Washed Out

I am a linguist by nature, by design. When I took an unintentional trip to the bing this fall, among other things I observed was the way language kept a lot of young black men afloat and familiar. A friend and cellmate asked me aloud what the term “these shits” and “them shits” meant in reference to the frequency of it during our overnight adventure. When milk and sandwiches were delivered in bulk to the cells, one person or another would say “I hate these shits” or “You got any more of them shits?” which jogged my friend because he was unacquainted with the slanguistics of “shits.” I took it for granted that I didn’t only know the meaning but could also say that I used it more often than not. Due to a patois parentage and plenty of time playing in Brooklyn streets, I’m a code-switching dynamo. So much so that I hardly give myself time to ingest the argot that I use, dissect, decipher. I also have the privilege of working with students between 14 and 18 years old who put me on to phrases and trends I wouldn’t otherwise be able to translate. One day I heard one of them using the term “washed,” to refer to besting someone during a basketball game. He said something like: “I went one way and [he] went that way. I straight washed him up.” Another student said the term in another way, using the term “plate” as the object being washed like: “If you f*ck with me, I’ll wash your whole plate.” I found that crazy because in The Tombs I’d heard the phrase used that way.

It made me inquire with one student about when he’d started using that term or heard it used. He told me heard it in September of this year, which made me think of the time (Septemberish) when I had paid society’s debt in The Tombs.

The Tombs

Dwight or “Whitey” was a young hustler from Harlem who rattled on about his hood triumphs, finesse with women and time spent in those captive environs. He used codes and street name substitutes I never heard. Most of his vaunts were composed in an endless stream of tongue-flapping. Whitey, the flashy Harlemite, used his lingual dexterity to mesmerize (and eventually wear down) the rest of us. He kept using that term “washing plates” too but with much more visceral vigor. I suppose he had more reason to be passionate, given the need to dominate his surroundings. Whitey’s rants kept me awake in two ways: their volume made it impossible for me to sleep while he talked and their delivery employed rhythms I could not overlook.

Then, I had to conclude that the jail slang spilling from Whitey was consequently trickling into the neighborhoods. Not a far stretch of the imagination but it gets deepers. While reading Michael Eric Dyson’s latest work Know What I Mean?, it occurred to me his theory about prison being a metaphorical “home space” for black males was dead on. Not only did that ring true in The Tombs, but also on the streets of East New York, where young men could use the language infused in them by other so-called homes. Prison is a neighbor to all of us. Even if you haven’t been there, some effect of it makes it to your existence. Sagging pants from removed belts is the most obvious of  the prison style signatures but something like language — intangible, morphing — makes its way through in other ways. Plate washing reminds me of military slang like “cleaning your clock” or “mop the floor,” something that extends from an activity. Could the prison slang for besting someone or beating him up  also come from a prison detail like dish-washing? No doubt there is a connection but its etymology might remain inexact until we find a way to trace phrases from Jailhouse to SchoolHouse.




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