When people ask where I come from I usually say D.C. Of course I didn’t actually grow up in D.C., I just say that out of force of habit because everyone knows D.C. but few people know the town of Laurel, Maryland where I grew up. Saying you are from D.C. is a shorthand for saying you are from the greater Washington D.C. Metropolitan area. If I’m being honest, my hometown Laurel is really slightly closer to Baltimore than D.C. – but Baltimore just isn’t as sexy. When people hear you are from D.C. they assume you are hip and friends with important people. D.C., oh wow, you must hang out with a lot of senators. To which I respond – I wish! No, I’m afraid I mostly just pal around with several high ranking members of the House. If instead I say I’m from Baltimore, people are generally less excited. Baltimore…Huh…Orioles, right? It’s a conversation killer really.
Here’s the thing though. I don’t actually think of myself as being from D.C., or Baltimore, or even Laurel. When people ask where I’m from what I really want to say is that I’m from Prince George’s county (or PG to those in the know).
For many people the concept of a county is rather abstract. They are born and raised in a town or a city, and the particular size and shape of the county that contains that town or city makes little difference. But where I grew up people identify with their county as much, if not more, than the particular town they live in.
PG County is infamous for a few things. For one, it’s had, until recently, one of the highest crime rates in Maryland outside of Baltimore. Under the ‘crime’ section of its wikipedia entry you will learn that from 1985-2006, 20% of all the murders committed in Maryland happened in PG. Compare this with neighboring Montgomery County whose wikipedia entry has no similar crime section and instead sports a lovely section devoted entirely to the climate of the county. Besides a troubling crime rate PG county also offers some of the worst public schooling in Maryland. According to one online list I found, Montgomery County schools were ranked 2nd in the state, while PG County schools came in at 21, just three spots ahead of Baltimore City Public Schools. Being just slightly better than Baltimore City at schooling is like being just slightly better than Yemen at Ice Hockey.
Its not all bad – PG County is also infamous for some good things as well. It has a ton of diversity with a racial makeup of 64.5% African American, 19.2% white, 15% Latino and 4.1% Asian. And it’s the wealthiest majority African American county in the country. Plus a lot of interesting people are from PG. Do the names Martin Lawrence, Kathy Lee Gifford, and Jim Henson mean anything to you? All from PG County. How about Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google and now a bajillionaire? He lived in PG County and went to my high school. How about Ginuwine? Yes, Ginuwine is from PG. Also about a million former and current NBA players.
The best thing about PG county though? It would have to be the words. People are always saying to me, I hear your county has some really great words. Yes, it’s true. My county has the best words.
A few years back our good friends Chris and Courtney came to see us while on a trip to visit Chris’ family in Minneapolis. The night they arrived there were lots of so how are you doing?‘s and oh yes, we really love it here‘s. But by the next morning, sitting around our kitchen table, we finally got to the important business – reminiscing about a bygone era.
Chris and Courtney are friends of ours who, along with my wife and I, grew up in PG County. Chris is one of the best people you could find to talk all things PG. He is like a walking time capsule, spouting words from a lexicon that by all rights should have gone extinct once we graduated from high school.
The conversation that morning read like a who’s who of words from Urban Dictionary. No one in Iowa City or in San Francisco where Chris and Courtney now lived, knew that sweating a girl was a good thing, or that lunchin was not a catered meal.
Take one of my favorite words from my youth: Junx. According to Urban Dictionary:
This word embodies a noun usage when one does not feel like using an object’s official name due to laziness, forgetfulness, or when the individual is under any form of intoxication.
Example uses include “Where’s my junx at?” or “That junx is crazy!”.
Basically, junx means whatever you want. It’s like the blank tile in scrabble. It’s amazing. Similar to junx is ‘jont’, like ‘joint’ which is used in NYC.
Junx (or jont) is also similar to ‘jawn’, which is a Philly thing. By complete coincidence, as I was writing this, I stumbled upon this article that discusses the possible linguistic origins of jawn in the Philadelphia region. The article is fascinating on many levels, not the least of which is learning all sorts of interesting things about how words change, but one thing that surprised me was how some people really do use jawn for everything. Like multiple times in a sentence. The article gives an example of the following acceptable statement in Philly: “remember to bring that jawn to the jawn.” Personally I’ve never used jont or junx multiple times in a sentence, but maybe I just wasn’t thinking big enough.
Here are some other favorites of mine, with their definitions from Urban Dictionary (emphasis mine):
siced (or cised) Filled with immense joy or delight; ecstatic. DC Metro area slang that is most comparable to the word stoked. As in, I’m siced to go see Jersey Boys!
pressed Obsessed or attuned to a particular thing, idea, or person to an unseemly degree. Always used in the pejorative. As in, Stop being so pressed to go see Jersey Boys.
boosted To be pressed or siced up about something, to be real happy; word used mostly in PG County, MD and Washington DC. As in, Are you also boosted to go see Jersey Boys?
