JIM CROTTY heard America singing. From Prudhoe Bay to Palm Beach, she
whispered in his ear, such strange and wonderful things -- things that let
him know he wasn't in Omaha anymore. He heard the song at drag bars and
all-night diners, in the down-and-out trailer courts and the tattoo parlors
where mamas' boys fear to tread. He heard the rhythm of everyday life, from
the lazy waltz cadences of the bayous to the slam-it-down, B-boy beats of
the South Bronx.
And after 12 years on the road, Crotty came to understand: It was
never the same song twice. A ''puker'' in Alaska was a ''touron'' in
Vegas. That which was ''full on'' in Portland was ''wicked'' in Maine. And
he who was ''soft'' in Boston was ''bodacious'' in Baton Rouge.
Two years ago, the 38-year-old ''peripatetic publisher'' took stock of
all that he had heard and decided that what America really needed was not
another scholarly book on slang -- or regionalisms or pronunciation. No,
thought Crotty, his next book would be (as they say in certain sections of
New York) the whole schmeer.
Crotty's month-old paperback ''How to Talk American: A Guide to Our
Native Tongues'' ($12, Mariner) is more than a 419-page handbook of
regional speech -- and less. It delves into the secret languages of
subcultures, from cyberspace to the CIA. But not very deeply. And that is
what seems to have a lot of people hopping mad at Jim Crotty.
''What I tried to do is something horizontal,'' says Crotty, cooling his
heels in a San Francisco hotel room between bookstore appearances this past
week. ''It's not very deep. I'm not going to give you everything. I'm going
to give you the taste of it. I wanted something some slacker, hipster kid
in Seattle and my mom in Omaha could both use. A snapshot of where we're at
Tasted the lifestyles
Crotty came to know the difference between a tarminated road and a
two-lane blacktop legitimately: He lived on them. For the better part of 12
years, Crotty and his publishing partner, Michael Lane, published an
intensely personal travelogue called Monk out of a 26-foot motor home.
The magazine, which began as a travel letter to friends and grew by word
of mouth to its current circulation of 40,000, is not part of the
irony-drenched Kitsch Americana, gonzo-roadtrip canon. The two road
scholars don't make light of the locals -- they become the locals. The
Monkus operandi is to spend months living in a city before publishing the
issue devoted to that city. Part of the standard Monk package (think
Charles Kuralt and Tom Robbins at the sleaziest bar in town) is a brief
language primer titled ''How to Speak . . . (your city here)''
Three years back, Crotty put some of that accumulated knowledge into ''The
USA Phrasebook,'' a novelty volume about the size of a pack of cards. Much
to his chagrin, hundreds of people reacted to that project the same way:
''Yes, Jim, but how could you leave out . . .'' It was at that point that
Crotty decided to throw his Monkish self even deeper into the language pit.
A visitor suggested -- ever so gently -- that Crotty's al dente dish of
slang and speech anomalies wasn't exactly a paragon of serious scholarship.
''Serioussss?'' he says, bolting straight up in his chair. ''If that's
what you're looking for, this isn't it. I'm not a professional linguist.
And I don't deal with the depths of etymology. So if someone asks me, 'What
are the roots of Brooklynese, man? Does it go back to Gaelic?' -- I dunno!
''My thing is traveling the country, hearing how people really speak.
There are several dozen great slang books out there. And what makes mine
different is this: Most of those books talk about slang that's old. If you
want to know diner slang of three or four decades ago, I have some of it in
the book. But I also have sections on Deadheads, Rainbow Family people and
snowboarders. This is the way people are talking now.''
The mercurial nature of American English all but guarantees that
Crotty's book will also be a period piece very soon. To wit: The term
''shot to the curb'' (originally meaning an ugly or poorly dressed girl)
surfaced in African-American speech more than a decade ago. In turn, it was
picked up by gay culture. And most recently its truncated variant ''to the
curb'' has gone mainstream via daytime trash-talk broadcasts such as ''The
Ricki Lake Show.'' Crotty says if he were to compile his book again in a
year, the term wouldn't even make the cut -- at least not in the gay
Weeding out some
''Deciding what to keep and what to throw out was the most agonizing
thing about this,'' says Crotty. ''On one hand, I had people just flooding
me with great material. But on the other hand, I kept wanting to cut, cut,
cut until it was just the sexy stuff, the real sock-it-to-me terms like
'Monet.' That's a girl that looks good from a distance, but not close up.
