A new look

As you will see (at least, if you view the site on the WordPress page as opposed to on an aggregator or somewhere else), I have changed the theme and layout for the site.   Hope you like it – any theme is going to have its advantages and disadvantages.   Frankly I was getting annoyed at the small text size and plainness of the old theme, which had been around since the blog’s inception in 2008.  This one has larger text and is more modern, and the main headings are larger and clearer (now at the left sidebar).    Comments and criticisms are welcome, bearing in mind that this is a free WordPress site so my options are somewhat limited.

XLent LInguistics

As was correctly answered in the comments to the previous post, I am now 40 years old (XL) and the next time that my age in Roman numerals will be the same length as my age in Western (Hindu-Arabic) numerals will be when I am 51 (LI).    49 is not a correct answer in this case because the Romans did not habitually use subtraction in this way; irregular formations like IL (49) and XM (1900) do sometimes occur irregularly, but normally one cannot ‘skip’ a power.  I can only be subtracted from V and X; X can only be subtracted from L and C; and C can only be subtracted from D and M.

As any schoolchild can tell you, one of the purported disadvantages of Roman numerals is that their numeral-phrases are long and cumbersome (e.g., 37 vs. XXXVII).  And of course, for many numbers that is true.  But for many other numbers (e.g., 2000 vs. MM) the Roman numeral is  equal in length or shorter than its Western numeral counterpart.     Note, in particular, that round numbers tend to be those that are shorter in Roman numerals; this is because, since the Roman numerals don’t have a 0, that numerals that in Western notation would have a 0 have nothing in their Roman counterpart.

Among numbers whose Roman numeral and Western numeral notations are exactly the same length, there doesn’t initially appear to be much of a pattern:

1, 5, 11, 15, 20, 40, 51, 55, 60, 90, 102, 104, 106, 109 …

but then we see a new sequence emerge -

111, 115, 120, 140, 151, 155, 160, 190 …

which are just the numbers in the sequence from 11-90 with an added C on the front, which makes sense, since you’re just adding a 1 in front of them, similarly.

You could be forgiven in thinking that these numerals come up frequently, since we’re in the midst of a giant cluster of years with this property -

… 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2015, 2020 …

but then after that, it’s another 20 years before 2040.

Unsurprisingly, numerals containing 3 rarely have equal-length Roman equivalents and numerals containing 8 never do.     So once you get past 3000, these numbers become extremely rare.    Roman numerals don’t have a standard additive representation for 4000 and higher; you can write 4000 as MMMM, but normally one would expect a subtractive expression with M (1000) subtracted from 5000.  There are Roman numerals for 5000, 10000, 50000, 100000, etc., but they are extraordinarily rare, and the Romans during the Empire instead tended to place a bar (or vinculum) above an ordinary Roman numeral to indicate multiplication by 1000; thus,  IV=4000.  The addition of this feature creates a real conundrum: does the vinculum count as a sign or not?    If it does, then IVI=4001 has four signs; if not, then IVII=4002 does.

I’ll leave this aside and stop here to save all of our brains.   Thanks for playing!

 

 

Language and Societies abstracts, vol. 6 (2014)

The abstracts below are summaries of papers by junior scholars from the 2014 edition of my course, Language and Societies, and presented at the course blog of the same name. The authors are undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology and linguistics at Wayne State University. Over the next few weeks, some students will be posting links to PDF versions of their final papers below their abstracts. Comments and questions are extremely welcome, especially at this critical juncture over the next week, when the authors are making final revisions to their papers.

Alex B. Hill: A critical discourse on Detroit’s ‘Food Desert’ metaphor

Maya Stovall: How Ballet Terminology is Disputed and Employed as the Language of Dance

Roba Hrisseh: Social Stigmas Attached to Dialectal Differences: Lebanese and Yemeni Dialects in Dearborn City, Michigan

Suzanne Walsh: The Car Becomes Me

Kyrene Collins: Color Terminology in English and French

Srinawati: Sundanese Speech Levels

Eric Boulis: Klingon as Reviewed by the Fans

Taylor Monday: Sustainability: Defining Something that Deals with Everything

Zeina Lubus: English and French code-switching – an index to Christianity and Islam in modern Lebanon

Kaitlyn Ahlers: “Bold, Brash” Brews: Sensory Description among Craft Beer Consumers

Rachel Willhite: Gender Perspectives and Prediction in Online Communication

C. Lorin Brace VI: Together Forever: Gendered Language Use in Gravestone Epitaphs

Michael Elster: Transmitting “Realness”: Linguistic and Economic Tension in Drag Queen Speech

