One bit of slang that I find annoying, and that I'm hearing more and more often from white folks these days, is the conversion of a particular noun, "ghetto," into an adjective. I'm not a grammar cop, so it's not the "incorrect" usage of "ghetto" as an adjective that bothers me. I just think that since the noun brings to most American minds stereotypical images of exclusively non-white urban areas, the white use of it as an adjective is racist. And since the noun also denotes an impoverished urban area, and the people I hear using it as an adjective are mostly middle- and upper-middle class white folks, it's also classist.
I also find the word irksome because for white people, it has a "Get-out-of-jail-free card" quality to it. To illustrate what I mean by that, ask yourself why, when white folks use the word "ghetto" to describe another person's clothing or accessories, or their car or something about the way they're acting--why don't they use the words "trashy" or "trailer park" instead?
It's true that those words, which bring to mind classist notions of "white trash" or "rednecks," sometimes don't fit, because what's being described conjures up for the speaker certain stereotypes about black people, instead of stereotypes about poor white people. But that specifically "black" connection is often only there in what's being described because the speaker is using the word "ghetto," instead of "trashy" or "trailer park." There's nothing especially black about fixing things with duct tape, for instance, or eating inexpensive foods, or otherwise saving or stretching a buck. So why say "ghetto" for such things, instead of something else?
I think that for a lot of white people, using the word "ghetto" as an adjective has an extra element of daring and hipness to it, and also an air of knowingness, about the noun that is, the actual places called "ghettos." It's almost as if the white person is claiming (in a way that's nearly always unwarranted) that they really know what "the ghetto" is like because they've been daring enough to actually go there. And it has a "Get-out-of-jail-free card" quality to it because although the speaker is conjuring up and basically uttering racist stereotypes, that's supposed to be okay because there's something hip about saying "ghetto" like that.
But then, this piece of slang is becoming so common that it's already losing that kind of edge, as well as much of any connection to the places and people brought to mind by the word "ghetto." Kind of like the word "gay," which so many white kids use to describe something they think is wrong, or awkward, or "stupid." I've called kids on this usage of "gay," and then asked if they know what "homophobic" means, but they acted like they'd temporarily forgotten that the word they were using means "homosexual."
For an example of how "ghetto" is also moving away from its original meaning, listen to this one-minute video that a guy made about his lawn mower; notice how (from what I can tell) he uses "ghetto" and "redneck" interchangeably:
A lot of slang gains currency precisely because it's inappropriate. Many of the elders still do not approve of racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, and sacrilegious language, so the rebellious young ones still use and abuse it. But slang also gains currency from novelty; new words and phrases get old fast, and then move into the realm of cliché. As slang words get old, many of them also lose their forbidden edge by drifting away, for their users at least, from their inappropriate racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on.
As for the racism of the adjectival "ghetto," I looked up the word at Urban Dictionary, which describes itself as "the slang dictionary you wrote." I don't know how "urban" this popular, user-written site really is, and you also usually can't tell who's contributing a definition. A white person's casual use of "ghetto" is certainly different from that of a non-white person's, as is a white person saying it to white versus non-white people. Still, the debates that develop at Urban Dictionary over certain words and terms can give a good overall sense of what they mean, and as an added bonus, the poetry that slang has always had is often on display (okay, it's sometimes on display).
Readers there have contributed dozens of suggested definitions for "ghetto." Some insist that the word is a noun and should stay that way, while others recognize that it's now widely used and understood as an adjective, and insisting that it remain a noun isn't going to change that.
What do you think? Should people, white or otherwise, stop using ghetto as an adjective? Are there good or bad ways of using it? Do other objectionable words or phrases like this one come to mind?
For the uninitiated, I've copied below some of the contributors' examples, where "ghetto" is used the way I've been hearing it. (Note to grammar cops--I haven't edited these sentences . . . so I hope they don't make you [sic].)
Marcus's South Pole jeans that sag down past his knees are very ghetto when paired with a doorag.
Replacing a broken window with a trashbag and ducttape is ghetto.
"Look how ghetto I look!" Muffy said as she put on her gucci sunglasses.
Jane hid her head in embarrasment as her mom shamelessly committed the ghetto act of stuffing the restaurant's bread rolls, sugar packets, and silverware in her purse.
You might be ghetto if your car has rims which cost more than the car itself.
Yo Koolaid got so much sugar in it, that it's Ghetto.
Your Cd player has dents in it. It's so ghetto.
Word. That backpack is so ghetto! Where did you get it? At the Ghap?