Exploring the pathways of our lexicon
Bennies and Shoobies and Caspers, Oh My!
With everybody heading out to the beach this summer, my latest On Language column for The New York Times Magazine looks at the local lingo of shore towns. Beach-related regionalisms can get quite colorful, especially when it comes to epithets for the seasonal hordes of visitors.
Since I'm from New Jersey, I'm most familiar with how people talk down the Shore. (That's a shibboleth: you always go down the Shore to travel to one of New Jersey's beach towns, regardless of which direction you're coming from.) The Jersey Shore is the summertime haunt of bennies and shoobies: bennies are those from North Jersey and New York who travel down to northern regions of the Shore, while shoobies come from the Philadelphia region to more southerly destinations like Atlantic City and Ocean City. Shoobies apparently owe their name to the shoebox lunches packed by earlier generations of Philly day-trippers, but as I describe in the column the origin of the term bennies is more mysterious, generating countless folk etymologies.
The stereotype of the abrasive bennie has received a lot of attention lately thanks to the cast of the MTV reality show "Jersey Shore," which New Jerseyans (including Governor Chris Christie) are quick to point out consists almost entirely of New Yorkers. The "Jersey Shore" crew are also known by the epithets guidos and guidettes, though unlike bennies those terms can actually be a source of pride for the likes of Snooki and The Situation. Guido is, of course, from the Italian name, first showing up in the mid-'80s as a label for a certain type of disco-frequenting New Yorker of Italian extraction. (It could also refer to his haircut: a 1985 article from The Record of Bergen County, NJ described "the Guido" as "short on the sides and in back.") Guidette is the feminine version, documented from the early '90s. As Sammi Sweetheart, one of the "Jersey Shore" stable, told Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times earlier this year, a guidette "takes really good care of themselves, has pretty hair, cakes on makeup, has tan skin, wears the hottest heels."
The Jersey Shore culture is unlike any other, but the tension between insiders and outsiders is replicated around the country. Trevor Cralle's surfing dictionary The Surfin'ary, is bursting with terms that West Coast surfers use to describe interlopers, like hondo, inlander, and valley. A casper, for instance, is "a fair-skinned tourist who comes out to the beach," named after Casper the Friendly Ghost. Cralle has an extensive entry on localism, defined as "territorial defense of a surf spot." Surfer localism, he explains, is "an attitude that can easily be identified by the warnings that are painted on signs and fences: 'If You Don't Live Here, Don't Surf Here.' 'No Unlocals.' 'Warning! Windansea May Be Hazardous to Tourists!' 'Valley GO Home!'"
Those "Valley Go Home" signs on California beaches are reminiscent of similar scrawls on the Jersey Shore that say "Bennie Go Home" or "Shoobie Go Home," depending where on the Shore you are. There's even a whole website now called Benny Go Home. Outsiders, be forewarned: the language of sunny summertime places is often not so sunny after all.
Read the column here, and share your own beach talk in the comments below.