Hey you — yeah, you, double parked outside your own house so you don’t have to move your space saver: You’re a Southie.
According to the world at large, anyway. For some reason, people who couldn’t tell an L Street Brownie from a dessert special at Cracker Barrel keep mistaking the nickname of the neighborhood for something to call the people who live there.
But watch out: It just might stick.
First it was the New York Times, which described chef Barbara Lynch in a profile last April as a “fierce Southie.” In November, Donnie Wahlberg got Southied by the San Jose Mercury News — and he’s from Dorchester (but he is not, for the record, “a Dot”). In December, it was Forbes, which broke out the errant usage for a character in the show “SMILF.” And this week, it happened to Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, in an Associated Press profile.
What in the name of Mul’s is going on here?
It’s not name-calling, exactly. Calling someone a “Southie” isn’t insulting — that would depend on context — but it sure sounds offensive to local ears. The problem is a linguistic one. And so I enlisted some linguists to help solve it.
“It seems that what has happened is that the ‘ie’ ending has been reanalyzed by out-of-towners,” Kate Davidson, an assistant professor of linguistics at Harvard, said in an e-mail.
“What seems to have happened in this case is that out-of-towners wrongly took it to mean something like ‘person associated with South Boston,’ in the same manner as ‘town/townie,’ or ‘food/foodie,’ ” Davidson said. “They’re not wrong that ‘ie’ can sometimes mean that, just in this case it isn’t coming from that suffix!”
So it’s an honest mistake, obviously, an attempt to capture the local lingo that backfires so catastrophically it brands the speaker (or writer) as an obvious impostor.
Except that’s not quite right. Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Springfield-based Merriam-Webster, ran a search and uncovered evidence that suggests we might have done this to ourselves.
“Southie is almost never used as a count noun” — a noun that can be made plural or modified by a number, basically — “for a person,” Sokolowski said. “But there is some historical evidence, weirdly enough, in Boston publications.”
In 1922, a Boston Herald headline referred to the high school baseball team in South Boston as the Southies. In 1957, the term was used to describe all area students: “Southies attend classes, do homework, hold jobs — and have to squeeze in their outside activities in the few hours remaining,” a story in the Sunday Herald reported.
In 1962, a Boston Evening Traveller headline went further: “Southies Fight Short Parade.”
Not only were some locals calling the people of South Boston “Southies” more than 50 years ago — we were even fighting about the length of the Evacuation Day Parade.
“Despite its long history, it’s still relatively rare,” Sokolowski said. “There are examples — you can find them — but they strike you and me as non-native . . . and they’re the exception, not the rule.”
But the strange prevalence of “Southies” recently could portend something horrifying: a future in which everyone in Southie — Joey, Big Sully, Little Sully — grudgingly accepts the title. As in: “I’m Big Sully, and I’m a Southie.”
On the one hand, who cares: If Dunkin’ Donuts can start calling itself Dunkin’ and selling nitro cold brew in Quincy, then we all will be homogeneous hipster automatons soon and none of this will matter.
On the other hand, don’t the good people of South Boston — and everyone else who lives there, too — get a say in this? Apparently, not really.
“It’s not a democratic process,” said Charles Meyer, a professor of applied linguistics at UMass Boston. Demonyms — the names we use to describe people based on where they’re from — emerge and change in the ways that all language does.
“I guess technically you could get a ‘Southiean.’ But that doesn’t sound all that great,” Meyer said (he’s a “Milwaukeean,” but only sort of a “Cheesehead” — he won’t wear the hats).
The repeated misuses of Southie “may just be a blip on the screen and just fade away, but if it doesn’t,” Meyer said, “language changes. It just sort of happens.”
Transplants hear it elsewhere and bring it with them when they move into one of those new condos all over Southie. Kids hear or see it used that way in media and pick it up. (It would be more likely to spread this way if someone cool used the term — Gronk shouting out “Southies” from the Super Bowl parade — than if it appeared in something like a New York Times profile of a celebrity chef, but you get the idea.)
But Davidson said American dialects are not converging as quickly as it might sometimes seem and in some cases are actually going the other way — “partly because people like to really assert their identity in a time of growing homogenization and this is one way to do that.”
So while some here might get sucked into calling someone a Southie, the rest of us might double down.
“If you really want to assert your Boston identity, you could definitely poke fun at the others over this and stay firm in not doing the same thing,” Davidson said.
Ridiculing someone from out of town? Sounds like something Southie could get behind.Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.