Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Is It Cuz His Urban? (Language)

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Is It Cuz His Urban? (Language)

Article excerpt

A while ago, before we realised that the countryside wasn't about protecting hedgerows and making daisy chains in meadows but about killing furry things and turning cows into cannibals, to be rural was to be cool. People flocked to festivals in fields and tweed was the pattern of the season. Now, however cities are so in again that even festivals arc heading there. Manchester's Move "urban festival" in July will provide three days of music--but with easy transport access and no muddy fields or fumbling with tents. This is urban in the traditional sense of the word: an "urban festival" in an urban location. But urban is moving on. It has started to be used not to mean the opposite to rural but to describe people who are from an ethnic minority, or a deprived area. A woman described a group of people I was meeting recently as "urban". What she meant was that they were largely black and lived on a council estate. Similarly, when a new acquaintance heard that I live in a part of inner-city London, he referred to i t as urban. He did not mean that it is non-rural--after all, the whole of London is urban-but that it is a multicultural area with high levels of deprivation and crime.

Dr Miriam Meyerhoff, a sociolinguist at the University of Edinburgh, suggests that urban is being used as a metonym (one aspect of a thing used to stand for the whole thing). Many black people do come from urban areas, so it is used as a catch-all phrase to describe them. Meyerhoff suggests it is a safe word for the politically correct to use as it could be taken as either good or bad: "Calling someone urban could suggest either urban poor or urban chic. …

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