Word of the day: pimp

A few weeks ago, I ran a teacher development course in Norilsk, Siberia. In one session, we were talking about how to give better examples of new language and I was trying to get teachers to think more about not only collocations – words which often go together, like blissfully ignorant, beat an egg and a breathtaking view – but to also think about what we call collocations of collocations. What this means is that if you’re teaching, say, an adjective + noun collocation like heavy rain, it’s also good to think about the verbs and other words that might be used with this collocation, so you might end up with something like They’re predicting really heavy rain for the weekend or The rain was so heavy that we had to pull over to the side of the road and stop driving.

Anyway, to demonstrate this, I split the group in two and asked one group to think of collocations for new car, and the other to think of collocations for old car. After a few minutes, I started eliciting ideas from the group and getting them up on the board. We had things like I need to buy a new car, I can’t afford to get a new car this year, and Are you still driving that old car? Someone then asked what the word was if you had everything in your old car changed and improved. Could you call this upgrading your old car? I said no, and pointed out you usually have a computer system upgraded, and that sometimes when new software becomes available, you can get a free upgrade. Like you can with mobile phones too, where the company gives you a better, more modern phone if you’re already a customer.

Then, as I tried to think of how to say exactly what the teacher meant, I found my mind had gone blank. Luckily, another teacher shouted shouted out that you could pump your car, which made little sense to me. She then checked phone and said: “Oh no! Sorry. I meant pimp. Like the TV series Pimp My Ride!” Now, I’m not really into cars, but even I had heard of this show. It was an American series produced by MTV and hosted by a rapper called Xzibit, and each episode consisted of taking one old car in poor condition and both restoring it – cleaning and repairing it so that it looks like it did originally – and customizing it – changing the way it looks or works so that it’s exactly the way that you want it to be. This process of making something look fashionable or impressive by adding things to it has become known as pimping, and people now talk about pimping their iPhones, pimping their burgers by adding all sorts of tasty extra bits and pieces, and some elderly people in care homes here have even started pimping their zimmer frames – the light metal frames that people sometimes use to help the walk more steadily. You can see one of the results below!

The roots of the word are interesting – and also pretty depressing – as a pimp is a man controls prostitutes / sex workers and arranges clients for them, taking a cut of their earnings in return. That the violent, controlling men at the heart of the sex trade have become a byword for fixing things up and making them more beautiful is probably due to the wave of films in the early 1970s such as The Mack, Dolemite and Willie Dynamite that depicted pimps as flamboyant, larger-than-life characters who quite openly advertised their lifestyle and tastes on the mean city streets.

Of course, this emphasis on the flashy and the extrovert hides the brutal reality of what pimping really involves – and perhaps also stops us from thinking quite how weird it is that the word has become such a widely-known verb and a seemingly accepted part of everyday English!

Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Take a course with us this summer.

  • Has anyone you know pimped any of their possessions at all? In what way?
  • Do you like the look of pimped-up cars? Why? / Why not?
  • Who’s the most flamboyant, larger-than-life character you’ve ever met?
  • Have you ever been upgraded to a better seat in a plane or upgraded to a better room in a hotel? Why?
  • Can you think of a time when your mind went blank?
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