Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
“Fuhgeddaboudit” snags a spot in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Since 2004, drivers inching along the bridges and tunnels linking Brooklyn with the other boroughs have been greeted by signs with distinctly hometown flair.
To signal that cars were passing out of city limits, Marty Markowitz, then the borough president, installed homages to New York dialects that are fading from the local soundtrack. One reading “oy vey” nodded to Yiddish vernacular. Another reads “fuhgeddaboudit,” that infamous Big Apple elision of “forget about it” that conjures everything from a wheezing taxi to sour Italian ices on a sweltering afternoon.
Markowitz told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that the signs were an ode to the shifting landscape of local language, inspired by the vernacular of the 1950s. “You might say that our accents were pretty unmistakable,” said Markowitz. “Today it’s different, but back then it wasn’t. Words like ‘fuggedaboutit’ became quite commonplace.”
“Fuhgeddaboudit” may have lost some ground in casual conversation, but last week, it was part of the latest batch of words to be canonized in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The dictionary defines the exclamation as a phrase “used to indicate that a suggested scenario is unlikely or undesirable.” But, like lots of good slang words, such as the Bay Area’s “hella,” the word has a flexible definition—you can throw it around any way that feels right. Sling it in the direction of snarled traffic, maybe, or a superlative slice of pizza.
A restaurant owner in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, explained to the Fox affiliate:
"Good thing is when you're with your friends and you're joking around and you just say 'fuhgeddaboudit. Bad thing is when someone pisses you off and you say 'fuhgeddaboudit, this guy's gotta go.”
Regional slang is evaporating across the country. As my colleague Adrienne LaFrance noted earlier this month, a podcast network is pushing back against this decline by encouraging hosts to stud their speech with some of the 50 words or phrases considered to be at particular risk—like “to spin street yarn,” a euphemism for gossip.
Last year, linguists told NPR that New York has seen a “linguistic homogenization” as cultural enclaves are pushed to the fringes. Diverse dialects, they said, have flattened out as the median income has crept upwards. "People used to say 'Toidy-toid Street' for '33rd Street,' 'goil' for 'girl' in New York City English, and that is actually almost completely dead," said Daniel Kaufman, founder of the nonprofit Endangered Language Alliance, which aims to resuscitate dialects at risk of extinction. “Middle-class people from all over the country speak quite similarly to each other," he added.
The project of saving regional languages will be ongoing. “Fuhgeddaboudit,” at least, is newly cemented in the dictionary of record.