William Safire Takes On the Blacks, Rejects NYT Style Guide

In tomorrow's "On Language" column (not yet online), the linguist William Safire concludes that "In borrowing, as speakers of Standard English do, cool words and phrases from hip-hop and rap ('You the man!' 'You go, girl!'), we should recognize the savvy sociopolitical methods behind its dialectical formulations." Which is to say, those people/rappers are not just making random sounds after all. What brought about this revelation? An e-mail from an English professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, who thought it was pretty funny that her students were using phrases like "back in the day" and "old school" in reference to things like the first-generation iPod. Intrigued, Safire took the ball and ran it all the way down, tapping not one, not two, but three "serious students of hip-hopese" to explain the phenomenon.

Problem was, all these serious students spelled their terms differently when they e-mailed Safire back. Dr. H. Samy Alim from UCLA, for instance, wrote it out as "hip-hop", explaining that the phrase Safire was asking after was "not just used in the temporal sense, like 'back in the days of Ronald Reagan, blacks was catchin' hell!'" but also in the personal/cultural sense.

But Dr. Geneva Smitherman, head of the Af-Am Language and Literacy Program at Michigan State and the author of "Black Talk," went a different route, forgoing the hyphen and maxing on the caps as she explained how "Hip Hop music" from smaller times "was more rooted in Black Cultural Consciousness, in contrast to the 1970s advent of 'gangsta rap' with its emphasis on violence, misogyny and bling-bling."

Meanwhile, professor Marcyliena Morgan from the Hip Hop Archive at Stanford threw a total curveball with her usage of "Hiphop" as one word, capitalized at the front and completely un-hyphenated.

Hip-hop, hiphop, Hip Hop, Hiphop... what was Safire to do? The copy-desk would surely force him to choose one and make corrections across the board, but he didn't want to offend anyone, or come off to the serious students as one of those linguistic imperialists he'd read about in the magazines. No, Safire thought, he wasn't going to let anyone make him into a monster. That's when he decided to put it all on the line, and "in the free spirit of the culture," "let everybody spell, capitalize or hyphenate this name any way they like."

"Hip copy editors," he warned, "will please hop off."

You go girl, indeed.