Before he left his post at Goldman Sachs this week in the most public fashion, Greg Smith ’01 was a Stanford undergraduate studying economics. He wrote the following opinion piece during his senior year.
May 8, 2001 story
Op-Ed: Gettin’ down with American slang
By Greg Smith
“Are you from Australia?” It’s an innocent, if random, question, but one that has dogged me for all four years of my Stanford existence. People stop me at the gym, in line at the Coffee House and while sitting next to me in section just to ask me this terribly pressing question. My answer is invariably, “No, I am not from Australia. Not even close, you big dummy!” Well, I don’t quite say it like that, but, not being Australian, this question does get quite annoying after a while.
Why do they ask me this question? For reasons unknown to me, the American ear is unable to distinguish between a South African and an Australian accent. Africa. Australia. Same thing. Both not America. Makes perfect sense. But to me, the two are as different as the Queen’s English from that of a Bulgarian school boy trying to speak the language for the first time. As you can see, I’ve thought about this quite a lot.
Even after people know I am not an Aussie, I am still encouraged to “toss some shrimp on the barbie” or to “knock back a Foster’s beer” to remind me of my “home country.” It is almost as if acquaintances are hypnotized into believing that I am Australian every time a word comes out of my mouth. People usually recognize their mistakes shortly afterwards, but it still amuses me that, to the American ear, my South African accent is so similar to that of an Aussie.
Early in my Stanford career, I decided to throw a little confusion into the mix by learning some American slang. American slang coming out of the mouth of a South African would be priceless, I thought. What could be better? My education as “an American” began when I was thrown into student life as a freshman in Trancos, and I enlisted my peer health educator Na’eem as my slang guru. In our first lesson, we tackled an expression that had me baffled from day one.
“My bad.” This truly absurd expression confused the hell out of me. My bad this. My bad that. I honestly couldn’t figure out what it meant. Was I bad? Was the person saying it bad? Were we both bad? Was this the opposite of “my good”? Couldn’t people just say “oops” or “I’m sorry, I made a mistake”? What ever happened to good old-fashioned English? Na’eem shed some light on the meaning of this and many other tricky Americanisms, but, after a while, I realized that the only way to truly learn would be through interactions with the locals. Some of these encounters proved to be good, some of them bad, but most of them were very bad and embarrassing. Two particular incidents come to mind.
The first occurred only a few weeks into the year. My neighbor Scott, who until that point had been a perfect gentleman, confided in me that he thought the girl I had a crush on was really fat. Not just fat. But really fat. I was shocked and immediately responded that perhaps she did have a little meat around the edges, but she certainly could not be categorized as obese. It was at this point that my eyes were opened to the subtleties of American slang. Fat was spelled p-h-a-t. And this word that traditionally meant that someone ate too much now meant that someone was cool.
The second encounter occurred while I was doing Math 42 homework with a devout Christian girl. In the middle of a tough problem set, I asked her if she had a rubber I could borrow. She became visibly defensive and stared at me for at least 10 seconds. I hadn’t realized that lending out stationery was such a serious business in America. Today, the girl and I laugh when we look back on this incident. But, at the time, it was not funny at all. You see, the idea that a rubber and a condom were the same thing had never occurred to me. Where I came from, a rubber was an eraser. A piece of stationery. Innocent enough, I had thought. Now I know the truth.
In subsequent months and years, expressions ranging from “da bomb” and “wassup dawg” to “mad hops” and “schweet” became integral parts of my vocabulary. Friends back home thought I had gone crazy. Friends at Stanford thought I had gone even crazier. But I was amusing myself and others and felt in some small way that I was absorbing American “culture.”
Today, I pull out my American slang on the odd occasion to impress girls or to confuse people who think I am Australian, but I have tried, for the most part, to retain what is left of my English. My friends at Stanford are still endlessly amused by the way I speak, even without the slang. In particular, they like the way I pronounce the popular fish product tuna. I say “choona” instead of “toona.” But that’s an entirely different subject.
As a young boy growing up on the streets of Johannesburg, I could never have imagined that I would one day be at Stanford, or that my rubber would have put me in such an awkward situation. My bad, I guess.