‘We pass around this slang like trading cards’: 'Blindspotting' star talks Bay Area dialects
A gaggle of Berkeley High students curiously leaf through the pages of an unidentified book, laughing at its content. But the literature in question isn't a Burn Book or the private musings of someone's diary. It's a slang dictionary, created by their peers from over a decade ago.
In "Talk Berkeley To Me," the latest episode of Berkeleyside's podcast, reporter Natalie Orenstein provides an in-depth look into Bay Area slang, with perspectives shared from students at Berkeley High, past educators, and "Blindspotting" star Rafael Casal.
The 2018 film is a theatrical love letter to Oakland that also addresses issues like police violence and gentrification. It was co-written by and stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, actors who both went to Berkeley High and grew up in the area. Casal plays Miles, best friend and sidekick to Collin (played by Diggs.) His smooth talking and knack for spicy quips often cause Collin to get into trouble, but occasionally, Miles' way with words proves to be helpful.
Casal grew up here in the 1980s and '90s, and said that trading around hyper-localized phrases like "hella" and "hyphy" help preserve a sense of regional camaraderie.
One scene from "Blindspotting" includes a playful back-and-forth between Miles and a guy on the street as he tries to sell him a massive sailboat. Orenstein describes their exchange as "peppered with decidedly Oakland slang," but also ponders a larger theme of the film, which asks "who should be able to use this slang, and who gets to listen when they do."
"We pass around this slang like trading cards in the bay," Casal told Berkeleyside. If a word articulates a certain feeling or emotion that doesn't already belong to an existing word, it becomes part of the area's permanent culture.
Now more than ever, Casal said on the podcast, it's a way to identify "locals" and "outsiders," providing longtime Bay Area residents with a sense of belonging and ownership when everything around them – the landscapes, the neighborhoods, the demographics – are consistently changing.
Walking through the halls of Berkeley High today, the podcast explains, you'll hear emphasized declarations of "period" echo from locker to locker. One student might ask another what the homework assignment was from the night before and will be met with the reply, "I'm deeking," with a shrug. But if that student forgets their homework all of the time, they might be dubbed a "deeker."
It's a riff on the acronym "idk" (I don't know), one explained to Orenstein in the podcast. She learned the phrase allegedly originated at the high school, a claim backed up by Urban Dictionary. For several years – beginning in the early 2000s – the high school passed around its own annual slang dictionary, a collection of Yiddish-isms, Spanglish phrases and hip-hop slang assembled by students and the Communications Arts and Sciences small school.
Listen to the rest of the podcast here and click through the gallery for other Bay Area slang.
Amanda Bartlett is an SFGate editorial assistant. Email: [email protected]