Girding Up to Loin to Talk New Yorkese
My recent essay on New York talk, as derived from “How to Speak New Yorkese,” by Judy Levine and Nancy Jackson, has got some New Yorkers (or former New Yorkers) talking back.
“When will the odious comparisons between Angelenos and New Yorkers by local journalists cease?” asks Joseph Di Gianni. “As a native New Yorker residing in this town (Los Angeles) I find being subjected to constant statements and petty remarks about my former home an indication of how provincial Los Angeles remains in spite of its burgeoning growth. If Los Angeles is truly poised to overtake the preeminence of New York (alluded to in Mr. Smith’s article) its citizenry should try to eschew the xenophobic attitudes which are embarrassingly prevalent even in the most sophisticated quarters.”
Surely anyone sophisticated enough to use words like xenophobic and eschew is sophisticated enough to take a little innocent ribbing about his birthplace. After all, no city on Earth has inspired so much literary abuse over the decades as Los Angeles, and much of it originated in New York.
It began back in 1913 when the sophisticated Willard Huntington Wright described Los Angeles in Smart Set magazine as being settled by yokels from the Midwest--"yokels who were nourished by rural pieties and superstitions and had a righteous abhorrence of shapely legs, late dinners, malt liquors, grand opera and hussies.”
To quote from a previous essay of mine: “Ever since those words were published Mr. Wright’s rococo and sardonic style has been echoed, imitated and plagiarized by almost every journalist who has come this way. Oddly, though, the coin has been turned. We no longer are accused of piety, abstinence and righteousness, but of their opposites. No matter, the indictment is still delivered in the same tone of moral and intellectual superiority.”
The syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler flailed away in his own hyperbolic style: “It is hereby earnestly proposed that the U.S.A. would be much better off if that big, sprawling, incoherent, shapeless, slobbering civic idiot, the city of Los Angeles, could be declared incompetent and placed in charge of a guardian.”
I am not angered by such verbal assaults. To have inspired such vilification is one of the charms of living here. I have never responded in kind; and a little innocent merriment of the kind provided by Levine and Jackson’s amiable little book is hardly “xenophobia.”
Obviously all New Yorkers don’t say “don’t ax” for “don’t ask,” or call that island southeast of Manhattan “Lawn Guyland,” or say “boat” for “both.”
But anyone who has ever visited New York could hear some echoes of New York street talk in Levine and Jackson’s book.
Rene Elfer of Whittier notes that Angelenos have their own speech idiosyncrasies. “There are many other speech patterns which add color and help prevent the homogenization of America. And most of all, the sun doesn’t rise and set on L.A. alone. Adam and Eve were not natives here.”
If they were still living, though, I’ll bet they’d be retired here. They would probably have loved hot tubs.
Specifically, Troxey Kemper complained that I said New Yorkers say “close horse” instead of “clotheshorse.” “He seems to be saying ‘close’ as in ‘close the door.’ New Yorkers say ‘close horse’ as in ‘close encounters of the third kind.’ ”
Another former New Yorker, Sherry Terzian, was more amused than annoyed, though she scolded me for doubting that there are any former New Yorkers.
“About our lingo,” she says, “when I was a graduate student at Columbia University, I found myself in the unexpected role of interpreter for my classmates. ‘Whaddidhesay? Whaddidhesay?’ someone from the hinterland would ask me while confronted with the twists and twangs of a New Englander.”
Dr. Marvin H. Leaf notes that I overlooked “one salient characteristic of Big Apple jargon (shared, interestingly enough, by the late J.F.K. and such cultured Britons as ubiquitous radio commentator Michael Jackson): the consistent insertion of an extraneous r between a word ending in a vowel and another beginning with same, such as ‘Californiarindustry’ or ‘TulsarOklahoma.’ ”
Another New York native, Fred Hillegas, of Scottsdale, Ariz., recalls a Syracuse (N.Y.) lawyer who studied law at Brooklyn Law College.
“His name is Earl Boyle, and he’d chuckle as he told how fellow students at Brooklyn always pronounced his name ‘Oil Berl.”
But it’s a great place to visit.