In the comments of a recent Dear TAN, the esteemed Orange poses a question:
How come "son" tacked onto something, often in a somewhat admonitory fashion, is a black thing? Why hasn't this caught on among white folks? Can we get some unassimilated etymology here?
wonderful question. sometime in the past decade (i'm pretty sure it was chappelle, but haven't actually run the numbers) the slang term "son" crossed over into mainstream. like real MAINstream. Oprah could use it as a quip (she probably has). Judd Apatow is writing it into a script as we speak. I'd take some odds on Obama dropping it sometime in the next four years. (especially if these journys want to keep asking tough questions. Obama's definitely gonna snap on someone like, "YO SON, I TOLD YOU WE WAS GONNA ISSUE A MOTHERF'ING STATEMENT NEXT MOTHERF'ING WEEK. DO YOU WANT TO ASK ANOTHER QUESTION, SON? No seriously, do you?")
Anyson, I disagree that white people aren't using it. Maybe normal white people aren't using it? But there aren't [m]any of those left here in NYC (ha!). And for that matter, normal black people aren't using it either. (fyi, I'd draw the line of normalcy somewhere around 35-36 years old.)
The term has definitely graduated though. It's in the urban slang Hall of Fame. It didn't break in with the inaugural class of superstar slang like, "dope" "word" "fresh" "wack" etc. Or the suspect second generation of "phat" and "jiggy". But now it's got the necessary votes. word.
And it's a nice piece of slang, especially when you know about it ... so herewith is a brief lesson on "son" history/usage:
1. Internet recon: for starters, your basic google search is not going to steer you terribly off the path. no need to fire up your blackbird browser on this one. a search for "slang word 'son'" and "when did rappers start saying son" gives you the idea (this thread about females using the term is worth a smile). Here's the wiki:
The origin of the term "Son" in the vernacular context was used among American East Coast urban youths as a derogatory term that extended beyond justifying seniority. Often, it was used to claim or instigate one's sentiment toward a rival. The term's derogatory intention began to shift as rap groups like the Wu-Tang Clan used it in their lyrics of the rough ghetto life as a form of endearment. As urban/hip-hop culture has been portrayed as a glamorous subculture to the youths today, the term has been commonly used as playful greeting for those who seek an urban identity to develop their own culture from and will use the term "Son" as well other terms found in rap lyrics like "Nigga", Cuhz (Cousin). Still, those who use or believe these terms are derogatory find differentiation in how the word is enunciated or structured. Mainly, in how the term is pronounced in comparison to the sentence structure as well as the body language (ie- gestural, proxemics, etc,).
2."Son" as a verb: The graf above actually gets at a derogatory element that is not as common today. The derogatory comes when you use it as a verb; if you "son" someone, you dominate them. Father-son style. "You got sonned" is now more often "you got played/served/the gasface/dissed-and-dismissed-with-a-kiss-like-this (y'all know that one, right?).
3. Wu-Tang Usage (Wusage?): the wiki having the part about wu-tang warms
The last part of that wiki, about different enunciation, makes no sense. Proxemics? Seriously?
I think that about covers it. white people only use it ironically because otherwise you could use "dude" or "man" and not risk any unintended urban subtext (sucks when that happens) ... it's basically used the same as those terms now.
for black folks, it's a nice social lubricator at parties. fellow negroes recognize it, and it's got a 93.8% hit rate of eliciting a smile/laugh when used by assimilateds around caucasian-american liberal types (i've run the numbers on that one). so it's nice when people don't know who you are , you can just say, "come on, SON, what's up with [insert latest blog fodder here]?? yo son, that's crazy." Unless you're unlucky enough to stumble on that 6.2% who wouldn't find such a line even mildly amusing, you should be golden.
hope that helps, son.