Our Town: The secret language of suburbia


I realized the power of a secret language way back in third grade while walking through the hallways of Hawthorne Elementary School. As my teacher led my third-grade class down the hall, my brother, who was in the fifth grade in the same school, happened to be walking in the same hall and as we passed he shouted out to me “Tinga Fonga” to which I shouted back “Fonga Tinga.” The teacher immediately interpreted this as a veiled allusion to a popular vulgarity and my brother and I were sent down to the principal’s office to explain ourselves.
When the principal asked what “Tinga Fonga” and Fonga Tinga” meant, I think my brother explained it away similar to what a young Ferris Bueller might have done. This may be one of the benefits of having a smart older brother, but it also demonstrates the dangers of imaginative language. We had been making up special words and phrases for years in order to communicate secretly while in the presence of one of our many younger siblings or when in earshot of our parents.
My guess is that twins and triplets have all sorts of secret words as well. I asked my two nephews who are twins if they had a secret language and not surprisingly they said that yes they did but seemed unwilling to share the words with me,. They know how to keep secrets.
It’s not only siblings that develop special languages. I’ve noticed that the upper class families have a tendency to have secret funny names for the children. Two girls I knew who went to the ultra-exclusive College of New Rochelle were called Harvey and Mouse. Harvey’s real name was Catherine, but since she was 5-foot-10 they called her Harvey after the film character Harvey, the six-foot rabbit. Mouse’s real name was Jennifer, but since she loved cheese so much, her parents called her Mouse. Both these women were true beauties and so didn’t seem to mind their nicknames.
Teenagers in general tend to adopt a secret language in order to antagonize their parents. Walk down any street in Nassau County and listen in on teenagers greeting each other. It will sound something like this: “Supp dog? Supp Snoop.” “It’s all good dog, just chillin.” “Dope.” This is borrowed language right from the streets of Brooklyn. I’m not a sociologist, so I can’t really guess at why kids in Nassau County borrow dialogue from the streets of Brooklyn but they do.
All sub groups have their own language. The coolest and funniest language you can find came out of the mouth of Jeff Spicoli played by Senn Penn in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the 1982 comedy about California teenagers. Spicoli was in constant battle with Mr. Hand, his social studies teacher, and was taken to using lines like “Gnarly,” “All I need is some tasty waves, a cool buzz and I’m fine,” and “He’s a full hot orator!” Really pretty funny. Sean Penn, along with the Beach Boys, made surfers instantly likable.
Believe it or not, former state Sen. Mike Balboni of Nassau is also a surfer dude and I asked him about the jargon of the surfer class. He told me that words such as glassy swells, dude, hang ten, rad and “‘finding the green room inside the tube” are common parlance with surfers.
The secret language I know best of all is the language of golf, which uses a long list of odd names like par, bogey, double bogey, eagle, birdie, quad, snowman, chippie, sandie, greenie, barkie, double double. The list goes on. Golfers rely on the good will of the foursome to concede those tricky two-foot putts and this has elicited terms like “There’s more meat on that bone” and “OK, it’s within the circle of friendship” to express these stress-filled moments. “Let the big dog hunt” refers to pulling out the driver on a tight par four. So who said men weren’t creative?
As we begin to exit this dreaded time of COVID, the culture will face transformation and it will struggle to label our new morning in America. We already have learned heinous terms like sheltering in, quarantine, immunity, social distancing, death rate, the new normal, masks, home schooling, and working from home.
But do not fear this new language of COVID because America has a long list of secret words that have endured from its beginnings. The secret words that are America’s own include “white picket fence, front porch, backyard barbecues, towering oak and red maples, shaded streets, well-manicured front lawns, flower gardens and robins.” This is the language of a place called the suburbs.
The suburbs are often chastised for being too insular, too elitist, too arid, but the suburbs are what the American dream is all about and they are the envy of the entire world and the reason the world wants to live here. The secret language of America is the language of suburbia and its language will absorb these new nasty words that are rattling around in our skulls over the past three months. America’s secret language is the language of Nassau County and its many suburban towns. Our secret and safe world is called suburbia.


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