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THREE ON THE TOWN

SPEAKING THE LANGUAGE : In Post-Boomer Dude Talk, It Isn't What's Said but How You Say It

April 11, 1993|Jonathan Gold

Occasionally, I find myself saying that somebody got crazy props on her last project when what I mean is "lavish praise." I have been known to ask people what tip they are on. I have described certain dance songs as having dope beats , and other songs as phat . I've found that it is possible to sustain an entire coffeehouse dialogue without saying anything but cool , rocks and bummin' . It's not my native tongue, but I can pass.

At the office, sometimes I wonder what the man at the next desk, a '60s guy, makes of my phone conversations with the colleague whose standard greeting is "Yo! Yo yo-yo. Yo." I wonder whether to him they differ much from my business calls from people who prefer the salutations hey man , homes . . . or du - ude .

It is futile to remind the guy how silly his parents may have thought he sounded 25 years ago when he adopted right on and copacetic.

Just as a Frenchman divides his world into those whom he addresses familiarly as tu and those who merit the more formal vous , so do some of us discern between the dude and the non-dude.

Like Japanese, dude is a language of indirection, where nothing is really stated, only implied, with a dozen levels dictated by the speaker's status vis a vis the listeners. And as with Chinese, inflection is crucial. Cool , for example, can mean "wonderful," "passable," "dull," "please continue" or "go away," depending on the degree of nasality and the extent of the drawl. Stupid can mean almost anything you want it to mean. It takes a little bit of facility to bring off old and discredited terms like far out , groovy or def.

When in doubt, jam your hands in your pockets and stare hard at the floor. People enjoy that sort of thing.

Dude is a word impossible to speak without irony. When thus addressed, you may be certain that the ensuing conversation will be conducted on many levels, and may concern what the initiator thinks of your bourgeois lifestyle almost as much as it does the subject seemingly under discussion. Dude smacks both of kinship and contempt, and often there's no reliable way to figure out which one the instigator has in mind. (Think of the way that Eddie Haskell talked to Ward Cleaver, then attempt to communicate both that attitude and its opposite.)

When you hear your lawyer or your tax accountant lapse into dude on the phone, usually when she is talking to a high-school buddy who still delivers flowers for a living, it can be as if you had just discovered that she knows how to speak fluent Urdu.

Our elders, most of them anyway, are themselves consumers of pop culture, and they don't like it much when you remind them that a Paul Simon CD in 1993 is not dissimilar from a Jo Stafford record in the Summer of Love--not a bad purchase, exactly, but irrelevant to the scheme of things. Sometimes it's better to include them in the fraternity of dude. Tell them that the Clippers' fast break is definitely gangsta. Describe a Mozart flute concerto as rockin' pretty hard.

Dude, which implies both "I'm too alienated to be a real threat to you" and "I'm not as stupid as you think I am," makes it possible, even desirable, to retain a sullen adolescent attitude well into one's 30s. It's a veiling thing, and it drives people nuts.

Ask anybody who grew up in a beach city: the grungiest, grunting surfers often seem to be the ones who write brilliant ad copy for Chiat-Day or are finishing a doctorate at Scripps. A rock 'n' roll musician's profundity often increases in inverse proportion to the extent that anybody can understand the words. One friend, who dropped out of school to set up REM's T-shirt sales at the age of 13, reddens when people find out she actually managed to graduate summa cum laude from NYU before most of her friends knew she even had a GED. When necessary, though as infrequently as possible, a dude can be as articulate as the next guy.

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