One size fits all

January 06, 2008

Baltimore, a city that for years clung to the word "espantoon" to describe what the rest of the world calls a "nightstick," has always gone its own way with the language. Now comes an innovation, out of the city's middle schools, that offers a solution to one of the more annoying aspects of English.

That's the pronoun you use when referring to someone else. It might be "he," or it might be "she," but if you don't know, it gets complicated or cumbersome. Sometimes you're stuck with that "he or she" business that saps the energy out of just about any sentence.

Enter "yo." This is a word that's perfectly familiar in the sense of "yes," or "hey," or sometimes "you." It used to be an Army term, and then it was Rocky Balboa's, and now it's a staple of African-American slang.

But Elaine Stotko, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins, began hearing of kids here who say "yo" to indicate another person of whatever gender, and after pursuing survey work over two years has nailed that usage down. Now she has a paper in American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society.

Some examples: "Yo handin' out papers." "Yo threw a thumbtack at me." "She ain't really go with yo."

A little further study showed her (showed yo - it can stand in for "her" and "him," too) that this use of the word doesn't show up in other cities; kids in Washington say "youngin'" in a general sense, but typically that's reserved for boys.

Ms. Stotko thinks it's a great invention: "Why are we always forcing people into categories? Our society needs to change and stop dividing people on gender."

Her son is a transgender person, so there's a personal interest in the question, but still, yo is on to something here. Yo is on to "yo." And it just might catch on, hon.

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