Andrew Bray: Wheel, Snipe, Celly: Understanding the Creation, Expansion, and Evolution of the Ice Hockey Anti-Language

Amber Aschwanden: Roman obelisks and the convergence of historical and contemporary linguistic landscapes – A pilot study

Madelyn Gutkoski: Discourse of Fitness and Sport in the CrossFit Community of Practice

Stanislava Chavez: Language and Warfare: Prehispanic Pukaras and Scholars’ Battle Over Andean Militarism

Daniel Mora: Profanity in social settings

The Case of the Missing Pi Day 4s

Yesterday was Pi Day, 3/14 (those who prefer days before months can have Pi Approximation Day, 22/7) and in celebration of this momentous annual event, I invited several of my American colleagues (who have learned to tolerate my numerical eccentricities) over to my house in Canada for an International Pi Day Pie Party, which was a great success.  And, of course, as befitting this event, we had Pie, complete with Pi (to two decimal places) on top:

It's blueberry!So far, so good.  (And for the record, it was very good).  There was only one problem: the local dollar store I went into had a very odd distribution of candle numerals: it had tons and tons of 0, 1, 2, and 9, some 3s, but no 4s, 5s, 6s, 7s, or 8s.  As a professional numbers guy, and also as a guy who needed a 4 for his pi(e), this was deeply disconcerting.

After a moment, I figured out why. Ordinarily, when stores buy products that come in different varieties from wholesalers, the default is to order the same amount of each variety.   In this case, the store had obviously ordered an equal amount of each numeral, but they were being purchased by consumers at different rates.    Now, there is nothing about the properties of the natural numbers that would lead to this observed distribution (if it were Benford’s Law in action, it would be 1 and 2 that would be in short supply). Rather, the explanation is a social one:   Many parents do not buy birthday candles for their child’s first, second, or third birthday, because, while, as my (thankfully childless) brother noted, “Babies love fire!”, parents of toddlers do not.    At the other end, by the time your kid is about 9, and certainly by the double digits, they’ve probably outgrown the ‘giant novelty numeral candle’ phase of their lives.  Ages 4-8 are the sweet spot, and thus these sell out much more quickly.

I also note that, for adults, decadal birthdays like 20 and 30 tend not to attract much numerological attention, whereas 40, 50, and 60 certainly do (not so sure about 70 and 80), and by 90 most of the clientele is deceased.    This doesn’t explain why there were so many 0s available – perhaps purchasers are aware of this phenomenon and order extra zeroes, but don’t take account of differential demand for the tens digits.

Now, if we lived in a perfect world where suppliers and store owners had full information about their stock and made perfectly rational decisions, purchasers would notice such discrepancies and perhaps order more of the missing numerals.  The local dollar store, however, does not occupy such a world.  Fortunately, this being Windsor, Ontario, there was another dollar store across the street, and while it also had a skewed distribution, lo and behold, it did have one lonesome 4 for purchase (seen above).   Thus my Friday Pi Day pi display supply foray was saved.  Yay! (Try saying that in Pig Latin.)

Actually, this is not the first time I had encountered this phenomenon.  Back in 2008, when American gas prices first regularly began to hit $4.00 a gallon, the New York Times reported on, of all things, a shortage of numeral 4s, because their number sets were purchased with an equal distribution across all ten digits (presumably with extra 2s and 3s purchased individually to deal with those dollar amounts).  Once that leading digit got to 4, there was a temporary shortage, leading to some store owners writing their own makeshift 4s until new ones could arrive.

Thus, while we think of linguistic and symbolic resources like numerals as being effectively infinite, in contexts like these, you can indeed have shortages and surpluses.   Thankfully, now that we’re on to the Ides of March and our Pi Day shortage is dealt with for another year, I can store these candles for future use, if I want.  The pie, on the other hand, has gone to a better place.  Because, while you may sometimes need to ration your fours, let’s hope we never live in a world where we have to ration pie.