I actually still use siced (alot) and boosted (occasionally). Admittedly I only do this when speaking to other friends from PG, as my Iowa City friends would look at me like I was crazy if I uttered any of these words.
Another word I use frequently is straight, which just means to be cool with something.
Other linguistic gems, which I admittedly use less frequently these days, include Bama, Carried, Mug, Jonin and Snap. Bama apparently once meant “can’t dress well”, but now just refers to a person, like “dude”. We always used it as a pejorative term though, as in: that guy is a straight bama because he doesn’t want to see Jersey Boys!
Jonin is to make fun of, or diss, someone. If someone jones on you, then you got carried. I seem to recall people usually pronouncing it as ‘cur-ried’, as in You just got curried like some chicken! Which is a nice play on words, really. You could also be ‘carried like a mug.’ Mug is a stand in for ‘mother f—er’, which is clearly not something you want to be.
One of my favorite words, which I still say at times, is snap. According to Urban Dictionary, snap is ‘an expression which expresses expression’. Just pause for a moment and think about the beauty of that definition. The cited example of how to use it: Oh SNAP! THAT SHIT IS OFF THE HOOK!
Chris even had one that I’d never heard before: Bobo.
“What’s bobo?” I asked him.
“You know, like second rate. Like, man he’s got some bobo shoes.”
Or, to see what ‘onlineslangdictionary’ has to say:
Bobo is off brand. As in “That bobo toilet paper just doesn’t feel as nice as the good stuff.”
I couldn’t help but find this to be one of the most amusing words I’d ever heard. It’s just a hoot to say aloud. As a clown’s name, it’s mildly amusing. As an adjective, it’s simply brilliant.
I know as an adult I’m not supposed to have favorite things. My daughter is constantly asking me what my favorite color is, and I want to explain to her that when you grow up you will realize that it no longer feels right to pick and choose among the colors, that each and every color has its place and that I can now no longer pick a favorite color than I can pick a favorite child. But, then I hesitate, because thinking that navigating the world is as simple as choosing a favorite color and a favorite flavor of ice cream is what childhood innocence is all about, right? Blue. It’s definitely blue.
When it comes to words though, I think I really do have a favorite one. It’s bobo, and it’s not even close. Before bobo I didn’t even have a go-to word. If someone had put a gun to my head and asked for my favorite word, or more likely, if my daughter had asked me, her entire four year old sense that there is some order to this universe staked on my very answer, I wouldn’t have known what to say. Can blue be my favorite word, too?
I am convinced that there is some novel stimulation of neurons in my brain every time I even think ‘bobo’. I suppose I get a similar sort of thrill out of bonobo, the preposterously great name for a pygmy chimpanzee. Bonobo, though, is a noun, whereas bobo, as used here anyways, is an adjective. Meaning , unlike bonobo, you can throw it in front of any other noun and have a grammatically correct and endlessly hilarious phrase or sentence.
Long after Chris and Courtney had returned to the West Coast I could be found wandering around the house, describing at random intervals, this bobo piece of furniture, that bobo printer. Babe, have you seen my hat? You know, the bobo one.
When I was in elementary school my parents wouldn’t take us to Foot Locker or any of the stores that sold expensive sneakers. We shopped at Thom McAn in the Laurel mall. Somewhere around fourth grade Reebok came out with the ‘Pump’ shoe. It had a little half-basketball in the tongue and when you squeezed that ball the sole of the shoe would inflate. I guess the thought was that if you couldn’t jump all that high to begin with then wearing the equivalent of inflated zip-lock bags on your feet would solve all your problems. Thom McAn had their own version of the Pump. Well, they had a high top sneaker with a little half sphere on the tongue, and that was where the similarities ended. You couldn’t ‘pump up’ those shoes, the half sphere was just for show. Of course that didn’t stop me from buying a pair and trying to pass myself off as one of the cool kids at recess. Needless to say this plan did not work out so well. A few years later I would finally convince my parents that they needed to start buying me some brand name shoes, though by that time the damage had already been done.
It turns out I was that kid with the bobo shoes. So you see, bobo isn’t just a fun word to say, it is something we can all relate to. Fake, phony, faux, knock-off, poor-man‘s. We have so many words for this idea. We are obsessed with authenticity and always worried about being perceived as inauthentic.
Interestly, a search of bobo on the internet reveals another definition, one probably better known to anyone outside of PG County. In 2001, David Brooks published ‘Bobos in Paradise’. Brooks, apparently unaware of the fact that bobo already had a perfectly fine definition, created a mashup of Bourgeois and Bohemian, thus ‘BoBo’. The BoBo, Brooks tells us, is the new upper class who while wealthy and elite retain some degree of counterculture tendencies. They have million dollar homes and they shop at Trader Joe’s.
