Friday, July 11, 2014

Here's the etymology of "Turn Down for What"

Since "Turn Down For What" by DJ Snake and Lil' Jon is clearly the dance anthem of this sad yet very fun generation, I've had ample occasion to think about what it means. And I'm clearly not the only one.

Duh It's a Rhetorical Question

Ok, fine, we all know "turn down for what?" is a rhetorical question. Like, for what reason would I turn down, "turn down" meaning the opposite of getting "turnt," or "turnt up."

But to fully wrap my mind around where this phrase came from and why exactly it's so catchy and cool, I had to trace the origins of all its parts.

Let's turn up the breaking down business by breaking "Turn Down For What" down.

Turn down.

Throughout history, there have been so many things developed technology-wise to turn down. Google's book search for "turn down" showed that before lanterns, people expectedly only used the phrase to mean reject something for an alternate choice. Like, "I turned the boy down on our third date because he was too into the fitness subreddit." Or, "President Obama turned down Michelle Obama because she was too hot." Stuff like that.

Or, turn-down (or sometimes even turn down, without a hyphen) was often used as a noun. Like a "turn-down collar." But that's irrelevant, nouns are irrelevant here.

With the invention of heat and a lantern came the invention of to "turn" something "down." Then that translated into turning the radio or the television down in the 30's and 50's, respectively. 

By the end of the 20th century, there were numerous things you could turn down, if they were too loud or high. Your iPhone ringtone. The volume of your Nintendo. Your enthusiasm about something going viral. There were so many things to turn down that turning them up wasn't even exciting anymore. We had to do something - SOMETHING - to make turning something up an event to remember.

Pertinent Tangent: Turnt

(oh great, the two most tired idioms in pop culture right now, together, in one JPEG, with a mini icon of beer pong. Thanks, Google Image.)

In 2005, a girl named Erica Peters knew "turning up" was like, so snooze. So she got the cue somewhere to kick it up a notch. More specifically, she give IT a T at the end. On Urban Dictionary.

"Turnt" to Erica Peters, the first one to post about "turnt" in Mr. Urban Dick in good old 2005 meant:

"Horny, Drunk,f*cked up!! Crunk!!
Damn, I am all turnt on! or I am getting Turnt to night at the club!"

Well, "turnt on" was eventually foregone in favor of the more popular "turnt up," but 2005 had the right idea.

In my opinion, there are two reasons that "turned" might have gained its cooler, sluttier older sister, "turnt."

Turnt theory #1: It's southern dialect. Google book search shows any use of the word "turnt" before 2005 was purely a dialectical spelling to portray a southern character. 

This theory is fascinating to me because what makes a southern person so apt to replace an "ed" with a "t" in this case? Is it that they are purely making a mistake about the past tense of "turn?" Is there an element of definitiveness they subconsciously add to "turn" by adding the harsher "T" sound at the end, in order to connote that something has been fully turned? My guess it might have been a combination of both.

Turnt theory #2: It's a rhyming thing. "Turn" rhymes with "burn," and people say something has been "burnt" a lot. Something has been "turnt" sounds very similar. 

British English and American English have differed in the way they've historically used "burned" and "burnt." In the case of American English, people use "burnt" more often to describe an object that has been completely burned. Like, Americans would probably say "I ate a burnt piece of toast" before saying, "I burnt this piece of toast." So, in my opinion, adding a "T" to the end of "burn" connotes a more complete process of having been burned for good, which reflects its harsher sound. 

Which brings us back to "turnt." Turnt's structure closely follows that of the way most Americans use "burnt." We say something is turnt, something is getting turnt, something has been turnt (usually us). So we're the direct object; something fully turned us up. The structure of the language gives the impression of a loss of control usually involved with substance use, which is something that "getting turnt" totally means. 

Here are the conclusions I came to about turnt: It is cool because it's offers a curve ball in terms of confident ending annunciation,  and it is associated with calm and collected southern living.

(lol) (It's not accurate in any way, I just think it's funny.)

For What?

("FOR WHAAAAAT [am I locked in here]???? I'm white and fluffy!!!" it says. The only thing that would make this picture sadder is if it were a puppy.)

"For What" definitely lives in "Turn Down"'s shadow. But don't get yourself twisted: it's an irreplaceable part of the rhetoric. Lil' Jon could have written, "Why Would We Turn Down?" and where would we be today? Definitely ALL THE WAY turned down. And for what?

What's so cool about "For What?" It packs a two-syllable punch, that's for sure. It sounds like a kid whose mom asks him to clean his room and he's yelling back at her from a pile of dirty laundry. "FOR WHAT, MOM? No one comes in here except me anyway!" Then he masturbates and cries because it's true. 

For me, the coolest thing about "For What" is it's a structure not often used in English. And, indulge me here, it's used a lot in Russian. They have two ways of saying "Why?" in Russian: "Pochemu?" and "Za shto?" The first variant is more abstract, like, "What is the reason for this world!!!!!!111," and the second is literally asking, "For what?" like give me a tangible result of this thing.