Lexiculture: vanilla

Cecilia Murrell-Harvey

Wayne State University

Cite as:  Murrell-Harvey, Cecilia. 2014.  Vanilla.  Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 8. http://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/vanilla.pdf

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

(Download PDF version)

Vanilla is a word that I thought at one point, was simply the name of a plant species. I knew the extract of the vanilla plant was used for numerous reasons like flavoring my lip balm, adding depth and dimension to perfume, and making chocolate chip cookies taste better. However as I began my research it became evident that vanilla stands to mean so much more than just a type of plant species. It has shifted from being understood as a description of an actual flavor, to meaning plain or boring, usually not in reference to flavor at all. I first became aware of vanilla meaning more when I asked my sorority sisters what they thought of when I said the word “vanilla.” Most of the sorority members had similar thoughts to mine about vanilla, but one specific sorority sister had a different take on it. Her first response was “Vanilla men are alright, but I think you need some chocolate in your life.”  This was the beginning of my realization that vanilla is used as a descriptive word in different settings amongst people. Vanilla has shifted to mean plain or boring in some settings, when in all actuality, it is a plant with a vey strong flavor and smell. The difference between what vanilla is literally and what it has become to mean in various social cultures has led my research to figure out why this divergence from vanilla in a literal sense has happened.

Vanilla is descended from the Spanish word vainilla, or “vanilla plant,” which literally means, “little pod.” Spanish settlers discovered the plant in the 1500’s upon landing in southeastern Mexico and named it from the shape of the pods. Vainilla is diminutive of vaina, or “sheath,” which comes from the Latin word for sheath, vagina (www.etymonline.com).  Vanilla has come a long way from it literal meaning, to its metaphorical meaning of describing something as plain or boring.

Most of the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary match the so-called “typical” and literal meaning of vanilla. The first few entries describe vanilla as “ a pod produced by one or other species of the genus Vanilla…” or “the climbing orchid Vanilla planifolia, or other species related to this; the tropical (American) genus to which these belong.” These definitions were used in written context as early as the 1600’s.  The OED does not document vanilla as “plain, basic, conventional; (esp. of a computer, program, or other product) having no interesting or unusual feature; safe, unadventurous,” until the 1970’s. Even though the OED doesn’t list vanilla being used in a different cultural sense until the 1970’s, there is evidence of it being used in a manner not describing flavor as early as the 1940’s.

A LIFE magazine article from 1942 provides an example of vanilla being used to describe something other than flavor. The article was titled “Willkie Evolves a Plain Vanilla Foreign Policy for Republicans,” (36). It is important to realize that the phrase “plain vanilla” is being used in a very popular magazine that denotes and captures much of what is going on in the world and also popular American culture. The phrase “plain vanilla” would not have been chosen if the readers of the magazine were not familiar with the descriptive choice of words.  It can be inferred that vanilla began to shift from a description of an actual flavor to something meaning plain or boring before the 1940s.

As mentioned earlier, the Oxford English Dictionary does not note vanilla taking on a meaning to describe things as plain or boring until the 1970’s.  This “new” meaning of vanilla is stated within the 1997 draft additions: “used orig. with reference to sexual activity (esp. in vanilla sex).” Most of the examples that the OED lists are all describing something sexual like “vanilla bar, a gay bar that is not SM” (Rodgers, 184), which happens to be pulled from Queens’ Vernacular, a dictionary defining gay slang from the 1970’s. It is interesting to note that most of the OED quotes pertaining to “plain” or “ordinary” are in reference to gay and lesbian sexual behaviors. The Ngram (shown below) for vanilla shows a definite increase of vanilla being used in printed text through the 1970’s, which happens to be a big period for gay rights. Such a significant increase of the word vanilla in the 1970’s brings me to wonder the correlation between vanilla and the culture of the time and how it is used.

vanilla1

The 1970’s were a monumental time period for homosexual people (who are also referred to as the LGBT community). Prior to the 1970’s, people who identified as homosexual were penalized and treated differently (Cruikshank, 2). This was a decade where movements for gay rights really took off. More and more individuals were open about their sexual preference and really pushed for equality amongst society.  This was a period that included the first official gay pride parade (June 28, 1970) and when the American Psychiatric Association voted to not consider homosexuality a mental illness in 1973 (www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/timeline/stonewall/).  These events were spurred because society was attempting to accept a new culture being brought into the mix.

