There were guffaws all over town this week as people realized that the decidedly unhip prosecution had erred in its reading of black slang.

Shortly after entering the room of Hazel Diane "Rasheeda" Moore at the Vista Hotel on the night of the FBI sting, Mayor Marion Barry mentioned her wristwatch, which she said was loaned to her by her boyfriend.

"You got his nose open, huh?" Barry asked.

On the basis of that statement, the federal prosecutors, according to sources in that office, are expected to argue that Barry was asking whether Moore and her boyfriend were regular users of cocaine.

But the town was tittering because the phrase "you got his nose open" is decades-old black slang for an intense love relationship.

Barry was talking about sex and male-female boudoir behavior, but the prosecution thinks he was talking about drugs.

While there may be no clear indication that Barry's fate in his drug and perjury trial will be affected by such cultural misunderstandings over language, it is still an important example of the government's lack of knowledge about a man they have followed for years.

And it is not only just plain important for people like U.S. Attorney Jay B. Stephens and company to understand the language connotations of the people they are dealing with.

Miscuing is potentially damaging to both sides.

The prosecution may misidentify what it sees, while the defense could be a victim of those mistakes.

Comedy, always an expression of our society's deepest ironies, dealt with the problem of the misunderstanding that language creates in a recent TV episode of "In Living Color."

A really unhip white television host needed a social worker to translate the words of a black teenager.

The fact that the premise of the skit was so understandable was merely a comic highlighting of a real problem that has many consequences that are not funny.

For behind the misunderstanding is a black penchant for language creativity that goes deep into the roots of African-American culture. It calls for taking a word whites would call standard English and, by a process of playing around with it, stretch it to have new meaning.

"Africans and African Americans are in love with the human voice, in love with language" says Russell L. Adams, chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University.

"We enjoy doing with language the same kind of improvisation we do with clothes, dance steps, rapping, jazz, hair . . . . It's a desire to create variation and is strongest in those parts of our community that are not panting to be Caucasian . . . . I can see Barry and Rasheeda coming out of that strata."

One reason such cultural misunderstandings persist is that racial and ethnic separation, particularly in housing and social activities, continues.

"Whites are not witnesses to {black cultural creativity} because they are in their own mental and cultural camps, especially those who deal with power," Adams said.

When I stress the cultural difference in language, I am not implying that there are cultural differences in morality, public perception of responsibility and standards of behavior. Nor am I trying to defend Barry.

The point is that there is an incredible cultural gap between many groups in this pluralistic society.

Diversity should be a strength, but too often it is seen as a problem, and thus a source of misunderstanding.

Minority group members who operate in the mainstream are expected to become bicultural, while few whites feel that need.

And while all Americans need to increase their understanding and appreciation of each other's cultures, it's particularly the responsibility of people who have massive power to make decisions that have wide-ranging consequences.

More's the pity when they don't, for African Americans have a richness of language that has long enlivened standard English (American style) -- even if it is not always understood or given its propers.