March 29, 2012

Hey Dude!

Slang rarely has staying power. That is part of its charm; the young create it, and discard it as soon as it becomes too common.
Slang is a subset of in-group language, and once that gets taken up by the out-group, it’s time for the in-crowd to come up with something new. So the long life of one piece of American slang, albeit in many different guises, is striking. Or as the kids would say, Dude!
Though the term seems distinctly American, it had an interesting birth: one of its first written appearances came in 1883, in the American magazine, which referred to “the social ‘dude’ who affects English dress and the English drawl”.
The teenage American republic was already a growing power, with the economy booming and the conquest of the West well under way. But Americans in cities often aped the dress and ways of Europe, especially Britain. Hence dude as a dismissive term: a dandy, someone so insecure in his Americanness that he felt the need to act British. It’s not clear where the word’s origins lay. Perhaps its mouth-feel was enough to make it sound dismissive.
From the specific sense of dandy, dude spread out to mean an easterner, a city slicker, especially one visiting the West. Many westerners resented the dude, but some catered to him. Entrepreneurial ranchers set up ranches for tourists to visit and stay and pretend to be cowboys themselves, giving rise to the “dude ranch”.
By the 1950s or 1960s, dude had been bleached of specific meaning. In black culture, it meant almost any male; one sociologist wrote in 1967 of a group of urban blacks he was studying that “these were the local ‘dudes’, their term meaning not the fancy city slickers but simply ‘the boys’, ‘fellas’, the ‘cool people’.”
From the black world it moved to hip whites, and so on to its enduring associations today—California, youth, cool. In “Easy Rider” (1969) Peter Fonda explains it to the square Jack Nicholson: “Dude means nice guy. Dude means a regular sort of person.” And from this new, broader, gentler meaning, dude went vocative.
Young men the world over seem to need some appellation to send across the net at each other that recognises their common masculinity while stopping short of the intimacy of a name. It starts in one country or subculture, and travels outwards. Just as the hippies gave us “man”, and British men are “mate” to one another, so, by the late 1970s or early 1980s, “dude” was filling that role. And all three words are as likely to go at the start of the sentence as the end.
Sean Penn’s surfer-stoner in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982) says “Make up your mind, dude.” By 2000, the
 vocative use and whiff of stoner culture was firm. The title line of “Dude, Where’s My Car?” is spoken by a character waking up from a big night out.  Also in 1998, “The Big Lebowski” gave us the most lovable dude yet: Jeff Lebowski, the role that relaunched Jeff Bridges’ career. “The Dude”, as everyone calls the stoner Lebowski, is being lectured by a rich old man of the same name. The Dude finally snaps: I am not “Mr Lebowski”. You’re Mr Lebowski. I’m the Dude. So that's what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you're not into the whole brevity thing.

With his bathrobe and his milk-soaked moustache, the Dude had come a long way from the east-coast dandy of the 1880s.

Now “Dude!” is mainstream—and no longer just for dudes. Young “dudettes”, as women could once be called, routinely call each other “dude”. And even married couples do it. The first time I heard it leap the gender divide, it was startling; now I find it sweet, somehow even more intimate than “baby”, showing the couple as friends, not just lovers.
I knew it's journey was complete when a tiny urban hipster at the library was trying to grab my attention. “Dude!” she said, “you’re doing it wrong.”  At first I wanted to say, “I’m not a dude.” But something stopped me. Dude is now all about solidarity. She just called me “dude!” and I smiled.

March 19, 2012

Can you hear me now?

One of the under-observed consequences of the internet is the discovery that people the world over are far more similar than they are different. Patriotic fervor is fine, but mix it with xenophobia and the cocktail becomes deadly. The trick is to showcase your best side while generously recognizing that the other guy has something as good on offer—just not the same.

The only way to know that is through a shared language. Not Esperanto or Volapuk or even English. But something new. And it is already on your favorite web browser. Automated translation interface is here and it means that we can read any page on the web regardless of language. Translation quality improves constantly as the software accumulates context-based rules of usage. VOiP like Skype or Vonage is next. Your new best friend in France need never learn a word of English. When you meet face to face, you’ll be communicating through a WiFi earpiece, sign language or the old-fashioned way. But you will have the choice.

By the way, although this is not the place you might expect to read about context-based wireless simultaneous translation as The Next Big Technology Thing, doesn’t it make sense that your mobile phone will soon have an app for that? Just ten years ago, the hot item was a Palm Pilot with the stupid stylus. Scarcely more than a glorified Rolodex. Now our phones have GPS, two-way video and take better pictures than most cameras. But why stop there? Two words define the future of technology: organic transistors. That’s all you get on that topic for now but remember, you read it here first.

OK. Back to the theme. If the aforementioned convergent technologies allow us to break through the language barrier between the English-speaking world and la Francophonie, what then? Simultaneous translation as a career option will become as marginal as, say, blacksmithing, lamp-lighting or typing. Once we understand our interlocutors, the tired stereotypes, prejudices and suspicions fly out the window as we realize that we all share the same concerns: family, love, career, taxes, raising our kids, staying safe, being useful.

History, art, architecture, music are definitely worth the effort to show that, gee, you’re not in Kansas anymore. Some might argue that the geographies in France or Britain or America or Mexico are uniquely and unmistakably different. Movie location scouts demand and get big bucks for regularly proving the contrary. Food can’t help us here either. It’s as easy to eat well or badly in any part of the world. The best French chefs work in London and New York. The best burgers are made with Charolais (French) or Kobe (Japanese) beef.

Yes, folks, we are all the same under the dome of the bell curve.