciated far faster, however. The first wave of white people to latch onto the neologism did so only through a half-ironic filter. When a person posts on Tumblr [Footnote: Make no mistake, these discrete steps are often specific to a single social media platform, and the second pertains specifically to Tumblr.] that “Couches squashy enough to hold the imprint of your butt are bae”, it’s a self-deprecating joke. The speaker implies that he’s obviously not genuinely cool enough (read: too white) to pull off using a term endemic to black culture, and consequently underscores his own painful unhipness in using it ironically. The subtext here, white mimicry of black culture, chases the original authenticity by folding it onto itself. It acknowledges the cultural distance between the appropriator and the authentic space, and it takes the only available option when faced with an unseemly exchange of language: it tries to turn the uneasy racial dynamic into a laugh.

It’s not as incendiary as blackface, but such behavior still implies an unappealing racial role-play. Blackness, even the absence thereof, makes for a sour punch line.

But if Dr. Seuss taught us anything with his seminal American treatise on the wonders of cultural exclusion Sneetches on Beaches, it’s that culture can flip in the blink of an eye. Du jour is a writerly shorthand for “this is cool right now,” but it literally means “of the day.” It doesn’t take long enough for the cool to become uncool, and though it’s a nasty task, someone invariably does it. Who are those someones?

3. Social Diluters

When adopted by this third group, every aspect of a word becomes diluted.

This group’s critical trait is its partial understanding of the politics surrounding new language, and new culture at large. They are the trend-chasers hungry for street cred that move into a hardscrabble neighborhood and flush out the original inhabitants; yuppies come to edge out the hipper set. These groups that dilute the cultural cachet of a word don’t exactly understand what it is that made it catch on in the first place. Though they might not recognize what makes something cool, they can definitely recognize people who do and they’re content to mimic that.

It is, in essence, a copy of a copy.

“Bae,” for instance, grew broader with every new use and eventually widened into nothingness. The word was initially used to refer to a romantic opposite. It was then ironically used to refer to non-lover objects regarded with the adoration and devotion befitting a significant other (“Pizza is bae!”), and finally generalized even further to encapsulate pretty much all good news. (“Got a 98% on my statistics final. Bae.”)

And while stripping a word of its entire cultural worth may sound like a change on par with shifting the tide of the ocean, it’s anything but. Slang has a short shelf life because it travels quickly, meaning it is bound to gets in the hands of groups not socially sanctioned to determine or promote that which is hip.

In other words, moms.

Mostly, your parents are the ones making slang lame. You win this round, teenagers.

But hey, moms, at least you’re not…

4. Culture Killers

These cultural forces annihilate neologisms, leaving them toxic and unfit for use from any other groups.

In the broadest terms, Culture Killers destroy a slang term by perverting its intended purpose and replacing it with a diametrically opposed intention. In practice, that’s to say Culture Killers — almost always taking the shape of authority bodies, from corporations to schoolteachers to management — use slang to promote a hegemonic agenda.

Even when a slang term is as innocuous as “bae,” it is still a provocation at its core. In creating language to be used distinctly from the established term, the authentic parties are rebelling against the established norms. Once that term has been co-opted by the system, “The Man,” whatever you want to call it, it’s dead.

The Twitter account @brandssayingbae collects embarrassing, transparent ploys from corporations to mimic the tone of hip youngsters on social media. Unsurprisingly, the feeble attempts from corporate Twitter accounts attempting to relate to their audience often end up looking more like this. But @brandssayingbae is more than a Twitter account. It’s a slow-motion eulogy, a timeline tracking a single term to its inexorable cultural death.

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