Washed. Fishy. Ice-cold. To the uninitiated, these words might seem like they just have a vaguely aquatic connotation, but to Urban Dictionary user EvilGirl55 and the 664 people who upvoted their definition, “washed”, for example, carries an important meaning. Washed is not merely the past tense of “to clean with water and, typically, soap or detergent.” Instead, it’s a catch-all word to describe decline, or, as EvilGirl55 puts it, an adjective which means “You use [sic] to be the shit now you ain’t shit.” A one-hit wonder musician is washed. An aging sports player on the tail end of a great career is washed. Following systemic efforts by neoliberal politicians to dismantle them and take away their legal protections, workers’ unions in the United States are washed.
However, the above terms were obviously not simply conjured out of thin air by one Urban Dictionary definition; to give EvilGirl55 credit for the term washed would be to engage in the fallacy of believing history is driven solely by individuals. Isaac Newton once famously said “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” and here, the giants on whose shoulders we stand are some of the most vile denizens of the Internet: NBA fans. From the bellows of this forge come “washed,” a term applied to essentially any player who shows the slightest hint of decline for a game; “fishy,” a reference to a LeBron James tweet wherein he uses fish emoji to describe the state of the COVID pandemic; and “ice-cold,” a term that has of course taken on broader popularity to describe someone with confidence (see also: ice in the veins).
Dearest Nass Reader, you may be wondering why you are reading this article (if you even still are) with two whole curse words and a faux intellectualism applied to Internet slang. Well, it’s because for me, NBA Internet fan culture is actually deeply personal. One of my best friends, Jupiter Ding (phone number available upon request if you feel so inclined after this description), and I, have a tragic affliction whereby we only communicate through the lens of NBA memes. When I tell Jupiter that campus COVID cases have spiked, he quotes LeBron James and says “🤔Something is REAL 🐠 🐟 🎣 🐟🐠 going on,” except he uses the word fishy to stand in for the series of fish-related pictographs due to his (present) lack of ability to verbalize emojis. We send famous, strange quotes from NBA players to each other but with certain words edited to make them about people in our social circle. Things in our life are “washed” and “ice-cold” and we never, ever, neglect the fact that Ben Simmons can’t shoot.
Communication via NBA internet culture has long been a feature of Jupiter and my friendship, but we recently took things to the next level: we both decided to become fans of the illustrious New York Knickerbockers, one of the most tragically comic franchises in NBA history. Now, we have added “yerrr,” “bing bong,” and “Trae Young is balding” to our shared lexicon, and have made a ritual of either watching the game or checking the Knicks scores afterwards and lamenting the very frequent losses or celebrating the very infrequent wins like they had won the finals. But what’s important to Jupiter and me is not the fact that RJ Barret is a future All-Star who got that dawg in him; we just love having a shared discourse that we always know the other person will want to engage in.
Of course, it must be noted that when written down like this it all sounds absolutely ridiculous. One could justifiably wonder why I’m citing Urban Dictionary, why there are blank boxes in this article where there are supposedly emojis (the answer lies in the limitations of web design), and why Princeton students today are writing such garbage (back in my day we used to read Aristotle and Kant, not tweets; I’m pulling my donation to this school grumble, grumble).
To all these critiques I say: fair enough! It is ridiculous that Jupiter and I talk like this, but I think it’s also important to note just how important that ridiculousness is. When I say that Jupiter and I communicate “only” through the lens of NBA memes, I am being facetious. As any best friends should, Jupiter and I talk about the whole gamut of our lives, but I think it’s vital that we share a frivolous common language. It may be an incredibly intuitive point, but shared linguistic concepts are crucial to communication, no matter how small their scale. On the level of language, we all obviously realize this: the fact that my friends and I can speak English to each other is what enables us to communicate with each other. However, we don’t often think about the many Englishes which exist on more particular levels. For Jupiter and me, “frivolity,” like saying “washed” and “bing bong,” is part of our specific shared language, the shared language which allows us to communicate and be friends who talk about their emotions as well as how awful Julius Randle has been for the Knicks. When Jupiter and I call illustrious Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber “washed,” our shared language allows us to quickly get across our critique of whatever latest action the University has taken without having to constantly bog ourselves down with fully articulating our point. The actual formal rules of speaking in English can only take communication so far; at a certain point less is (much, much) more, and slang, which quickly alludes to broader ideas, actually enables more communication than the words found in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Crucially, we all create these shared lexicons and communicative practices with every person in our life that, more so than “actual” English, allow us to have meaningful communication. There are friends with whom you use certain slang or make certain references, but to family members you most likely speak in a different way. These individual shared languages are the rock on which connection and communication rest, so in my life David-Jupiter Standard English is one of the most important languages I speak. Languages do not exist on the pages of dictionaries or grammar textbooks: they exist in their actual usage. It’s high time we acknowledge and appreciate the infinite informal languages that exist in the world due to the wealth of different ways every single language on Earth is used. To me, Jupiter and my English is far more important than the Platonic ideal of exactly grammatically-correct formal English which presumably exists somewhere in The New York Times style guide; speaking like the thesaurus never got me one of my best friends, but being insane enough to start speaking fluent NBA Twitter did.