Wednesday, 29 August 2012

In the nabe-or-hood: an etymological excursion ‘the kids can’t get ice cream cause the market burned down and the newspaper sleeping bags blow down the lane and that goddam flatbed’s got me pinned in again’ Tom Waits, ‘In the neighbourhood’ [Swordfish trombones] 1982. There are nuanced ways of describing where you live, which may well reflect class differences – people who live on gated estates don’t call it an estate, they call it ‘community’. What does the American use of ‘nabe’ rather than ‘hood’ tell us? Henry Grabar explores the history of the terms in yesterday’s Atlantic, uncovering for instance a 1922 reference to a ‘nabe gym’ as well as the more regular ‘nabe theatres.’ ‘Nabe’ predated what he calls ‘the back-end shortening of neighbourhood,’ which began with a Chicago gang in the 1960s. It seems use of ‘nabe’ increased significantly in the 1990s, generally in connection with ‘wealthy and gentrified’ localities – places that were definitely not seen as ‘hoods’. Discussing the origin of ‘hood’, Grabar observes that, to some, the original sense seems to be lost, and perhaps irrelevant, rubbed away by time and frequent use. To others, no doubt, calling an up-and-came neighborhood a ‘hood’ imparts a coveted sense of black authenticity. Perhaps if the differences between black hoods (remember the use of the word ‘ghetto’?) and white enclaves had been less pronounced in the US, this might have become a case of assimilation and we would have seen trendy gated estates referred to as hoods. Grabar senses that the word ‘hood’ seems to be gentrifying nearly as fast as its brick and mortar counterparts. The article is a useful reminder to pay attention to street culture for its linguistic innovation and power to reflect social contrasts. That doesn’t mean a kind of ‘no pressure’ irony attached to Plan B – yes, some of us might dare to harbour expectations of what the writer-rapper can achieve after ill Manors, but please, no assimilation. Grabar concludes that hood and nabe may be converging, but they don’t mean the same thing yet. The nabe… is a place you try to live. The hood is still a place you try to leave. By way of a footnote, and to add a little European perspective on this excursion, here’s a wee curiosity about the etymology of ‘neighbour’ and ‘neighbourhood’. Although the former is clearly quite ancient – Chambers’ etymological mentions Old High German, Old English West Saxon, Old Icelandic and so on – the first recording of ‘neighbourhood’ meaning ‘vicinity’ or ‘environs’ (meaning an approximate place irrespective of residents) does not arise until 1577. Of course, ‘neighbour’ implies a consequent neighbourhood, and the etymology reinforces it. The word neighbour (neah-gbur) meaning ‘near-dweller’ - or, in some interpretations, the person who tills the near (next) field - is etymologically linked to the word ‘borough’ (burh, burg), a bounded place of dwelling, which in turn has links to the meaning of stronghold, fort, mound (‘barrow’) etc. There’s even a slightly far-fetched link (Italian, borghetto) with the word ghetto. Ah...

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