The continuing openness of the LGBT community not only brought about the need for different cultural and political events, but also created a new social scene. As it was noted earlier, there is a text sample of vanilla being used to describe a gay bar that is not SM (Rodgers, 184).  SM refers to “sado-masochism, a combination of the words sadism, meaning to take pleasure in inflicting pain on others, and masochism, to take pleasure in pain inflicted on you,” as an eloquent entry on Urban Dictionary puts it. Wayne Dynes also uses vanilla in a similar fashion in Homolexis when describing SM aficionados who “dismiss gays of simpler tastes as mere fluffs, who limit themselves to timid exercises in vanilla sex” (Dynes, 123). The LGBT community uses the standardized meaning of vanilla to describe sex or gathering places as plain or boring. One of the many possible reasons the LGBT community probably used vanilla as their choice description is because it seemed innocent. The homosexual community was already, and continues, to face much hostility from general society. Why would they use a descriptive word that would only draw more negative attention to their personal lives? Also, vanilla was and is probably used amongst the LGBT community because it had already been standardized by American society. As it was discussed earlier, people began to standardize vanilla to mean plain or boring since before the 1940’s.  It would only make sense for the LGBT community to use a descriptive word that is already common amongst the society they are attempting to be equal members of.

The LGBT community circa the 1970’s and present day, is not exclusive in using vanilla as a description for sex. The Urban Dictionary has numerous current entries for vanilla, one example from 2003 being: “straight down the line, boring sex…” This entry is non-specific in regards to the word being used in a homosexual content. Both homosexual and heterosexual individuals probably use vanilla to describe sex for similar reasons mentioned before, like it seeming innocent and already being standardized. I would even go far as to say that some individuals might use vanilla to describe his or her sexual encounter, to seem polite. Some individuals may consider “boring” or “plain” as an insult, where saying the sex was “vanilla” at least makes it sound interesting and neither good or bad, just average.

The meaning of vanilla has expanded tremendously since the 1500’s, even beyond its adaptation to being a description for something plain or boring. Vanilla is even used to describe racial differences. The title of a research article discussing the shift of white individuals moving from the highly African American populated Detroit, to suburbs around the city says it all: “Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs: Will the Trend toward Racially Separate Communities Continue?” (Bianchi, Colasanto, Farley, Hatchett, Schuman, pg. 1).  The classification of individuals based on race, seems to be a perpetual occurrence. Since Europeans first settled America, there has been segregation amongst peoples of different skin color. It seems society establishes differences amongst groups of people at all points of American history.

It is interesting to note that the “pod-like” plant for which Vanilla originally got its name from is not white in color, yet people choose to use vanilla as word to describe white skin tones. Yes the blossom of the plant is white in color, but the actual appearance for which Vanilla is named, is not white. Nor, is the extract that most people are familiar with.  The eventual standardization of a word leaves society with uneducated members; people do not realize the knowledge behind the words they speak, that make up their languages. This exemplifies how disassociated people are with the goods they are consuming. Our consumer driven economy leads to a society potentially not ever knowing what the original form of a resource or word they use every day.

Vanilla continues to be used in numerous social settings to describe things as plain or boring due to its standardization in America. The word vanilla has even made its way into the world of business. The phrase “plain vanilla bond” is used to describe a United States issued bond that has “ (a) a fixed date (maturity or expiry date) when the amount borrowed (the principal or face value) is due, and (b) the contractual amount of interest which typically is paid every six months in the US and once a year on the European continent” (bizterms.net).  “Plain vanilla” used on its own, refers to a swap or derivative financial instrument that is issued with standard features (bizterms.net). It seems like vanilla is used in a way to make financial deals seem more approachable or safe. I think this is very representative of the financial burdens our society has gone through. America has had 2 stock market crashes, both ending with our economy struggling to get back on its feet. People who witnessed these crashes are probably more likely to invest in something labeled “vanilla” or low risk, because they have less to lose. On the other end of it, businessmen see these “vanilla” investments as boring, because they would rather be dealing with higher-risk financial deals to turn more of a profit. Regardless, the head businessmen of the finance and business departments recognize that they need to somehow appeal to a society that has been hurt economically before.

We are well into the 21st century, and vanilla still continues to be chosen as a descriptive word for even potential significant discoveries in the field of physics. Physicists had thought they had discovered a boson particle, but it turned out to be “pretty vanilla” (http://io9.com/).  Basically the physicists were not impressed with the final results of a test, deeming it a boring, or “vanilla,” particle in their world of physics.

I never realized a word as simple as vanilla could be used in so many different contexts. Since its first debut in the 1500’s, vanilla has underwent a major shift in meaning, from something that describes a flavor to something that describes a color or means boring, plain, or standard. The development of vanilla has shown that “the longer a word is embedded in the language, the more likely it is to develop transferred or figurative uses… “(Knowles, 135). The different uses of the word vanilla have shown insight into the different contexts it was and continues to be used in.

