June 26, 2007

Totally phat

Dan Piraro takes on street speech:

Nice play on the stereotypical woman's question, "Does this make me look fat?" (said of clothes).  But with the slang adjective phat, originally African American slang, but now in wider use, expressing approval.

The history is complex.  Uses of fat to cover 'abundant, desirable, good, etc.' have a long history, but the word we're looking at here seems to have developed as an extension, about 50 years ago, of negative fat into positive territory (such reversals are not uncommon; compare the varying uses of bad), at first by black men to describe attractive, in particular well-endowed, women.

Early on the spelling phat was used to distinguish the new use from the old one.  (Compare the recent development of the spellings ghay and ghey to distinguish GAY 'worthless, stupid, inept, etc.' from the older GAY 'homosexual'.)  Almost immediately, it seems, phat received backronymic interpretations; in May 2004 I collected the following:

Pretty Hot And Tempting
Pussy Hips Ass Tits
Plenty of Hips And Thighs
Pretty Hips And Thighs
Perfect Hips And Thighs
Perfect Hips, Ass, and Tits
PHysically ATtractive
Pretty Hot Ass 'n' Titties
Pritty Horrish At Times
Pretty Heavy And Tubby
Pretty Huge And Tubby

plus one assertion that the original word was actually phatt, standing for: Pussy, Hips, Ass, Thighs, Tits.

An acronymic derivation is surely incorrect, on a number of grounds -- one being the profusion of "originals" proposed -- but plenty of people are absolutely convinced it must be true, possibly because they were first told of this derivation when they were children.

In any case, phat has now extended from one specific kind of approval to something much more general, along the lines of 'cool, hip' (evaluative slang is remarkably hard to gloss accurately).  And it's no longer the exclusive property of African Americans, but is used by white kids (like the one in the cartoon), especially those adopting other features of black street style (like the kid in the cartoon).

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 26, 2007 02:10 PM