''I spent all those years on the road with Mike thinking, 'What can we
do without? What can we get rid of and still survive?' And some of that
thinking crept into the book.''
Crotty's main tenet is that language is a window into the soul of a
region or subculture. ''Vernacular is the back door in,'' he says. ''And
hearing a culture gets you more intimate with it. When you hear people
talk, you see how they think. For instance, the way a Southerner says
something tells you a lot about the way he looks at the world. He might
describe someone as 'Grinning like a fox eating yellow jackets,' which
refers to a smile caused by inconvenient circumstances. To me, that speaks
In touring the country to promote the book, Crotty found a common,
albeit irritating, thread in our national fabric: Our sense of humor almost
invariably stops at our own city limits. Few people, it would seem, enjoy
having an outsider run down their colorful speech -- and their equally
colorful folkways -- in the space of a few glib pages.
Weather talk was remarkable
''Did I think about that? Absolutely. I knew people might have a hard
time with it or think that I portrayed them in a very stereotypical way.
For instance, I was slammed in Kansas City. Just mauled, baby. But I know,
for instance, that if you go through the Midwest you will spend a lot of
time talking about the weather, and you will talk about the route you took
to get there. But Midwesterners are unused to having themselves included in
these kind of books. They like to think of themselves as totally
As for his stock response to readers who feel he painted some
subcultures with an overly broad brush, Crotty says, ''I may have
overgeneralized in the essays, but hopefully I provided a great deal of
specific detail in the definitions.''
In at least a few cases, it would appear that Crotty was going out of
his way to be an equal-opportunity annoyer. He reserves his most unkind
words for the Bay Area. Of San Francisco (his former hometown) he writes:
''San Franciscans have the highest attitude quotient outside of Paris,
so they don't care if their city is real or not, or if it's American or
not. Theirs is the language of the good life, a snapshot of bourgeois
At least San Francisco rates its own section. San Jose appears only
within a definition in the ''cyberspeech'' section: ''Silicon Valley: the
area around San Jose, where the bulk of the American computer and chip
industry is clustered. White bread and borrrrrrring.''
Crotty admits his brief stint in Silicon Valley was ''ridiculously
superficial. We went down to visit Yahoo. But I don't pretend to know the
Some of the regionalisms in the book pack a double load -- as terms
either used by or directed toward a specific class in a specific locale. A
callow reader could easily come away with a bloody nose -- or worse -- by
trying out the phrases on the locals.
''Keep in mind,'' says Crotty, ''when I says 'how to talk,' it wasn't
meant to be necessarily be taken literally. Some of these should be for
entertainment value only. In Pittsburgh, 'yunz' and 'yunzer' (derogatory
terms for prole residents) are real good examples of words you should not
use unless you're sure you know what you're doing -- and who you're talking
For Crotty, the bottom line for the book -- and for Monk -- is the dual
nature of American culture. On one hand, he sees a monoculture of malls and
mass media causing permanent shifts in the national character. On the other
hand, he sees regional cultures pushing back.
''This is such a huge topic. In my opinion it's the only topic when it
comes to culture in America. And I've lived on the road, and I've seen
what's happening to all the little pockets of culture. It's not black and
white. It's not inevitable that monoculture is going to win out. More than
ever, in the last year I've seen both of these co-existing in us. I go to
Barnes & Noble. I like WalMart. I love it all. I don't shun any of it.
It's ridiculous to think we can somehow stand outside one part of it.''
Language of greatness
What Crotty seems to want, above all else, is a broader appreciation of
the things that make a life in Prudhoe Bay distinguishable from a life in
Palm Beach. ''You know, I was in the Midwest when the Ebonics furor hit,
and I couldn't go to a cocktail party without hearing about it. People were
''But there's Hebronics, surf-onics, cyber-onics. . . . This has been
going on forever, and this is what makes us great -- this ability to play
with things. This book is a celebration of diversity. I know that's
PC-speak, but that's true. It's the part of me that is PC. They did a
recent study and found that regional dialects in places such as Boston are
getting even stronger and more pronounced. That's great. You know, slang is
the unruly child of language. It's a weed. And I guess what I'm trying to
say in a PC way is hey, the weeds are good.''