There are a few ways to automatically tell if someone grew up in the D.C. area. The easiest giveaway is in the slang they use. Although local jargon spans quite a few words, there are three main terms that, when said out loud, all sound the same, but don’t have any official spelling. I’m here to clear that up.
First on the list is the word “bama.” In its most basic form, it’s an insult. A derivative of “Alabama,” there are certain applications that could be qualified as a term of endearment or as just a general term for a person. But if you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t go throwing that around without expecting people to be offended.
Make no mistake, if someone calls you a bama, whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it wrong. There are derivations of said word, such as “bamafied” or bama used alone as an adjective. But for whatever reason, the spelling is up for debate.
I asked that question Tuesday on Twitter, and it was a starkly polarizing issue. Some prefer to write “bamma.” As someone who writes for a living, that makes me cringe. I don’t know why, it just looks wrong. As many said Tuesday, only bamas spell bama with two Ms.
The modern authority (well, not really) on such issues, Urban Dictionary, accepts both spellings. But we can’t have that. We don’t want people going around spelling crucial words however they like. The case for one M is obvious.
For street-slick citizens of the District, encountering someone of a more countryfied (from a place, like say, Alabama) flavor, style of dress and comportment was a regular situation back in the day. Hence the need for the insult, apparently. But the state is not “Alabamma.” Anything coming from the name of the Yellowhammer State should probably stick to the spelling, no?
The two most famous bama appearances I can recall involved D.C. radio personalities. On WPFW, Jerry Washington, a DJ, called his show “The Bama Hour” starting in the 1970s. In his 1994 obit, the New York Times quotes Washington’s description of the word, calling it “black slang word for a hayseed or rube.” Spot on.
And, of course, there’s Huggy Low Down. For years, the comedian appeared on “The Donnie Simpson Show” with his “Bama of the Week, Week, Week” segment. Now you can hear his popular bit on Majic 102.3’s “Tom Joyner Morning Show.” And you’ll note: only one M.
The next term is one that tends to cause a fair amount of confusion for newcomers. If someone says they’re “cised,” it means they’re looking forward to something or extremely excited about it. Someone once told me that it reminded them of the way a semiliterate person would pronounce the word ‘psyched.’ I find that rather insulting, but if you’re looking for a pronunciation, think of the word “precise” and lose the “pre.”
The radio program “The Sports Junkies” uses this word a lot, and many people seem to think they made it up. Wrong. Those guys grew up in Prince George’s County in the 1980s and use it because they like it. The same reason the rest of us do.
Again, there are various ways to use that word, such as “cising something up” — to over-hype something, but the spelling is also debated. Some will invert the consonants, thus making it “sice.” I have no idea why, but once again, that just looks ugly to me. It’s hard to get so serious about the spelling of slang words, but “cise” just seems more, well, elegant, in my eyes.
Last is the one up for the most debate.
In New York, they say joint. In Philly, they say jawn. In D.C., we say “jont.” Except, it doesn’t sound the way it’s spelled. It’s kind of mix of the two previous words, but not really. It pretty much means anything you want it to. Basically, it can substitute for any thing or inanimate object. The plural spells out as “jonx.”
This word has the highest degree of difficulty for non-local users. If you can’t pronounce it, DON’T try to use it. It’s not worth getting labeled a bama because you can’t say the word jont correctly.
To be clear, I’ve seen that word spelled a dozen different ways. I’m not claiming any linguistic right or logic on my particular choice, but a uniform agreement would be helpful.
And although being black is not required to know, like or use any of these terms, they are unique to the area. I’m not expecting to hear any of these words die out anytime soon, but if we can’t figure out a way to correctly document our oral histories, how will anyone know they ever happened?
Yates is a columnist for The RootDC
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