Word Routes

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.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday August 6th 2010, 8:08 AM
Comment by: Kate H.
Our friend from central Vermont refers to Vermonters as "shoobies" or "shoobs" for short. He thought it came from People so unsophisticated that they wore shoes to the beach.
Friday August 6th 2010, 8:30 AM
Comment by: Teresa G. (Old Greenwich, CT)
I grew up near the beautiful Cocoa Beach. I lifeguarded there for several years and we watched with disdain as the "tourons" (our futuristic way to say tourist?) descended on our beaches. We would try to guess where they were from and then come right out and ask. Most of the male "tourons, which for some reason always wore black socks with sandals, were pasty and exhausted after having driven down from Canada or Ohio. The elderly tourists were just called "blue hairs."
Good times back in the early 80's.
Friday August 6th 2010, 9:23 AM
Comment by: Ravi K.
Arizonans flock to San DIego every summer and are known to the locals as Zonies.
Friday August 6th 2010, 11:58 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Kate: The "wearing shoes to the beach" explanation has also been suggested for the South Jersey shoobies, but the "shoebox lunch" explanation has some actual historical evidence for it, as I mention in the column.
Friday August 6th 2010, 1:07 PM
Comment by: Zez (Fredericksburg, VA)
This isn't beach talk per se, but related water sports lingo.

In Appalachian raft guide circles, the customers who ride the rubber rafts are referred to (by the guides, among themselves) as "carp."

If the customers only knew. They probably think of themselves as intrepid adventurers.
Friday August 6th 2010, 2:54 PM
Comment by: Kate H.
Ben, I sent this article to my friend in Barre, VT and he replied that he first heard the word from a friend whose mother hailed from the Philly area--so it all makes sense.

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