Posts Tagged subcultures

Keith Richards meets a hipster

Since I first saw one smugly slurping a Pabst Blue Ribbon, I have sworn eternal vengeance against hipsters. Why concentrate so much negative emotion on such a silly segment of the population? Hipsters are like the gray blob of nanomachines that some theorists say will eat all matter if unleashed: they take everything people find enjoyable and reduce it to a basis for irony and petty judgment.

Hipsters choose their favorite music based on the number of people that haven’t listened to it. If you genuinely like anything, even the air you breath, don’t ever tell a hipster. They’ll tell you that a 78.04-20.95% nitrogen-oxygen ratio is too mainstream.

I’m given to bouts of cynicism and irony, but I still think basing one’s entire existence on negativity makes for a pretty horrible person. Hipsters think they’re just too cool to be human.

Recently, I found some solace in the fact that this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. I’ve been reading Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, and in it he describes what could be proto-hipsters.

As a teenager, Richards hung out with other young blues enthusiasts, some of whom were such purists that even actual blues artists couldn’t meet their standards:

“None of these blues purists could play anything. But their Negroes had to be dressed in overalls and say, “Yes’m boss.” And in actual fact they’re city blokes who are so hip it’s not even true.”

Like today’s hipsters, the blues purists sought an art that was so authentic it didn’t actually exist. In this case, because it was more than a little racist. Hipsters don’t subscribe to an antiquated racist view of culture (at least, I hop they don’t), but it still seems like reality isn’t good enough for them.

When an artist creates a piece of music it is what it is, regardless of how many people like it or whether it meets some critic’s standard of authenticity.

What kind of a world would we live in if people were too afraid of appearing unsophisticated to like anything? That is why hipsters, past and present, are such an irritant. At least they’re nothing the world hasn’t dealt with before.


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Why I love jargon

The English language is in trouble. Instant and text messaging have turned the medium of Shakespeare into an appalling mess of acronyms, abbreviations, and emoticons. Still, there is hope, and it comes from America’s subcultures.

From hipsters to gangsters, subcultures are everywhere. Their members build a unique culture within the macro-culture of American society, and one of the ways they do it is through language. Having a separate culture means looking at the world differently from everyone else, and, consequently, describing it differently.

Every white suburban high school kid is familiar with the slang used by their favorite rappers, and teenagers of a different generation called un-cool things “square” to fit in with the beatniks.

However, this is nothing compared to the linguistic innovations of professional subcultures. The military has its own names for things: in the Navy, the floor (or ground) is the “deck” and walls are “bulkheads.” Truckers have their CB codes (“10-4,” etc.) as well as their own specific vocabulary: in CB slang, a snowplow is a “salt shaker.” The same is true of diners (“axle grease” is code for butter and a bottle of ketchup is a “lighthouse”).

I have even found job-specific jargon in my own workplace, an agency that serves people with disabilities. To make the place seem un-institutional, the people it serves are called “consumers,” putting them on the same level as the people lining up at Wal Mart.

By repurposing words to be more meaningful in their own specific context, professional subcultures are helping the English language evolve. Other groups seek to minimize the use of words in order to make communication faster, but, while on the job, information needs to be specific and instantly recognizable. That means giving words new uses (or even inventing new words) rather than abbreviating them.

That’s why jargon is so interesting: it demonstrates the entire process of language in microcosm. The purpose of language is to communicate with the rest of the world. People in the military, trucking industry, or health services could not adequately describe things from their perspective, so they expanded the language to make that possible.

The current, Internet-happy society views proper English as an impediment to the constant flow of information to every person. With the broader culture focusing on quality over quantity, it is up to the subcultures to keep the English language going.

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