I now better understand the statement: “vanilla men are alright, but I think you need some chocolate in your life,” from my sorority sister when I asked about the word vanilla. I understand now that vanilla is used in so many ways because of the standardization our society places upon vanilla, and among other words too. I now question what other words have a similar history like vanilla. I think it is important to note also, that all of this information pertaining to the definition of vanilla is strictly based in the United States. It would be beneficial to find any differences the word might have in other nations. Obviously not every nation has the same cultural history, so it is very possible that vanilla could have diverged from its original meaning in a completely different way. People in China may not have a clue what someone from America is talking about when they talk about a “vanilla” course at school.  I think a shift in meaning of different words like vanilla, is unavoidable. Like William Safire wrote in his article, On Language: Forewords March:  “Here, then, is a word coming to mean in slang the opposite of its standard meaning. Farewell, tasty vanilla.”

References

Bizterms.net. Web. 13 Nov. 2013. <bizterms.net>.

Cruikshank, Margaret. The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement. N.p.: Pyschological Press, 1992. 1-27. Web. 12 Nov. 2013. <http://books.google.com/books?id=iVJ1TtTjXOcC&dq=homosexual+movement+1970′s&lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s&gt;.

Knowles, Elizabeth. How to Read a Word. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 62-135. Print.

Farley, Reynolds, Howard Schuman, Suzanne Bianchi, Diane Colastano, and Shirley Hatchett. “Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs:” Will the Trend toward Racially Separate Communities Continue?” Social Science Research . Web. 12 Nov. 2013. <http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/22472/0000013.pdf?sequence=1&gt;.

 Hershey’s. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Nov. 2013. <http://www.hersheys.com/our-story.aspx#/the-man&gt;.

Online Etymology Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=vanilla&allowed_in_frame=0&gt;.

Oxford English Dictionary . N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.

Rodgers, Bruce. The Queens’ Vernacular: A Gay Lexicon. N.p.: Straight Arrow Books, 1972. 100-84. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

Safire, William. “On Language; Forewords March.” New York Times 3 Nov. 1985. Web. 11 Nov. 2013. <http://www.nytimes.com/1985/11/03/magazine/on-language-forewords-march.html&gt;.

Timeline: Milestones in the American Gay Rights Movement. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/timeline/stonewall/

“Willkie Evolves a Plain Vanilla Foreign Policy for Republicans.” LIFE 19 Oct. 1942: 35 -36. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. <http://books.google.com/books?id=UUEEAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false&gt;.

Urban Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Nov. 2013. <http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=vanilla&gt;.

U.S. History. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Nov. 2013. <http://www.ushistory.org/&gt;

Lexiculture: ratchet

Jessica Hurst

Wayne State University

Cite as:  Hurst, Jessica. 2014.  Ratchet.  Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 7. http://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/ratchet.pdf

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

(Download PDF version)

Ratchet:  it’s what Miley Cyrus was trying to be when she wagged her booty all over the stage during this summer’s Video Music Awards. Ratchet, a slang term, is loaded with nuance and entrenched in racial and feminist commentary. Ratchet first appeared in rap music in the late 90’s. Rapper Anthony Mandigo, of Shreveport, Louisiana is often credited with being the first to record a song-using ratchet as slang. From here, the word took off; Mandigo’s song was later recorded by a more popular rap artist, and since has made its way into pop culture through music and other media sources (Ortved).

So what does ratchet mean? Defining it can be a little tricky, as the term has made its rounds in the spotlight; it has taken on different shades of meaning. To some, ratchet is only negative.  To others, when used in a different context it can also mean something that isn’t entirely negative. Some reserve the term for women only, while others use it in a more all-encompassing way. Ratchet is used in a similar sense of words like ghetto and hood-rat, while also taking on characteristics of words like bitch and slut.

The meaning of the word ratchet diverges based on which speech community is using it. The first recorded definition of ratchet is as follows, “1. To be ghetto, real, gutter, nasty. 2. It’s whatever, bout it, etc.” (Ortved). Since this definition was written in 1999, ratchet has become a more and more widely used slang term, and as with any piece of language, it has continued to change over time. As we continue, we will explore how the use of the word ratchet has changed over time as it has taken on popular usage, and analyze how this word is used by speech communities to have both negative and positive connotations.

Most recently, the word ratchet has caught the attention of many people because of the antics of pop star Miley Cyrus. To understand what Miley, a former Disney Star, and daughter of country music singer Billy Ray Cyrus has to do with a slang term originating in southern rap scene, we must discuss her preoccupation with African American culture. Miley has been getting a lot of attention in the media for her cringe worthy quotes. Referencing her new album she said, “’I want urban, I just want something that just feels Black.’”(Platon).  She has also had questionable performances such as in her VMA appearance this summer. Many are up in arms about Miley’s selective and flippant use of ratchet culture as cultural exploitation.

