The Broken Telephone Game the World is Playing, and Why It’s Damaging

Slay, sus, lit, fam, bussin, snatched, period, purr, cap, chile, sis, savage

Do these words sound familiar to you? It’s more than likely that you’ve heard or muttered these words in some context, whether it be with your friends, on social media, or in a song. Although you may use these words in your daily vernacular, these phrases are native to African-American Vernacular English, more commonly referred to as AAVE. AAVE is a dialect that was created by African-American communities and is primarily used in the United States. It is distinguished by its pronunciation and syntactic structures, components that combine to make the dialect recognizable.

Despite its Black origins, AAVE is often understood as internet slang and used by non-Black people as a way to make themselves sound and seem on-trend. Social media apps like TikTok and hip-hop and rap songs (that are often used as sounds on TikTok) are both highly-accessible and easily-shared sources of AAVE. TikTok users and listeners from around the world subsequently adopt the AAVE that they hear or see on their “For You” pages and start to incorporate it into their daily vocabularies. The repetitive nature of apps like TikTok and the catchiness of the songs associated with the videos make it very easy for someone to appropriate words, fashion, and hairstyles without even realizing. 

For example, the term “bussin” was originally used to describe delicious food, as in: “This food is bussin,” but now it has become a trendy adjective on TikTok that people can use to describe anything. Creators used it to describe songs, outfits, and even makeup, ignoring its original definition. An article by Anti-Racism Daily (ARD) addresses this paradox that is intrinsic to the popularization of AAVE and specifically points out that Black people are ridiculed for their language while non-Black people are uplifted for using it. As the article states, “this is another example of cultural appropriation: how dominant culture can wield the culture of marginalized people without honoring it, or experiencing the same discrimination and harm.” As “bussin” and many other words like it become overwhelmingly associated with “the internet,” their Black origins are being overlooked and ignored. 

Misusing AAVE and ignoring its roots in Black culture is insensitive and, oftentimes, downright cringe — so much so that there’s a Twitter account under the username @aavegonewrong, dedicated to collecting and posting Tweets of failed attempts of non-Black people using AAVE. Some examples include, “No one’s mad sis. Chile,” and “the wig is skinny sis you lit rally snapped the tea n that’s on PERIODT luv xx,” and “she does but her hair is not the tea.” These butchered phrases exemplify how non-Black people are using AAVE to emulate and benefit from Black culture. 

When Tamyrha D. ’24, was discussing her experiences with AAVE as a Black student at a predominantly white school, she came up with the perfect analogy to describe the transformation of AAVE. Tamyrha noted that, “It’s like a game of telephone. [A term] starts as one thing and keeps on getting misconstrued as time goes on until the meaning — or what they think is the meaning — comes out as something else.” 

For those unfamiliar with the game of telephone, a message travels down a line of people, and, gradually, its structure is lost and the original phrase becomes incoherent until it’s an entirely different phrase. The process by which AAVE words and phrases are appropriated operates in almost an identical way. However, in the game of telephone, there is a clear intention to keep the original phrase in tact. 

AAVE originates in Black communities; using the telephone analogy, these communities are synonymous with the first person in the line who comes up with the message. As more and more people misuse and appropriate AAVE, it likens to the message in the telephone, losing everything that once defined it: its meaning, pronunciation, and origins. By the end of a game of telephone, terms like “finna” and “tea” (as in “spill the tea”), take on a new meaning amongst non-Black people as a result of observing the word in one context and just running with it. 

In Tamyrha’s ideal world, those who did not grow up using AAVE would refrain from using it. However, in reality, she believes that the least people can do is use AAVE in the right context and educate themselves about the background of certain words and phrases before employing them. In doing so, users can maintain the original meaning of terms and prevent themselves from looking foolish. To her, it’s frustrating that Black people are constantly criticized, belittled, and dismissed for the way that they speak, while at the same time, mainstream society popularizes the very same vernacular that they are denigrated for. 

Tamryha articulated, “It’s upsetting because one day, people will hear a person who has grown up with AAVE and criticize them for speaking like that. They ask ‘why do you speak like that?’ and say ‘you should speak more properly.’ The next day, they’ll see something on the internet that uses those phrases but now, it’s cool to use.”

When AAVE transcends into everyday interactions, it’s often appropriated and misused by non-Black people who either neglect or are completely unaware of its Black origins. As a result, yet another part of Black culture is absorbed into mainstream media and stripped of its original purpose and meaning. So, the next time you’re inclined to say purr or slay, either refrain, or make the decision to honor the word’s Black origins by ensuring you’re using it properly. 

Featured Art by Aquinnah Lane-Thurlow ’24