Phat [was Re: gay/ghey/ghay]

Wilson Gray hwgray at EARTHLINK.NET
Tue Jun 1 02:24:35 UTC 2004

On May 31, 2004, at 3:13 PM, Arnold M. Zwicky wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Arnold M. Zwicky" <zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: Phat [was Re: gay/ghey/ghay]
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> On May 31, 2004, at 11:15 AM, Wilson Gray wrote, in response to James
> Smith:
>> ..."Phat" is by no means a new spelling or a
>> new meaning for "fat.
> this is a very likely source.  extensions of "fat" to cover 'abundant,
> desirable, good, etc.' are well known.  and re-spellings to distinguish
> an original item from its metonymic extensions are also well known;
> "ghey"/"ghay" is how we got into this.
>>  However, your alternative solution is way off
>> the mark. Given that "phat" is black street slang, the idea that
>> "phat"
>> might somehow be derived from "phatic" is improbable, to say the
>> least.
> i think we can all agree on this.
>> "Phat" is actually a  modification of "phatt," which is initial-slang
>> meaning "Pussy, Hips, Ass, Thighs, Tits." This term dates back to at
>> least 1950, when its meaning and use were described to me by a cousin
>> visiting Saint Louis, my home town, from New York City. Its original
>> use was to describe a good-looking girl or woman, as in, e.g. "That
>> chick is phatt!" I know of no reason for the loss of the final "t." I
>> could make some guesses, but I won't waste anyone's time doing so.
> we've been down the acronymic road on this one, and it's about as good
> as Found Under Carnal Knowledge for "fuck".  acronymic derivations are
> very very rare outside of technical and administrative contexts, but
> they are suggested again and again for vernacular vocabulary, usually
> -- as in this case -- in many different versions (Pretty Hot And
> Tempting, Pussy Hips Ass Tits, Plenty of Hips And Thighs, Pretty Hips
> And Thighs, Perfect Hips And Thighs, PHysically ATtractive, Pretty Hot
> Ass 'n' Titties, Pritty Horrish At Times, Pretty Heavy And Tubby,
> Pretty Huge And Tubby).  i certainly wouldn't trust *my* cousins'
> hypotheses about etymology.  (one of my cousins, a guy ten years older
> than me, once carefully explained to me that asian women were, umm,
> oriented differently from western women.  he'd been around, but even at
> the age of 10 i was dubious.)
> but "phat" does seem to be a black street thing originally, and it does
> seem to have been around for quite some time (decades, not years).
> arnold (zwicky at

In 1950, my cousin and I were both thirteen years old. I really doubt
that she would have been sophisticated enough at that age to have made
up this derivation. And, given that adults are extremely unlikely to be
aware of the slanguage used by children on the street, especially in
the 'Fifties, I doubt that some well- or ill-meaning adult took her
aside and explained it to her. I conclude, therefore, that the
definition - not hypothesis - that she gave was a genuine one from the
streets of New York City. Note also that my cousin spelled and defined
"phatt" and not "phat" and that this occurred more than five decades
ago. A whole lot of water has gone under that temporal bridge. It's
also the case that, until the advent of hip-hop slang, no form of this
word was used anywhere that I've ever lived - Texas, Missouri,
California, Massachuseetts, Pennsylvania - by anyone of any race or
social class or age group. Even my cousin didn't use the word, except
for that one time, when she was clearly trying to gross out her hick
cousin from the sticks by using language reserved for the use of males.
Hence, it was a hapax legomenon for me prior to coming of hip-hop. The
rest of your argument re acronymic derivation, given that "fuck" is not
slang but standard English, is irrevelant. Besides, Arnold, you're
white and I'll bet that  you've never had any occasion whatsoever to
live among or come to know intimately black people. I, on the other
hand, am black and, naturally, have always lived among black people,
except for the time that I spent at M.I.T., back in the day. An
argument based on what is typical with respect to whites won't map onto
what is typical among blacks.

-Wilson Gray

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