Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
Finding the origins of nabe proved easier than explaining its current popularity.
"There Goes the Nabe: Up, Up, Up," a New York Times article from 2003, is about what happens when celebrities move into your neighborhood. But the headline, perhaps unknowingly, tells another story: the relatively recent ascent of the word "nabe," which, as my colleague Sara Johnson noted, seems to have come out of nowhere to become common parlance in today’s media (and even headline material in the linguistically conservative New York Times).
Real-estate blogs like Curbed rely heavily on "nabe." The Chicago Tribune has used the word, as has the Dallas Morning News and the Salt Lake Tribune. Generally, these publications do so "unglossed": without placing nabe in quotation marks or defining it in running text, indicating its general acceptance. There’s a national website for house-hunters called NabeWise.
It turns out nabe is not, as I had cynically hypothesized, a word invented by the incoming urbanites of the ‘90s and the real estate brokers who found them apartments. Nabe was not, at least initially, intended as a deracialized alternative to our more common shortening of neighborhood: "hood." So where did nabe come from, and why do we use it? Is there a difference between the way we use nabe and hood? Should there be?
Finding the origins of nabe proved easier than explaining its current popularity. Its most common meaning for most of the 20th century – first recorded in Variety in 1933 – was as a neighborhood theater, as in the New Yorker’s "They picked an aging star, slapped together a moldy script, and sent the result out to the nabes" (1970, via the OED).
But the evolution of nabe as neighborhood was harder to pin down. I called Kory Stamper at Merriam-Webster, who tracked its uses over time and reported that the current meaning of "neighborhood" appears frequently in Billboard from the ‘40s through the ‘60s, often used as an adjective – "nabe houses, nabe theaters, nabe sports." I also reached out to Visual Thesaurus executive producer and Boston Globe columnist Ben Zimmer, who dug up the earliest use he's aware of: a 1922 Denver Post story that refers to a "nabe gym," easily predating the word’s 1942 appearance in the American Thesaurus of Slang, the first example registered by the OED.
After the ‘60s, Stamper says, the word starts to disappear, its decline in sync with that of urban America in the 1970s, and the exodus from the urban pocket districts to which nabe usually referred. By the late ‘70s, Francis Clines was able to pass off "nabes" in the New York Times as "humble, darkly reliable taverns that dress up a man’s spirit like old clothes and let him stare Byronically into a glass." For a while, it seemed that the “nabe” as neighborhood, like the American city itself, would just drop dead.
At that same, turbulent time, the back-end shortening of neighborhood emerged from the black neighborhoods of Chicago’s South Side. (Hood as neighborhood, by the way, is not related to the homonym meaning thug -- the latter is short for hoodlum and dates from the 1880s.) Helped along in the popular imagination by countless gangsta rap verses and movies like Boyz in the Hood and Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinkin’ Your Juice in the Hood, "the hood" came to define inner-city black neighborhoods from the South Bronx to Compton.
The nabe wave, meanwhile, had receded to Brooklyn, where nabe was kept "on life support," as Stamper puts it. She points out a New York magazine article from 1976 about Bensonhurst that referred to the "young bulls of the 'nabe.'" The quotation marks peg the term as Brooklynese, as a localism no longer of national recognition. In the 1983 piece "Booming Brooklyn Starts to Get Some Respect" -- yes, those stories have been running for that long -- U.S. News and World Report wrote that Brooklyn was distinguished by "what its residents call 'da nabes', the two dozen or so ethnic neighborhoods that distinguish it from Manhattan's concrete canyons."
Nabe’s Brooklyn-based resurgence seemed equivocal about race – at first. In the New York piece, the nabe is white, Italian-American Bensonhurst (where Saturday Night Fever was filmed), but Gerri Hirshey used nabe in the New York Times Magazine in 1993, in an article called "Snooty Dame at the Block Party," to refer to black Brooklyn as well:
"We like the things of the black people," one of the Japanese women tells me at Phat Farm. And while that's long been true, while Japanese kids were torturing their heads with Afros back in the 70's, never before has black street style gotten its propers, with entrepreneurs like Simmons and Spike Lee making and selling the stuff of the nabe.
Yet as the popularity of the word "nabe" exploded in the ‘90s, it was as an alternative to hood, with little overlap. One of the first authors to use the word repeatedly in the mainstream media was Robert Lipsyte in a mid-'90s New York Times column. He thought he had invented it. "When I was doing the column," Lipsyte says, "It didn’t make sense to call the neighborhood around Union Square 'the hood' -- it was too faux-urban." In 1995, Craig Marks used nabe in a Spin cover story on Green Day (the band’s three members grew up in the suburbs of Oakland).
Michael Newman, a professor of linguistics at CUNY, also made that connection. He saw nabe used generally in connection to wealthy and gentrified "Brownstone Brooklyn." "It seems to me that if it’s being used to refer to those neighborhoods," he explains, "it’s not referring to the ones that might be called hoods."
These days, though, the word "hood" seems to be gentrifying nearly as fast as its brick and mortar counterparts. Curbed – and they’re not alone in this – recently called the Upper East Side a "'hood" in reporting its status as one of the most expensive places in the world to live. I doubt the use of a word born of the South Side projects for the UES was intended to sound ironic, but I also don’t think that either the distinction between "a hood" and "the hood" or the winking apostrophe alters the word’s cultural significance. Rather, to some readers and writers, 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. Sometimes, it’s just funny. And though "hood" seems like so obvious a shortening of neighborhood that there’s no point arguing over its provenance, nobody ever used it as such until a black Chicago gang -- the Blackstone Rangers -- did so in the 1960s.
You can pick any correlation you like for the source of the nabe renaissance of the early '90s—there’s no consensus among linguists. There was no famous editorial, blockbuster, or summer radio jam that popularized its use. It just found its way into the words of writers writing more and more about neighborhoods, at a time when "hood" was not something you could with a straight face call the Upper East Side, or as Lipsyte found, the East Village.
These days, hood and nabe may be converging, but they don’t mean the same thing yet. The nabe, as in NabeWise -- "Get started and meet your perfect neighborhood!" -- is a place you try to live. The hood is still a place you try to leave. The adjective "hood" refers to something characteristic of the impoverishment of black inner-city neighborhoods, as in the 2002 album Hood Rich, by the rap group Big Tymers. Nobody would substitute "hood grocery" for "neighborhood grocery." And Jay-Z, who grew up in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects, advertised his success in "Empire State of Mind" by boasting about leaving the hood for a new nabe, TriBeCa: "Yeah I’m out that Brooklyn / now I’m down in TriBeCa / Right next to De Niro / But I’ll be hood forever."
What holds the words apart is history. Nabe escaped our cities in the late '60s before returning, with everyone else, in the '90s. Hood was there the whole time.
Top image: Flickr user straightedge217