'Thug Life' and the Effect of Hip-Hop on Language



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"Thug" has long been part of the hip-hop lexicon. The late Tupac Shakur called himself a thug and even had the phrase "thug life" tattooed across this chest. But for others "thug" is a pejorative term describing young, black men who are considered criminals.

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TONY COX, host:

And now commentator Todd Boyd considers how the old adage sticks and stones may break my bones has flipped in this modern age.

TODD BOYD: American icon Muhammad Ali once said that words are more powerful than fists. That statement's all the more relevant when you consider how hip-hop has affected language in the modern age. A certain hip-hop word is now inciting heated discussion over usage and meaning. And I'm not talking about the so-called N-word this time. Here I am referring to the ubiquitous word thug.

For a long time now, thug has been part of the hip-hop lexicon. The late Tupac Shakur made this word famous. He called himself a thug and even had the phrase Thug Life tattooed across his chest. For many people, though, thug is pejorative term describing young black men who were considered criminals. The pejorative usage of thug was the subject of a recent Atlanta Journal Constitution article. It discussed the word as it's been used to describe Atlanta Falcon quarterback Mike Vick by some radio talk show hosts, bloggers and others.

Has thug come substitute for the contested N-word without all the social baggage? Does the frequent use of this term to describe young black men simply slide under the radar? Thug, of course, did not originate with hip-hop. But like so many other things, hip-hop gave the word new meaning. Thug has become badge of honor among those who embrace the up-from-the-streets ethos.

To be a thug is to be considered hard, real and authentic. The myriad ways that rappers use thug has always been quite creative, actually. There's the Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, "Thuggish Ruggish Bone," and Jay-Z's "Justify My Thug." Atlanta rapper Young Jeezy, the man who claims that he's not a rapper, he's a motivational speaker, has an album entitled "Thug Motivation." Meanwhile, Miami rapper Trick Daddy seems to be on thug overdose, having released several albums with thug in the title. These include "www.thug.com," "Book of Thugs," and the not to be missed "Back by Thug Demand."

But to call yourself a thug, though, is different than being called one by someone else. That's especially true if the person calling you a thug doesn't necessarily have your best interests at heart. But, as with the so-called N-word, it's hard to legislate who says what when these words circulate so freely in pop culture.

With the way that hip-hop culture has penetrated mainstream society over the last 30 years, words and their usage are no longer private affairs. Instead, they have become public domain. And there will always be people who use certain words out of context to discredit others. Maybe instead of getting all offended about it, we should simply charge it to the game. Because what's worst really? Using thug to refer to young black men as criminals or being language cops who censor and mute what doesn't fit our agendas?

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COX: Todd Boyd is the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture in the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.