As is pointed out in a Jezebel article by Doadi Stewart, there is not a problem between the exchanges of ideas between cultures. In fact, this is an inherent part of what happens whenever different cultures interact with each other; however, what Cyrus is doing is appropriating the ratchet culture, her particular brand of appropriation is considered by some to be cultural exploitation. Cultural exploitation is when a dominant culture appropriates elements of a subordinated culture in a way that treats it as a resource to be mined (Rogers, 486). It is important to note that appropriation in its essence is not determined by the intentions of those involved such as Miley, but instead by the social, economic, and political environment in which they occur (Rogers, 476). This means that culture politics and power relations matter very much when discussing the phenomenon around Cyrus, as this is the primary way one can categorize cultural appropriation.

So what does Miley’s portrayal of ratchet culture have to do with the overall perception of this word? A whole lot. In the 90’s, a similar word to ghetto similar to ratchet became very popular. Ghetto came into the everyday lexicon, and the word hit such a peak that it could be used to describe anything from a girl’s butt, to a broken blender (Bowen). Ghetto aesthetics became so visible in pop culture the girls on Sex and the City could be seen wearing ghetto inspired styles and accessories (Stewart).

Ratchet is going in the same direction; it is becoming a blanket term for, “all things associated with the linguistic, stylistic, and cultural practices, witnessed or otherwise, of poor people; specifically poor people of color, and more specifically poor women of color.” (Bowen). It is easy to be like Miley and borrow from the experiences of others, while discarding anything that may be unpleasant about it. Being ratchet is cool for play, not as a valid cultural practice from learned experience, that is the message Cyrus is sending (Stewart). Being thrust into more popular culture has turned ratchet from a nuanced term, to a blanket term, the original meaning discarded in popular culture for a more watered down, less sophisticated and offensive version of itself.

Ratchet originally appeared in a rap by artist Anthony Mandigo. His single, “Do tha Ratchet” was first released in 1999 (Ortved). When his rap was first recorded, it was not a particularly popular song.  People from Mandigo’s locale of Shreveport, in northern Louisiana had heard it; its popularity did not stretch much further than that. It wasn’t until five years later in 2004 when Mandigo collaborated with rapper Lil’ Boosie to produce a new version of, “Do tha Ratchet”, that the song came into wider play (Latin Rap). This later version of the song has an accompanying music video. In the music video clubbers are filmed doing the ratchet, a dance that goes with the song. While Mandigo states he got the word ratchet from his grandmother, he does not provide details on the context (Ortved). The dance however, many people point out, is akin to the movement of that socket wrench makes (Latin Rap). In this way, the word has a double meaning. When used as a verb, it is describing a dance move. For example, “I’m not very good at doing the ratchet, could you teach me how?” This usage of the word is not in flux, when used as a verb ratchet has a very straightforward meaning. It is when ratchet is used as an adjective that things get more complex. Today, most nouns can be described as ratchet. It is the development of ratchet as an adjective that has continued to change as it passes into greater usage.

When the term was first coined, it was supposed to be a word for just getting loose, and being silly. It was used to describe mainly what people did when they go to the club; dance, drink, be high energy, let loose and have a good time (Porter). This original meaning is pretty harmless. It was just a slang word used to describe partying in a small speech community in Louisiana. Earl Williams, producer of Lil’ Boosie’s version of, “Do tha Ratchet” suggests that it is tied to a proud working class mentality of being real, and unapologetically what you are (Ortved). It may not have been the original intention; however ratchet came to embody of a way of life for some in working class Louisiana.  Not something negative, just a way of saying, “I’m proud of what I am, I work hard to get by, now let’s get stupid and let off some steam.”

Southern native, and radio host Charlamagne sees ratchet in this way. He describes being ratchet as being young, wild, and free, letting loose. Charlamagne sees ratchet as having two forms, intelligent ratchetness, and ignorant ratchetness (The Root). The difference between the two can be very subtle.  Intelligent ratchetness still conveys the mentality of going hard. Ignorant ratchetness adds a level of negativity, such as a person who makes reckless or poor decisions, does things that are unsafe, or in poor taste. Filmmaker, and creator of Ratchetpiece Theatre, Issa Rae describes the difference as this, “Ratchet is a word that was intended to describe someone who is “all the way turnt up,” “buck,” “crunk,” or “hyphy”. It’s now plumbing the depths of “Hood Gone Wild” (The Root). It is this change in meaning, the turn away from intelligent ratchetness that has swung the word into a negative direction.