Bottom Line

Although the EDM oscillation between verses and chorus thrusts the song forward, "Turn Down For What," which is derived from its much less popular polar opposite, "Turn Up For Many Reasons," has the anthem X-factor mostly because of its lyrical structure. The kind of structure that floats up out of the dust of tiny baby pop culture trending hashtivist angels, and then enters the hands of nerd bloggers like me, and then, after a few months, joins the ranks of historic passe decisions that Miley Cyrus stores away in the part of her butt cheeks that claps. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Cold Shoulder War

You might remember when Putin annexed Crimea sometime at the beginning of the year. You know, back in those days when the Putin backlash was strong. The Russian president's club of western haters has subsided a bit because we've moved on to bigger animals of foreign policy like Iraq and Israel, but he'll do something to make it come back, I guarantee it. He'll make another statement about how being gay is wrong, or ban Facebook. And when the American media discourse falls back into the Putin-bashing mode, politicians will feel the need to chisel out some new vehemently anti-Russian policy. Like when, for example, some aldermen in Chicago in late March felt the need to suspend the 17-year “Sister City” relationship between Chicago and Moscow. 

That’ll teach Putin a lesson for annexing Crimea, they said. It was supposed to be an “important step” toward expressing “outrage” to Putin, but the mayor declined to sign it. That might have had something to do with the fact that there are approximately 15,000 Russian immigrants living in Chicago, according to 2009 American Community Survey data. Chicago Sister Cities International has thrown fashion shows, meals, concerts and events of all kinds promoting Russian culture since 1997.

Between the time of Putin's anti-gay law and his royal mess of Sochi, at least 40 of 76 U.S. cities with Russian Sister cities formed similar online petitions to suspend their Sister City relationships. So much time and energy went into garnering support for the anti-gay “propaganda” and anti-annexation petitions. What would happen if cities spent that energy trying to improve their already existing foreign exchange programs, many of which have persisted even through the Cold War?

"Citizen diplomacy" is the fancy reason for Sister Cities International. The organization was founded in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the interest of using average citizens as political ambassadors for their country, whether purposefully or as a result of some other motivation. “I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it,” the former president smirked in 1959.

Here's citizen diplomacy in action: no one from Chicago knows anything about Moscow, and vice versa. I asked many of my friends living in Chicago what they knew about Moscow. They said it was dreary, the Kremlin was there and the KGB used to exist. When I was in Moscow and mentioned I was from Chicago, I received one of two gestures in return from the people living there: either, “Oh, Da Bulls!” or “Boom boom! Al Capone.” Maybe it's just me because I love Russian history and culture, but I think we should mutually learn more about each other.

A friend I studied with in St. Petersburg in 2009 said she often struggled with the rough misunderstandings between Americans and Russians. My friend, who asked to remain anonymous because she works for the U.S. government, said if Russians and Americans do not actively try to understand one another, they're at risk of becoming completely disconnected, rotting in “echo chambers of their own rhetoric.” Real diplomacy, she said, only starts once the “conversation juices start flowing.” 

Ask anyone who's been to Russia, even those fluent in Russian, and they'll say they've had enough awkward moments and misunderstandings to last a lifetime. Just existing in the same place and doing the same menial task can work wonders for ironing out the folds of misconceptions between people.

Everyday commonalities are essential in even the most high profile international policy conversations. We saw this when Obama tried to relate to Putin over sports during their press conference about Syria. He announced to the press that the two had bonded over complaints that they were getting older, which made it harder for both of them to play their sport of choice. “We compared notes on President Putin’s expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball,” Obama said, to laughter from the press. “And we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover.” Putin did not take Obama’s statement as a joke, but rather he thought Obama was trying to make him feel more comfortable by painting himself as weak. "The President is trying to put me at ease with the fact that he’s becoming weaker,” Putin said. It was a moment lost in translation, and it underscored the value of communicating via the language of hobbies and culture. 

For those politicians who want to tell Putin off and spread democracy, Sister Cities could be the way to do that. A Sister City relationship is arguably an important means through which a country with more institutionalized freedoms (America) can influence a less democratic country (Russia). Exchanges like Sister City events are “the only way that Russians will have access to real information,” Ukrainian-American Luba Yurchyk said. Yurchyk, who was born in Ukraine, lives in Chicago and keeps in consistent contact with many Russians, said several of her friends living in Russia are frightened that whatever freedom of the press they had before is being squandered. Many told her their dismay at Putin closing them off from most independent channels of journalism and world news. “So what would it hurt for a couple of people from Chicago to talk to a couple of people from Moscow?”

Moscow and Chicago are cities with exhaustively different expectations of their languages, their governments (local and national), and their lives. What they share is a desire to appear vibrant and heterogeneous to the other. Many Americans don’t agree with Obama or Bush's policies. And many Russians don’t agree with Putin's. Sister City events reveal opportunities for people to bond over their dissent.

There will always be Americans and Russians who fundamentally disagree about urgent and far-reaching issues. But if a friendship is formed in some way or another on the ground, international policies could slowly patch conflict with mutual understanding of these divisions. We need to stop creating policies out of alienated antagonism and pause to appreciate our sisters.