A few seasons back a contestant on Last Comic Standing did a bit where he said, “This is how I roll”, then laid down and rolled across the stage. I thought this was hilarious both because it was and because I hate that expression. My hostility is unbecoming of a linguist since we are, by training and disposition, supposed to be fond of slang, and in general I am, but a few phrases still rankle. This is one of them, though I have to think for a minute to see exactly why.
“This is how we roll” is a metaphor, and like all metaphors, its charm arises from the interplay of various levels of meaning. First there is the literal sense of a rolling object, which here is clearly the wheel of a vehicle. But the “we” in the expression isn’t tires (though as soon as I wrote this a really great Firestone commercial began composing itself in my head), it’s the people riding in the vehicles. So the metaphorical sense is a synecdoche for a kind of motion. But the social function of “That’s how we roll”–it’s actual meaning–is to convey resolve. The “that” refers to some characteristic of the speaker, perhaps minor in itself, but which is nevertheless indicative of a particular kind of steeliness that the listener would be ill-advised to challenge. The expression’s slanginess gives it a sense of immediacy–this is not some 19th century dandy slapping you across the face with a glove; it is happening now. Though immediate, however, “That’s how we roll” is not urgent. It is delivered in a calm tone of voice, accompanied by a level gaze. To those included in the “we” it is a tough-love morale booster. To everyone else it is fair warning.
I imagine the phrase being coined by a Desert Storm NCO instructing a group of soldiers on some crucial bit of procedure before they climbed into Humvees to drive across the border into Iraq. In this origin story the NCO would be utilizing the phrase’s literal and metaphoric senses but not its air of steely resolve. That air would of course be present, but it would have come entirely from context. It could not yet have arisen from the words.
As long as “That’s how we roll” confines itself narrowly to soldiers, drive-by shooters, and other people who mix vehicles and violence–and more broadly others who undertake personal risk–I like the expression. It is tough-guy poetry. What bothers me is the extension out to the next concentric circle of speakers, people expressing resolve in situations where resolve is not required. When the shift manager says, “Here at Friday’s we get those appetizer orders to the kitchen in under five minutes–that’s how we roll” my back goes up, and dilution with irony just makes things worse. Unless I am chancing physical injury, I don’t want to hear a pep talk. It will only infuriate me. That’s just how I roll.