As ratchet left its original speech community and was introduced to a larger audience, the meaning began to change. Hurricane Chris, a local rapper from Northern Louisiana, was the first from the speech community using ratchet to reach a large audience with music using the term. Hurricane Chris was signed to a nationally known record label where he released a hit called, “Ay Bey Bey” which reached #7 on the US Billboard Hot 100 charts (The Root). This hit was released on his album 51/50 Ratchet, the remix for the song “Ay Bey Bey” is titled, “The Ratchet Remix”, and includes Lil’ Boosie as one of the collaborators. On his journey to becoming a nationally known presence on the hip-hop scene, Hurricane Chris brought the word ratchet along with him. In his remix for the song, “Ay Bey Bey” Hurricane Chris, Lil’ Boosie, and the other collaborators do a good job of representing ratchet without being negative. They merely rap about representing Shreveport, having a good time at the club, and being known in the club and hip-hop scene.  After the success of this song, and Hurricane Chris, ratchet had officially arrived on the hip-hop scene, and in the lexicon of many new users.

As ratchet gained popularity in hip-hop, it became commodified. Those who used it were not longer in tune with the roots of the word, or had an understanding of how it came to be in hip-hop culture, and what that meant. The form of ratchet that came into popular use is the one described by radio host Charlamagne as ignorant ratchetness. One of the more well-known takes on this form of ratchet is a spoof music video created by Emmanuel and Phillip Hudson called, “Ratchet Girl Anthem”. In their music video for the song Emmanuel and Phillip both dress up as, “ratchet women” on the club scene and rap about the ignorant and loose behaviors these types of women exhibit when they are out on the town (Hudson, Hudson). In their song, they describe ratchet girls as those who, “Carry outdated flip phones, go clubbing while pregnant, and try to punch other women in the face. “Ratchet is basically a lack of home training — being out in public and acting like you don’t have any sense,” (Ortved). While Emmanuel and Phillip’s song is just a parody, their descriptions bring to light the way the word ratchet is being thrown around in pop culture, and by popular artists.

Today, artists who represent the, “Ratchet Movement”, or ratchet music scene do not even always do Shreveport the honor or representing the root of ratchet. In fact, some even have begun to claim ratchet as their own word, and their own movement (Geezy). Dj Mustard, who is the producer of many club hits such as, YG’s, “B**ches Aint Shit”, and Tyga’s “Rack City” has claimed to be behind the ratchet sound. As ratchet has reached a new level of popularity, people such as DJ Mustard have been able to claim the word as their own. Those who do, don’t necessarily understand, or represent ratchet as Mandigo or Lil’ Boosie would have liked. They associated the term ratchet with pride from the place they had come from, as well as their penchant to have fun. Producers such as DJ Mustard have taken ratchet the, “Hood Gone Wild” level that filmmaker Issa Rae discusses. Mustard associated the, “ratchet movement” with artists from the west coast who are making party music (Geezy). The problem with this newer claim to the ratchet movement is not just the fact that this is not how the word was originally intended, but the fact that it has now acquired a more derogatory meaning.

Ratchet music is known today in popular culture as music that has vulgar and outrageous lyrics (Nathan). These lyrics are also often degrading towards women. The word ratchet is being used to describe things such as a woman’s genitalia, as in the Juicy J song, “Bandz That Make Her Dance”:

“She got friends, bring three, I got drugs, I got drinks
Bend it over, Juicy J gon’ poke it like wet paint
You say no to ratchet pussy; Juicy J can’t
Racks er’where, they showin’ racks, I’m throwing racks.”
-Juicy J (Prod. Mike WiLL Made-It)

In this song, rapper Juicy J is insinuating that ratchet women are attracted to a man who has drugs, booze, and money to spend at the club. This is not a very attractive portrait of a woman. Juicy J seems to realize this, stating that, “you say no to ratchet pussy; Juicy J can’t.” He sees that the appeal of ratchet women is not universal, but he finds something appealing about a woman who is attracted to and is down for a party.  The song “Bandz”, by Juicy J, is a prime example of how the word ratchet has been twisted in the spotlight.

