Published: Oct. 1, 1997

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 now.''

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 section.

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 volumes.''

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 unremarkable.''

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 hell.''

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 place well.''

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 to.''

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 livid.

''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.''

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