In college, I dated a girl who applied for a job at an Express store in the mall. Part of her training involved something called the “Express You! Street Verbage [sic] Guide”—an almost unbelievably wrongheaded dictionary of street terms and slang that Express management wanted sales associates to learn so as to best relate to customers. My friend, a greeter-in-training, was instructed to review and memorize it. To be fair, this was the mid-90s. Illmatic had just dropped, Mariah Carey was putting out remixes with ODB, and it was virtually impossible to avoid TLC’s “Waterfalls.” But never mind that. The guide was funny even then—and as soon as I heard about it I asked her to snag me a copy.*
I recently came across it again during a move; and it was even more ridiculous/offensive than I’d remembered. The guide defines “crab” as “disrespect to a Crip,” and notes that a “Ni na” is a nine-millimeter gun. A full four years before the onset of those Budweiser commercials, the “Express You! Street Verbage Guide” was teaching trainees that “wassup” means “hi, what’s up.” In a potentially confusing turn, the document also states that “off the hook,” has two, quite different meanings: “1.) good 2.) bad.” There are definitions for “keepin it real,” and “narc,” and a really bizarre one for “jigga.” Things like “bodice” and “armscye,” meanwhile, are nowhere to be found. Now, 15-plus years on, let’s all marvel at this corporate branding communication of yore.
* Or, put another way… the “Express You! Street Verbage Guide” way:
Back in my old hood, a former boo landed a bangin’ job with a dope company called Express. In order to make sure she wasn’t half-steppin’, and was keepin it real, the company asked wifey to represent by peepin’ some phat thug lingo that real hoodrats flow with. Feel me? I told her they were buggin’, but blahze blahze, she said it was ahite and told me to put my piece away. I felt like the gangsta lingo guide had to be chicken and straight garbage, so I was symphin’ and feinning for her to jack a copy for me. I asked her to snag one “from some slob at her store.” She looked at me like I was trick no good and warned me that I needed to watch who I dis, on the real. Otherwise, there could be some blastin up in this piece, since “slob,” she had recently learned, is something you say if you’re looking to “disrespect a Blood.” (My bad!) Luckily, boo’s manager at Express, Amanda (or Ashley, or something), wasn’t a Blood, son. So there was no reason to call jigga. When boo brought the street guide back to the cut, I thought she was frontin’, but that thing was the ill real deal. I couldn’t stop riffin on that messed up, stupid lameball, scandalist guide, on the real. Word is born, the thing was just plain whack—and also super racist and drowning in stereotypes, true dat. I told boo that Express was clearly looking to make some cheese and cream off street slang, but that the whole thing couldn’t be more crust. And, geah, I would have a hard time keeping this on the L forever. I decided to break it down for her, and got mad mad as I paged through the guide. Blahze blahze, I haven’t set foot in an Express since—I mean, not even sporadically, B. That place is off the hook, but in a definition number two way. Dialtone.
Matthew J.X. Malady is a writer and editor living in Manhattan. Follow him on twitter @matthewjxmalady.