Phat [was Re: gay/ghey/ghay]

Wilson Gray hwgray at EARTHLINK.NET
Tue Jun 1 21:27:58 UTC 2004

I've only recently become familiar with John Green's work, just today,
as a matter of fact. But I have long been familiar with Arnold Zwicky
and his work, for more than a quarter-century, at least. In any case,
had I not the least idea as to who either of these scholars was, the
mere fact that they are posting to this list would be sufficient to
prevent me from assuming that I was dealing with a couple of dimbulbs.
My point is merely that it is not impossible that "phat(t)" could be
initial slang derived exactly as my cousin said. Perhaps I've totally
misunderstood them, but Messrs. Green and Zwicky appear to wish to say
that such an origin is, if not totally impossible, at least _very_
highly unlikely, because people very rarely know the origin of slang
terms. Hence, my suggested origin is empty of content. I don't agree
with that.
The supposed counter-examples are words of standard English, irrelevant
in a discussion of the slang of a sub-culture or are trivial
modifications of the originally-suggested derivation, such as might be
expected to arise over the course of a half-century, whereas the
meaning of "phat(t)" has remained the same. A further counter-argument
is that initial slang tends to arise only in social environments
dominated by the majority, i.e. white, super-culture. [I do not impute
to Prof. Zwicky in any way any kind of racist or racial perspective;
it's merely a fact about the social environments that he used as
examples.] Is Prof. Zwicky able to prove this assertion or is this just
the way he feels about or, perhaps, the only situation with which he
has intimate familiarity?
Wrt to familiarity, I'm familiar with the "joke" about the anatomy of
Asian women. However, I didn't hear it until I was 23 years old and in
the Army, serving in a unit consisting of approximately 800 white
G.I.'s and exactly two black G.I.'s. There was also a "joke" about
having to take your "anti-Slant-Eye pills," if you were white and about
to be shipped out to Japan or Korea. That is, being black, I was
sufficiently insulated by Jim Crow from white people and their
race-based "humor" that I was a grown man before I heard a "joke" that
Prof. Zwicky heard before he had reached puberty.
It would also be interesting to the origin of your "plethora of
examples." And it seems to me to a logical assumption that when a slang
term originates, there are at least two people who know where it came
from: the person who invents it and the first person that he tells it
Consider this. In the Saint Louis sub-dialect of Black English, the
noun "bear" has the extended meaning, "an ugly woman or girl," Its
origin was fully known fifty years ago. In 1951 or so, there was a very
popular song called "Cupid's Boogie," featuring an "argument" between a
man and a woman. The man sings, "You ought to be ought in the forest,
fightin' a big old grizzly bear!" She answers, "But I'm a lady!" And
the man says, "They got lady bears out there." Almost immediately, it
began to be said of an unattractive girl or woman, e.g. "She must be
one of those lady bears they was talkin' about." From examples such as
that, "bear" came to have the slang meaning, "ugly woman." I was in
Saint Louis last year. "Bear" can still mean "ugly woman," but only
"old heads" over sixty-five have any idea how that came about. "Young
peppers" give you guesses such as the fact that a bear is a big, scary
animal. You then ask them why it should refer only to women and not to
men and they give you a blank stare. In another decade or so, all of us
old heads will dead and "bear = ugly woman" will simply be a slang
usage of unknown origin peculiar to blacks living in Saint Louis.
Since women don't invent slang or even know how to use it properly a
lot of the time (e.g., my wife had the impression that "fuckin' A!"
meant "what the hell?!" and not "damned right!"), I'm sure that my
cousin must have (over) heard the word and its putative definition from
some guy.

-Wilson Gray

On Jun 1, 2004, at 12:15 PM, Baker, John wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Baker, John" <JMB at STRADLEY.COM>
> Subject:      Re: Phat [was Re: gay/ghey/ghay]
> -----------------------------------------------------------------------
> --------
>         This is extremely interesting information.  It shows that
> phat(t) was in use over 50 years ago, and that the acronymic etymology
> is quite old.  What it does not tell us is whether phat(t) actually
> originated as an acronym (though of course the age of the acronymic
> etymology is evidence in that direction).  After all, we know that
> pumpernickel does not derive from "C'est bon pour Nichol," even though
> that explanation accompanies the first use of "pumpernickel" in
> English.  Unless your cousin or one of her acquaintances actually
> coined "phatt," then her account is not going to be definitive.
>         Jonathon Green and Arnold Zwicky may not be black (I'm
> guessing that they're not), but they're two of the most knowledgeable
> posters on ADS-L.  In any case, I think there is a plethora of
> examples to show that ordinary users of terms typically don't
> understand the terms' derivations.
> John Baker
> -----Original Message-----
> From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU]On Behalf
> Of Wilson Gray
> Sent: Monday, May 31, 2004 10:25 PM
> Subject: Re: Phat [was Re: gay/ghey/ghay]
> 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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