Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Negro 101: Yo Son, What is Up With The Kids Saying "Son" All The Time?


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 institutional chains around my ankles my heart. it's true, the wu-tang clan did push the term into heavy rotation within the hip hop community. But they used the term "sun" as in, "i call my brother 'sun' cause he shine like one". Here's the song with that quote.

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.


  1. Anonymous12/18/2008

    'son' is not amusing. its obnoxious.
    i consider it the urban equivalent of 'kid'.
    then there's the added offense of being called 'son' if you're female. i can call my girlfriends 'bitches' but not my male friends and certainly not my boyfriend. he shouldn't call me "son". there are gender-specific usage rules people.

  2. As a (Caucasian) product of Brooklyn during the era of the inaugural class superstar slang, this post brought me back to the halcyon days of my Flatbush youth. And also gives me a place where I can direct people when "son" still drops into my speech. Good look.

  3. I heard a "conversation" between two kids whose every other word was "son." I was perplexed!

    I've also heard girls call each other "son."

    I love urbandictionary.com.There's 20+ "definitions" for son.

    I like #2. It's to the point:

    2. the east coast equivalent of homie, mainly used in new york

    yo wat up son? hold it down

  4. You sonned that nail by hitting it so squarely on the head, son! Next up: shorty. My relationship with that word started with my 7th grade crush who's now in prison. I thought he was calling me vertically challenged. Oh, if I only knew. Discuss.

  5. Anonymous12/18/2008


    I think I'm going to use "dope" for the next couple days, just because it's in the Hall of Fame and I haven't used it in a while.

  6. Awesome post, 'Son' has always been a favorite.

    I might use 'dope' too for a minute, just 'cause its cool.

  7. 'Son' has been a staple in my personal vernacular for the past few months. I've also decided to bring back 'Wack'. I could probably start working in 'dope' as well...

  8. I still use it (then again, I still use "dope" and "on the strength..." and "Peace" often)

    just to make a point:

    Wu Tang, who at one point in their history were adherents to the teachings of the Nation of Gods and Earths (incorrectly referred to as 5%ers or muslims), use that term from how the gods and earths used it:


    LIke most terms used by the NGE (such as "peace" or "word is bond"), it became part of the vernacular used by MCs during the late 80s and early 90s and then became part of the slang from the north east. As usual, the history of the term is forgotten.

    When I use it, I use it in the manner that the NGE uses it.

    I am not saying that the NGE coined those terms but used it specifically in their world view..

    man woman and child
    sun moon and star..

  9. Whats missing here? Queens and the Nations of Gods and Earths(Five Percenters). White people saying son sounds funny, not sure if I'd respond to such a cracker. I like my white folks white.

  10. This was quite interesting. I'm not sure we can break down the whole "Son" thing totally. It's just one of those things that have gone through the slang cycle. Chappelle definitely breathed new life into it again after it was dormant for a while. Think: "Dat n*gga tried to kill my FARVA, SON!"

    Anyway, any post that leads me to Wu Gambinos makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.

    Peace Sundulla.

  11. Anonymous12/30/2008

    I have to disagree on the whole East Coast thing. I was in college in the late 90s. At a party. My dude from the Bronx bumped into some dude from Boston (it was one of those frat MIT parties...you know, for the black kids) and a fight ensued. All because my friend said "excuse me son." Boston dudes don't like to be called son, i guess.

  12. Anonymous1/03/2009

    I can clearly recall an Oakland rapper saying that in 1991. "Where I'm from there's no choice, son", "that's right suckers, it's just like that son" -- D-Loc from the 415, Givit Up Smooth.

  13. I guess I'M an assimilated negro, too huh? Check out my post on the whole "SON" sickness...

    I'm putting this blog on my favorites, straight up son!

  14. and overe here in england it's the white working class people who use the term son when talking to strangers...

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