From some viewpoints, I suppose these folks are ‘bobo’ in the other sense, too. For they are simultaneously an off-brand of rich, to the Dowager Countesses of the world, and an off-brand of counterculture, to the folks who somehow managed to smuggle authentic elements of the 60’s into the new century. To both of these groups this new breed of upper class that Brooks describes isn’t the best of both worlds, but a set of competing caricatures.
As I read a little about these folks, the thought started to creep in: am I a bit bobo as well? Not ‘BoBo’, since I have neither the money nor the inclination to shop at Pottery Barn, but bobo? Or at least bobo-ish. And I don’t mean my old bobo shoes. I mean me. My culture. My identity. Am I living an authentic life, or is it a caricature of something else?
I may not be one of the nouveau riche living in a million dollar row home in the city, but I’m living a pretty comfortable upper middle class white suburban lifestyle that keeps me just as cloistered. Diversity is not something you will find much of in Iowa City. It’s a typical midwestern college town with a racial makeup of 82% white, 6% African American, 7% Asian and 5% Latino. It’s basically well educated white liberals as far as the eye can see, with a few coves of racial diversity that are mostly tucked away from the idyllic old downtown homes where all the professors live.
And yet like Brooks’ BoBo’s I try as best as I can to hold onto my own form of counterculture. I lunch and get cised, and occasionally I’ll get boosted. Because deep down I want to believe that I still retain authentic elements of my PG county heritage. That I’m still connected, in some way, to that more diverse culture, instead of someone just doing a bit about it.
Look, I’m not a sociologist. I’ve never attempted to wade deep into the issues of race and socioeconomics that played out around me as a kid. The notable exceptions being anytime I’ve had a few drinks and am in a social setting befitting embarrassing my friends. You don’t like the NBA? Well that’s because you are a racist!
No, I’m a nerd who likes to pass time reading about electrons. If electrons tend to segregate well its nature, not nurture. They can’t help what they are.
So let me disabuse you of any notion that we are headed for some sort of profound discussion on the nature of modern day race and class relations in America. For that I will defer to people who spend much more time struggling with questions of American identity than they do struggling with questions of electron identity. WTF, is this thing a wave, or is it a particle?
And yet as a person who is part of one or more cultures, as anyone not stuck on an island with a volleyball named Wilson is likely to be, I do struggle with identity from time to time. I do wonder, exactly which culture am I part of? Am I more Johnson County Iowa or PG County? Am I part of the proletariat or the bourgeois? Can I be an ‘intellectual’ without that PhD? Can I not be an intellectual if I’ve already asked any question that includes the terms ‘proletariat’ and ‘bourgeois’?
And writing, about almost any topic, only makes this issue of identity more acute. Am I really even a writer? Does having a blog that you force your closest friends and family to read even count?
The guy reads one David Sedaris article and he thinks he can do it. At least David is gay. What the hell does this guy even bring to the table?
Yeah, this bobo Sedaris just isn’t as funny as the real thing.
More like bobo Bill Bryson!
I hear that!
And while we are at it – what’s with all the italicized ‘asides’ to himself?
I know, right? It’s like reading the transcript of a Jim Gaffigan routine.
Maybe it’s simpler than I’ve made it out to be. Maybe there doesn’t have to be a subtext to every social interaction. It isn’t as though we had Courtney and Chris over to our summer house in the Hamptons and served them bellinis as we talked about the poor sods who never made it out of PG and who ‘talked a bit funny’.
Say, Chris, old chap, do you recall that time I asked that fellow if he wanted some of my chips and he replied, ‘no man, I’m straight’?
Ho ho, yes – and what I think the poor fellow meant to say was, ‘no thank you sir, I am quite full.’
We were the kids who talked a bit funny too. Even if we don’t much anymore.
And, I mean, what am I supposed to do, step out of my social circles of mostly academics, film makers and doctors and go find some people of another social class in Iowa City to do play dates with? What on earth would we talk about? Do you think they watch Mad Men?
No, it seems much easier to stay the current course and wait for greater social change to eliminate social classes and racial divisions altogether. Occasionally I’ll read an inspiring article in the Atlantic or New Yorker that will force me to think for a few minutes, but a moment later I’ll be back to explaining that we don’t pull hair in this house. I am a dad after all, and don’t I owe it to society to think about the kids first and tend to my own liberal white guilt on my own time, which is these days never, but one day I suppose.
Until that time, when there is a true reckoning between myself and society at large, I will keep up the oral tradition of our ancestral lands. And to those who lived there with me, I will continue to ask, in a manner befitting a place named after the glorious Prince George himself:
Bama, what are you wearing? That jont is so bobo!