This brand of ratchetness has also been exploited on shows such as, “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”, and “Flavor of Love”. Both shows highlight behavior between women that is uncouth, baiting the women into drama for television ratings. Women in these shows have been depicted as women that do not have moral and professional compasses (Jackson). It is these types of images that are getting the most radio and television play representing ratchet.

While ratchet may have reached a level of distaste and offensiveness in the public eye, it has not gone without notice. Movements such as writer Michaela Angela Davis’, “Bury the Ratchet” are taking a stand against this negativity towards women in the media. The aim of her campaign is to transform the ideologies that are being associated with the word ratchet (Membis). She considers herself an image activist, one who draws attention to the inequalities in image and works to correct them. Davis hopes that her campaign will spark a conversation among young women who are caught up in the ratchet image that in popular culture. Davis’ campaign seeks to reclaim the word ratchet, to highlight the success of women, rather than the negative stereotypes.

Davis’s campaign is not the only push back is popular media against the ratchet craze. Jay-Z, long time respected hip-hop artist has commented on the course ratchet has taken on his newest album, “Magna Carta Holy Grail”. In his song, “Somewhereinamerica” Jay-Z raps,

“They see I’m still putting work in
Cause somewhere in America
Miley Cyrus is still twerkin’

[Outro]

Twerk, twerk (Miley, Miley)
Only in America”

-Jay-Z

Jay-Z’s commentary may be more subtle than Davis’s Bury the Ratchet campaign, but the message is no less clear. He, as a major player on the hip-hop scene sees what is happening here. There are women, such as Miley Cyrus who are willing in ignorance to represent a negative image of women to earn money.  What’s worse is the image she is appropriating is from a culture that she is uneducated about and she does not respect in her public productions. Jay-Z rarely praises white women in his music as many other on the hip-hop scene do. In this way, it is obvious to those who are familiar the hip-hop scene that he is calling out Miley and those who are like her for misrepresenting, and profiting from this bastardized version of ratchet culture (Viera).

Fame really hasn’t been good to ratchet. While it was originally just a harmless slang term in hip-hop, just as, “jiggy” was for Will Smith, popularity left ratchet with a much less attractive image. Ratchet went through many changes as it climbed to fame. Beginning in Shreveport, Louisiana, ratchet was just a term for partying hard. As the public caught hold, it came to mean so much more, a music movement, a distasteful act, or most troubling, a distasteful woman. While ratchet is no longer contained by its original speech community, at least there are some who recognize where it came from.

References

Bowen, Sesali. “Let’s Get Ratchet! Check Your Privilege at the Door.” Feministing. N.p., 28 Mar. 2013.

Geezy, Nicky. “DJ Mustard Talks Ratchet Movement.” Sway’s Universe. MTV Music, 21 Apr. 2012.

Hudson, Phillip, and Emmanuel Hudson. “Ratchet Girl Anthem (SHE RACHEEET!).” You Tube. N.p., 16 Jan. 2012.

Jackson, Jenn M. “Michaela Angela Davis Gives Us “Bury the Ratchet”.” The Worth Campaign. N.p., 7 May 2013.

Latin Rap. “Ratchet Does Not Come from Wretched – Slang Word Origin History – See More At: Http://latinrapper.com/blogs/?p=8810#sthash.ItZRzsAu.dpuf.” Latin Rapper. N.p., 29 Sept. 2013.

Membis, Laine. “It’s Time to Bury the Ratchet.” Clutch Magazine Online. N.p., 10 Dec. 2012.

Nathan, Anthony. “‘Ratchet’ Is the New Fad in Rap Music.” The State Hornet. Sacramento State University, 20 Feb. 2013.

Ortved, John. “Ratchet: The Rap Insult That Became a Compliment.” New York Magazine. New York Media LLC., 11 Apr. 2013.

Platon, Adelle. “Miley Cyrus Asked For A ‘Black’ Sound For Single, Says Songwriters Rock City.” Vibe. Spin Media, 12 June 2013.

Porter, Terrance. “Let’s Get Ratchet: The Origin Of Ratchetness.” Nappy Afro. N.p., 23 May 2012.

Rogers, Richard A. “From Cultural Exchange To Transculturation: A Review And Reconceptualization Of Cultural Appropriation.” Communication Theory (10503293) 16.4 (2006): 474-503.

The Root. “The Origin Of The Word Ratchet : The Word Is the New “ghetto,” and It’s Everywhere.” Dallas Black. Washington Post Company, 16 Oct. 2012.

Viera, Bené. “Miley Cyrus and the Obsession with ‘ratchet Culture’.” The Grio. MSNBC, 13 July 2013.