Phat [was Re: gay/ghey/ghay]

Wilson Gray hwgray at EARTHLINK.NET
Wed Jun 2 02:46:13 UTC 2004

Thank you for bringing these sites to my attention. The kinds of folk
etymologies that you supply are completely foreign to my experience.
I've read about them, of course, but I've never heard anything of this
type proposed by any black person, with the sole exceptions of
"phat(t)" and "mot," meaning "member of the tribe." (I've read
somewhere or other that "mot" is also or originally Jewish slang.
Interesting.) The closest that I can come to anything like these are
locutions like "HNIC" and "HNOD,"which are always spelled out and never
pronounced. Their meanings are, respectively, "head nigger in charge"
and "head nigger on duty."  And there's also BYB/BYOB, meaning "bring
your (own) bottle," and KYPIYP "keep your peter in your pants" and some
others. These are likewise always spelled out and never pronounced.
Since I first heard these when I was in grade school in the 'Forties
and have never in my life met any black person who was unfamiliar with
them, I'm probably safe in assuming they are universally known among
black Americans. Well, among men, at least. Women, for some reason,
never seem to be a source of slang and screw it up when they try to use
it. E.g., a girl I knew back in the day would always hypercorrect "lay
dead" = "relax/kick back at home by oneself, hang around the house
doing nothing in particular," to "play dead."
This is just a stab in the dark, but my guess is that, given that all
of us blacks know that our dialect is itself non-standard, we have no
motivation to perceive non-standardness as something that needs to be
dealt with.
FWIW, now that I think about it, the hypercorrection of "lay dead" to
"play dead" could be understood as an instance of folk etymology.

-Wilson Gray

On Jun 1, 2004, at 6:51 PM, Baker, John wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
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> 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]
> -----------------------------------------------------------------------
> --------
>         I would have thought that we've seen enough etymythologies on
> this list, without any special need to seek them out, but, since you
> ask, I'll cite some.  Perhaps it's not quite a plethora, but here are
> a few examples of mostly inaccurate etymologies from
> These include both standard and slang terms.
>         A key seems to be that the subject term is perceived as
> nonstandard, though the perception is often mistaken.  No one is
> surprised that a core English word like "father," say, is derived from
> Old English "faeder," meaning "father."  Folk etymologies emerge for
> slang words like "cop" (not really from "constable on patrol"),
> pseudo-slang like "fuck," and standard words that have somehow come
> under a cloud, like "picnic."
>         The coiner of a term does, of course, know its derivation.  At
> some point, the term's users lose the connection with the origin.
> That may happen relatively quickly, or, as with your "bear" example,
> the derivation may linger because a large number of people connect the
> term to its origin.  Regardless of the amount of time taken, though,
> if the term lasts then at some point most of its users will not know
> its origin.  Nevertheless, they may believe that they do know the
> origin.
>         I can't speak for Jonathan or Arnold (who are, in any case,
> eminently capable of speaking for themselves), but I don't think that
> your suggested origin is empty of content.  I think it's evidence,
> interesting in its own right, and there is even some possibility that
> it may be accurate.  (It's certainly more plausible than some of the
> suggested origins of other terms that have been seriously put forth on
> this list.)  But the mere fact that someone told your cousin that this
> was the origin of "phatt" is far from conclusive.
> John Baker

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