Context: The informant is a 30 year old married Pakistani schoolteacher and mother. She jokingly asked her cousin, who was visiting America, to buy her a store’s entire stock of a certain makeup product (that had the number 420 in its name) when she came back, and the cousin replied, you are a 420. When questioned about the meaning of this phrase, the informant laughed and replied that it was slang for a thief or fraud. Questioned further, she revealed that the term comes from the Pakistani penal code, in which “302 is for murder criminals and 420 is for thieves–like they say in the movies, a 201 is going down or something.”
Analysis: This particular slang phrase is interesting in that the origin is a written piece of work–and not even something that is easily accessible to most laypeople, like a storybook or a children’s movie, but the very laws of the country, which are, no doubt, as convoluted and verbose as those of any in the US. However, these codes have made their way, either through the jargon of lawmakers and law enforcement officials, or through popular movies that use “authentic” police jargon in their police scenes, to the laypeople who now use it, not to actually accuse or apprehend anyone, but to jokingly call out each others’ social vices. The act of exaggerating a little social or moral error into something criminalizable by the national penal code may be a way of enforcing social norms while still maintaining social relationships.