Do You Speak J-slang? – Jewish Chronicle
A new language is emerging on the streets – and no, it’s not Yiddish. Nathan Jeffay investigates
Are you shoms? And if you are, is it by decision or default? Maybe you are butters, which is a significant disadvantage if you are into row-sing. Still, if you are a shtarker, you probably do not indulge in row-sing.
Confused? All the above words are examples of a unique street slang currently used by Jewish teenagers and twentysomethings, particularly the more religiously observant ones.
There is “certainly a special lingo in use among people of from schoolkids upwards in the community,” says Samuel Green, aka Antithesis the Zionist Rapper. He comes across it on a daily basis in his job as the head of FZY, the Federation of Zionist Youth.
So, for those who are not familiar with this form of street-talk – let’s call it J-slang – what did that opening paragraph mean? Shoms is used when a someone wants to ask a friend whether a girl or boy they are attracted to refrains, for religious reasons, from touching members of the opposite sex.
It comes from the Hebrew shomer (shomeret for a girl) negiah – a phrase straight from halachic texts and meaning “observant of touching laws”.
Using this original form could make the speaker sound overtly religious, and possibly prudish. Say “shoms” instead, which could plausibly be an English street-term, and the speaker’s hip credibility remains intact.
Or as 21-year-old Rebecca Fisher, a student from North-West London and a Bnei Akiva “maddie” or madricah (youth leader), says: ‘Shomer negiah’ is a formal and legalistic term, and I guess I refer to the halachic state of not touching the opposite sex as ‘shoms’ because it’s a more affectionate way of referring to a difficult [area of] halachah. It’s a more jokey way of using frum terminology, very common in religious circles, and it brings it to a more human level.”
There are two types of shoms people. Some are “shoms by decision”, ie those who are in a relationship, or who apply their religious principles to avoid physical contact when someone is attracted to them. Then there are those who have so little luck in love that it is easier on the ego to claim religious conviction than admit romantic failure. They are “shoms by default”.
After your shoms status is established, the row-sing can begin – a term that merges the dual activities of flirting and courting. Of course, row-sing is made more difficult if one of the parties involved is considered butters, or ugly. This expression is the Jewish version of the more mainstream slang word, bu-uz.
The use of this slang is so commonplace as to be almost automatic. “I think I hear some of the words more than I use them, but they have definitely infiltrated my vocabulary without me realising,” says Sheli Levenson, a 20-year-old student from North-West London.
Rachel Okin, director of sixth-form activities at FZY, says: “I use them [the words] when sending out text messages to our 17-year-old members to catch their attention, and my sister and her friends, all of that age, use them constantly.”
According to Okin, the word butters is a particular favourite. But one type of person who would never use it, mainly because they have sworn not to eye up the opposite sex, is a shtarker – a devoutly religious person who has studied at a yeshivah or seminary.
Shtarker derives from the Yiddish word for “strong,” and is used to lend a certain cool to a person heavily involved in religious study. The male shtarker will spend a lot of time in the base, a hip-sounding word appropriated from English and used in place of the long-winded Hebrew phrase “beis hamedrash,” meaning study hall.
There is a fair amount of complexity in the way slang words such as shtark are used. As 20-year-old Londoner Karin Kesztenbaum says: “I wouldn’t say ‘shtark’ with people who I know haven’t gone to sem’ or yeshivah, but with people who have it’s a really easy way either to tease someone or a shorthand for a particular experience. It could also be a compliment – this depends on context and tone.
“Slang is useful for shorthand in general, because most words come with a lot of unsaid meaning that you assume the person you’re speaking to shares.”
Just to complete the whole shtarker picture, if the onset of piety has been sudden, the person in question is said to have flipped out. If the transformation has been induced by contact with the outreach organisation Aish, the shtarker is said to have been Aished.
Then again, too much time at the yeshivah or sem’ could lead to frying out – the shedding of piety after an overdose of study.
This, in turn, could result in a lapse into cotching, a cross between relaxing and aimlessly lounging about. The term comes originally from mainstream Essex slang.
All these terms fascinate academic Tony Thorne, the former head of the language centre at King’s College London and one of the country’s leading authorities on slang.
He says: “Young people always have a need to categorise each other, which is exactly what they are doing through language along the issues that are important in their community.
His definition of slang is “a language that is sophisticated, innovative and ubiquitous; not merely a means of transferring information, but a vehicle for humour, a symbol of solidarity and an essential component of social ritual.” But he recognises that with Jewish slang, something far more subtle is going on.
Words like shoms and shtarker, he believes, allow users to reconcile their desire to be young and cool with the wish to define themselves, and everyone else, by a criterion that is generally considered uncool – religious observance. Expressions that do this are deployed across the religious spectrum. Even if they do not apply to you, there is always someone else to pigeonhole.
Tony Thorne is particularly taken with the word row-sing, a term, he says, that is unique to Jews. And he highlights butters as another instance of innovative use of language.
“This is a fascinating adaptation,” he says. “Bu-uz is black London/Cockney. Jewish youngsters have made it more genteel.”
He adds: “This is a great example of how slang is not simple use of terms acquired from the media, but complex use of words from a varied pool.”
Most of all, however, Jewish slang provides an instant way of telling the speakers that they share the same background.
“It is useful when you’re getting to know new people,” says Karin Kesztenbaum. “It’s an automatic link. That you speak the same language means that you’ve done the same sorts of things, probably know some of the same people, maybe have thought about the same issues, and care about the same things.
“It’s like an underlying security that you can find something to talk about because you have something implicitly in common.”
A glossary of J-slang Shoms (adj.) – refuses to make physical contact with a member of the opposite sex Shoms by decision – as above, out of religious conviction or principle Shoms by default – as above, but because no-one is attracted to them Row-sing (n.) – flirting/courting Butters (adj.) – ugly Shtarker (n.) – an intensely religious person Base (n.) – beis hamedrash, religious study hall Flip out (v.) – to become religious Fry out (v.) – to become very unreligious Aished (adj.) – newly religious as a result of involvement with the outreach movement Aish Cotch (v.) – to relax/lounge around