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June 5, 2008

Slang of the Week: steez (noun)

"You may like music downloads," said Cecil, "but that's not my steez. I still spin vinyl records."

Celebrity quote:
"I travel through the darkness carrying my torch
The illest [coolest] soldier, when I'm holding down the fort
You know my steez..."
— Rapper Guru on You Know My Steez

Some suggest that steez is a portmanteau word made from style and ease. But wherever it came from, most people associate it with Gang Starr's 1998 hit You Know My Steez. In the song, Guru, who has knack for simile and unexpected juxtapositions of slang with SAT vocabulary words, criticizes "one-dimensional MCs" who value the wrong kind of style.

"Some punks, ain't paid all of their debts yet," he explains, "Tryin' to be fly [fashionable], ridin' high on the jet set/with juvenile rhymes makin' fake-ass [false] death threats." In other words, some of the newer rappers should invest in a thesaurus instead of limiting their purchases to gold chains and guns. While his decade-old lament is reminiscent of those who think that the English language has been in a long, slow decline since Shakespeare's time (and yet do not speak in iambic pentameter), he does have a point.

In recent years, the similar "my swag" (a shortened form of swagger) has become more popular than "my steez." This change is perhaps in part because in 2004, the American Dialect Society published a book called You Know My Steez: An Ethnographic and Sociolinguistic Study of Styleshifting in a Black American Speech Community. There are few things uncooler than having your slang co-opted by academics.

While steez can represent different kinds of style, swag is principally about the superficial trappings of success. In a 2007 song, after boasting of his Rolls Royce car and Louis Vuitton luggage, Chingy adds, "I’m fresh to death, so baby, check my swag." Likewise, Jae Millz’s song My Swag (also 2007) celebrates the kind of style Guru found so objectionable: "Get money, spend money, stay fly/Those the three codes that I live by."

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week's pick: How to Talk American: A Guide to Our Native Tongues by James Marshall Crotty. From Bible Belt Banter to Vegas Vernacular, from Redneck Rhetoric to New England Niceties, Crotty's savvy and often hilarious region-by-region guide to the way we talk provides a dead-on (and sometimes too strange) indication of how we think, how we behave, and what we hold dear.