Phat [was Re: gay/ghey/ghay]

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Tue Jun 1 17:39:45 UTC 2004

i've been struggling to understand wilson gray's responses to those of
us (most recently, jonathon green and me) who reject the acronymic
etymology for "phat".  wilson's most recent reply to me has the key, i

On May 31, 2004, at 7:24 PM, Wilson Gray wrote:

(from an earlier posting of wilson's)

>>> ..."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!"...

here the claims are that the *original* use of "phat(t)" was with
respect to women, and that this use derived from an acronym.  pretty
much everyone is deeply suspicious of acronymic derivations for
everyday (non-technical, non-jargon) vocabulary, but the deeper problem
is that the best an ordinary speaker of some variety can do is say that
such and such an expression was in use in that variety at such and such
a time with such and such a meaning; such a speaker can't possibly have
knowledge of the history of the expression.  (though this speaker might
well have access to community stories about history -- more on this

so, what we had at this point is a report that "phat(t)" was in use in
some black communities (specifically, in new york city) ca. 1950 to
describe good-looking females.  this is data, and as good as any
recollective report is; i'm not trying to impugn it.

i do wish we had a bit *more* information, though.  the reporter,
wilson tells us, was a thirteen-year-old girl describing not her own
speech but the speech of males (presumably, somewhat older teenagers)
in the community.  this is relevant because wilson's cousin might have
been reporting metadata (information about what these guys said they
said, rather than observations about what they said), and because her
information might have been incomplete: these guys might have been
using "phat(t)" to refer to things and situations in addition to
good-looking females.  or maybe not; we just can't be sure, since a
report that expression E has use U is not a report that E has *only*
use U.

in any case, wilson's cousin couldn't actually have *known* what the
original meaning and derivation of the word were.  note that although
i'm incredibly suspicious of the derivation, i'm not saying that the
claim about original meaning is implausible.  the word could well have
extended from a 'good-looking female' sense to other spheres of
excellence; such generalizations of evaluative vocabulary are
commonplace.  the problem is that we just don't know the history of the
word's meanings in this particular community.

as a side note, i have to point out that word histories often take
different paths in different communities.  this effect is very striking
in the explorations of innovative evaluative adjectives ("w(h)ack" and
its relatives) i've been making recently.  so, though i'm looking
forward to hearing from margaret lee about way "phat" was used by her
and her friends in central virginia in the 50s and 60s, that doesn't
necessarily bear on how it was used by young black men in new york city
in this period.  i wish it did; dialectology would be *so* much easier
if changes were global, affecting entire large communities in the same
way -- but they aren't.

wilson's latest posting (replying to margaret lee), just in, brings up
another complication: we can't even be sure that the uses reported in
the 50s are continuous with the very widespread use of "phat" today.
re-inventions and resuscitations of rare usages are both attested in
the literature on historical change (for instance, in the history of
the form "themself"), so that without further evidence we don't know
whether the current usages are actually continuations of either of the
usages reported here.

> 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.

of course not.  she got it from someone else.

> 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.

of course not.  but young people do talk about these things to one

> I conclude, therefore, that the definition - not hypothesis - that she
> gave was a genuine one from the streets of New York City.

this is the crucial point, the thing i just didn't get until this
morning.  wilson is saying that his cousin offered Pussy Hips Ass
Thighs Tits as the *definition* of "phatt" (not merely an account of
its history).  in what follows, again the claim of definition:

> Note also that my cousin spelled and defined "phatt" and not "phat"...

since wilson is treating what his cousin said as an unmediated account
of the word's meaning, he is understandably outraged that jonathon
green and i, two white guys, should be claiming to know more about
black varieties of english than he and his cousin do.

but the cousin's report is metadata.  getting ordinary speakers to
"define" words is a frustrating business, as we all know.  it's hard to
know what to make of these explicit accounts of meaning.  definition by
exemplar is incredibly common; on the urbandictionary site, you have
people defining "ghey" in terms of exemplars (definition: "gay" --
Viktor.  example sentence: "Viktor is really ghey").  in general, these
definitions are often much more specific than the definer's actual
usage, or much more general.

and ordinary people's definitions frequently embody the etymological
fallacy: the "real meaning" of a word is its (purported) historical
origin.  i have, in fact, had people tell me that the *real meaning* of
"fuck" is 'Found Under Carnal Knowledge', and that the *real meaning*
of "news" is "North East West South", and many similar things.  these
people believed that their actual uses of these words followed in some
way from their "true meanings".  what they're reporting is some more or
less explicit theory of the word's meaning, not reflections on the way
they use the word tacitly.

ordinary people are just dreadful at giving definitions of the sort a
linguist or lexicographer is interested in.  even when they give
definitions of the right sort, what they say isn't necessarily an
accurate account of their actual usage, which has to be discovered by
examining what they say in what contexts.  metadata isn't useless; it's
an interesting phenomenon in its own right, as dInIs, for example,
would be the first to tell you.  but it isn't dependable information
about the usage of words -- about what words mean for particular
speakers, about how often they're pronounced one way or another, about
who uses them, and so on.

even words with concrete meanings are problematic for ordinary people
to define.  but words with meanings that have a significant social or
discourse component to them -- evaluative words and discourse
particles, for example -- are especially hard for people to report on
accurately (no matter how earnestly they try).

what i'm saying is that wilson's cousin was no better than most people
at defining words, so that that her report can't be taken as an
accurate description of usage in her community.  i don't claim to have
*any* knowledge about that usage.  i claim only that her report doesn't
give us nearly as much information as we'd like about that usage.

one final twist in this story.  there's a powerful effect that could
give rise to a situation in which some speakers actually do use
"phat(t)" *only* with reference to good-looking females, *regardless*
of the history of the item.  sometimes, Believing Makes It So
(equivalently, Belief Trumps Truth).

the effect is easy to see in taboo avoidance: once "cock" 'rooster' is
connected to "cock" 'penis', or american "ass" 'donkey' to "ass"
'buttocks, anus', no amount of protestation on the part of mere
linguists armed with the history of these words is going to persuade
people that they're really different words.  they're the same word
because we believe they are.

and once people develop the theory that women use the higher range of
their voice pitch much more than men do, no amount of protestation on
the part of mere phoneticians studying american english prosody is
going to prevent people from judging the use of the higher end of the
range as "feminine" (especially in men).  it counts as feminine because
we believe it does.

to get back to "phat": once the acronymic account gets about in a
community, then it can, in effect, become the truth.  whatever range of
meanings the word might have had before, people might trim their use of
the word to make it conform to this theory.  (or might not; people are
often willing to tolerate vast gulfs between their explicit theories
and their actual behavior.)

goodness knows what actually went on in various black communities over
the past 50+ years.  what we know now is essentially only that a
homophone of "fat" has had various special senses/uses in different
communities at different times.  this isn't nothing, but for a
sociolinguist it isn't much.

arnold (zwicky at

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