What’s With The New Yawk Accent?

John Patrick Thomas
John Patrick Thomas

In the 1960s, Columbia University graduate student William Labov headed into New York City’s department stores in search of something. He scoured Saks, Macy’s, and S. Klein, asking all the employees he encountered a single question. He’d ask things like, “Where are women’s shoes?” and “Where is sportswear?” but he wasn’t really looking for either. Labov already knew the answer—those items were on the fourth floor—but he wanted to hear the salesperson say it. He was hunting for something more elusive: the New York r.

The r-less New “Yawk” accent is as classic as “Rockefella Centa” or the East “Rivva,” but when linguists tried to study r-dropping among native New Yorkers, the results were inconsistent. The r showed up in some words but not others—even for the same person, even for the same word. Its appearance, or lack thereof, seemed a matter of chance.

R-dropping had once been a mark of upper-class prestige along the East Coast, a connection to the “veddy propuh” British habit. But at the beginning of the 20th century, as it mixed into the rough-and-ready developing dialect of arriving New York immigrants, its status changed. By the 1960s it had become the opposite of prestigious. Labov thought the missing r might be better explained by social factors, which is why he picked Saks (a luxury store), Macy’s (a mid-range store), and S. Klein (a bargain store) for his investigation. As it turned out, employees at Saks pronounced the r in “fourth floor” more often than those at Macy’s, and much more often than those at S. Klein. The classier the joint, the more common the r.

After Labov got the “fourth floor” response he was looking for, he would say, “Excuse me?” The employee would then repeat the phrase, more slowly and carefully. At all three stores, fewer r’s were dropped the second time around. This was especially true at Macy’s, where employees presumably had a bit more status anxiety, being close to, but not quite in, the truly high-status group.

Shifts in the perception of “good speech” can cause language to change from generation to generation. Every decade since Labov’s study has seen more r’s make their way into the average New Yorker’s speech. Even so, when the study was repeated in 1986 by Joy Fowler, with May department store standing in for S. Klein (which had closed), and in 2009 by Patrick-André Mather, with Loehmann’s and Filene’s Basement taking May’s place, everyone used more r’s overall, but the same difference between the stores persisted. More prestige? More r.

If New Yorkers associate r’s with prestige, why are any dropped at all? Recently, Maeve Eberhardt and Corinne Downs studied r-dropping on the TV show Say Yes to the Dress—and they may have found an answer. Sales staff at New York’s bridal salon Kleinfeld, where the show is filmed, are well aware of the prestige factor (the higher the client’s budget, the more likely the salesperson is to retain the r). However, they drop the r when providing emotional support. For example, when a sales associate comforted a bride who was upset about her dead sister’s absence, the difference was pronounced: “She’s theah though. Just always remembah that.” Dialect is solidarity, and solidarity is comfort. Prestige ain’t always the most important thing.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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10 Words and Phrases That Came From TV Shows

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.

Television can be a hotbed of creativity (or mediocrity, depending on who you ask). But it's not just characters and storylines writers are coming up with—they also coin words. Here are 10 surprising words that were invented thanks to TV.

1. Poindexter

While this term for a studious nerd might seem very 1980s, it actually comes from a cartoon character introduced on TV in 1959. In the series Felix the Cat, Poindexter is the feline’s bespectacled, genius nephew, supposedly named for Emmet Poindexter, the series creator’s lawyer.

2. Eye Candy

This phrase meaning a thing or person that offers visual appeal but not much substance originally referred to such a feature of a TV program. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it first appeared in 1978 issue of a Louisiana newspaper called The Hammond Daily Star: “Sex … is more blatant ... ‘Eye candy,' as one network executive calls it.” Ear candy is slightly earlier, from the title of a 1977 album by Helen Reddy, while arm candy is later, from 1992.

3. Ribbit

Think frogs have always been known to say “ribbit”? Think again: According to the OED, this onomatopoeia might have originated on a TV show in the late-1960s. While we can’t say for sure that absolutely no one was making this frog sound before then, the earliest recorded usage found so far (according to linguist Ben Zimmer) is from a 1965 episode of Gilligan’s Island, in which Mel Blanc voiced a character called Ribbit the Frog. This predates the OED’s earliest entry, which is from a 1968 episode of the Smother Brothers Comedy Hour: “That’s right. Ribit! .. I am a frog.”

4. Sorry About That

You've probably used this expression of regret more than once in your life, but did you know it was popularized by Get Smart? It's one of the many catchphrases from the late 1960s TV show. Others include “missed it by that much” and “the old (so-and-so) trick.”

5. Cromulent

Cromulent is a perfectly cromulent word, as far as the OED is concerned. This adjective invented on The Simpsons means “acceptable, adequate, satisfactory.” Other OED words the denizens of Springfield popularized are meh (perhaps influenced by the Yiddish “me,” meaning “be it as it may, so-so,” from 1928 or earlier), d’oh (the earliest recorded usage is from a 1945 British radio show), and embiggen, which first appeared in an 1884 publication by English publisher George Bell: “Are there not, however, barbarous verbs in all languages? … The people magnified them, to make great or embiggen, if we may invent an English parallel as ugly.”

6. Five-O

The OED’s earliest citation of this slang term for the police is from a 1983 article in The New York Times, although it was probably in use long before that. The moniker comes from Hawaii Five-O, which premiered in 1968. In the show, five-o refers to a particular police unit and apparently was named in honor of Hawaii being the 50th state.

7. Gomer

While the word gomer has been around since the year 1000 (referring to a Hebrew unit of measure), the sense of someone stupid or inept comes from the inept titular character in the 1960s show Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. It’s also a derogatory name among medical professionals for a difficult patient, especially an elderly one.

8. Cowabunga

Sure, the 1960s surfing slang might have regained popularity in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s due to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series, but it originated way before then. Chief Thunderthud, a character on the 1950s children’s show Howdy Doody would use it as faux Native American language. After that, it somehow made its way into surfer slang, hence becoming a catchphrase of Michelangelo, the hard-partying, surfing ninja turtle.

9. Har De Har

The next time you want to laugh in a sarcastic, old-timey way, thank Jackie Gleason for popularizing har de har via his iconic 1950s show, The Honeymooners.

10. Spam

So how in the world did spam, originally the name of a canned ham, come to mean junk email or to inundate with junk emails or postings? Chalk it up to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The food Spam (which stands for either “spiced ham” or “shoulder of pork and ham”) was invented during the Great Depression in the late 1930s. Fast-forward 40-some-odd years and the British sketch comics were singing incessantly about it. This apparently was the inspiration for the computer slang that came about in the early 1990s.