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    Insult or inclusive? It's all ghetto

    Teens down with slang turn inflammatory words into compliments. Or, you have tape on your shoe.

    By MONIQUE FIELDS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 6, 2003

    Roshelle Peak, a safe school coordinator at Northeast High School, often hears students call each other "ghetto."

    "You are so ghetto," Peak heard a white girl say one day in the hallway, referring to another girl's clothes.

    "Girl, what you know about that?" a black girl replied.

    The girls laughed. So did Peak.

    "When I was coming up, and you talked about somebody living in the ghetto, those were fighting words," said Peak, who entered Seminole Elementary School during the early days of desegregation in Pinellas County.

    To many of today's students, ghetto carries more meanings than the dictionary offers. The word's transformation reflects how words are redefined and reinterpreted by younger generations.

    It's also a sign of how American culture no longer fits neatly into racial and ethnic categories. Black, white and Latino cultures have become increasingly fused in recent years through television, music, and integrated education.

    Ghetto no longer refers simply to slums or ethnic neighborhoods. Taking their cue from rap music, teenagers have altered the use of the word and recast it as slang that isn't necessarily degrading. To them, the word represents a desirable mentality, style or culture.

    It can describe how someone dresses, talks, even how they think. Doing something unusual, being innovative, or just being frugal are examples of being ghetto.

    That's a long way from where the definition of the word began. The term originated from the name of the Jewish quarter in Venice in 1516. During World War II, ghettos were sections of European cities where Jews were forced to live. Later, in America, ghettos were neighborhoods populated by minorities or immigrants.

    Linguists aren't surprised by the word's evolution.

    "If that's the way it's being used, that's the meaning of the word," said Nancy Niedzielski, an assistant professor of linguistics at Rice University in Houston. "The quickest way to take power away from a word is to co-opt it."

    Bryan Sheppard, a junior at Osceola High School, doesn't mind being called "ghetto." Sometimes peers call him that when he wears mismatched socks to school. Being referred to as ghetto, he says, is a kind of streetwise compliment.

    He is ghetto, he says. And he doesn't "really care what people think or what people say."

    Ghetto also is about attitude.

    "(Latinos) are down to earth people," said Jennifer De Leon, a native of the Dominican Republic who attends Middleton High School in Tampa. "We say things straight up, not trying to harm but to tell the truth."

    Many teens have picked up the word's shifting definitions from music videos, where many rappers use their neighborhoods for material. The cross-cultural appeal of MTV means that black, white, Latino and Asian teenagers use the word in their everyday language.

    "It's a more positive thing," said Emily Neumeier, a junior at Hillsborough High School. "It's on MTV. That's what we want."

    Niedzielski adds: "There are an awful lot of white kids who do what they can to identify with black culture. I think that is one reason that word has positive . . . connotations."

    There is, for example, ghetto fabulous, and the ghetto pass.

    Anyone who takes something old and makes it new again or wears brand name clothes, such as FUBU, from head to toe is ghetto fabulous. And a middle-class person whose social skills allow him to fit into a poor community has earned a ghetto pass.

    Danny Waits, a senior at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg, wears a black shoe to school that he has doctored with duct tape. That's ghetto, and it doesn't bother him when people say it.

    "I don't need to be perfect," he said. "It's just a style."

    In this case, it's a matter of comfort. He would rather tape up his old shoes than buy a new pair.

    Girls can be ghetto when they wear their brothers' shoes. Combining leftovers from two dinners to make a meal and not combing your hair until second period also merit the distinction.

    There's ghetto change, paying for gas only with quarters, and ghetto-rigged, such as repairing glasses with tape.

    "It's more of a mentality now. You have 13-year-old kids living in Brandon who swear they are ghetto," said Orlando, program director at WLLD-FM, Wild 98.7 and the host of the Morning Freak Show. "It's not about social status or about economic status."

    Popular song lyrics have helped change the word's role in the language, he said.

    R&B singer Eric Benet longs for a ghetto girl, in his song by the same title.

    A ghetto girl, living in a ghetto world, the chorus begins. A ghetto girl, I like her 'cause she keeps it real

    A ghetto girl, she lets me know just how she feels

    There's only one girl for me.

    In his ode to ghetto girls, rapper Bow Wow explains why he likes them.

    Ghetto girls they rock braids in different shades

    And in the kitchen fix they mom some Kool-aid

    Ghetto girls they think they can hang

    And talk more slang than I do.

    Even with the word's newfound appeal, some students refuse to call anybody ghetto.

    "We were taught what it actually means," said Pavielle Gage, a senior at Clearwater High School. "We were taught it was a place where Jewish people were killed."

    There is some confusion on campuses. Black students were more likely to answer questions about the word and share it in conversation with their friends. White students use the word, but some aren't sure whether it is an acceptable practice.

    "I don't really say it that much because I don't want anybody to get offended," said Amanda Skinner, a sophomore at Northeast High School.

    Students say it's a way of expressing themselves, and they are not the first generation to create an underground language.

    In the 1990s, teenagers paid a compliment to friends by saying something was "dope," which many people also recognize as drugs. Back in the day, something was hot. Today, it's "blazin'."

    To Peak, of Northeast High, being called ghetto means students think she's cool. As a safe school coordinator, she resolves conflicts between students, matches them with mentors, and plays the role of unofficial guidance counselor.

    The 40-year-old regularly attends school dances and has pictures of students on her door.

    "I can relate to them," she said.

    -- Monique Fields can be reached at (727) 893-8737 or at

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