“Yo” Is So Philly

What a two-letter word means to us

I was walking in Wissahickon Park this weekend when I heard it. “Yo Lar!”

I know I’m in Philly when I hear those two words. I have worked in TV across the country, in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and nowhere else do I get “Yo Lar!” Those two words mean I’m home.

“Yo!” is as Philadelphia as cheesesteaks and Billy Penn. In fact I’m pretty sure William Penn was the first person to use the word “yo” on the North American continent. He said, “Yo! What are ya doin’? I said Penn-Sylvania, not Pencil-vania. Whadaya dumb or sumptin? Now redo the sign.”

Of course, “yo” was made famous and synonymous with Philadelphia by Sylvester Stallone. Who, after intense studying of the Philadelphia dialect, concluded that if he just said “yo” a lot, he would pass for a local. The word is used 41 times by Rocky in the movie. Of course, every “yo” can have a different meaning.

When Rocky was courting his future wife Adrian, he knew how to make a Philly girl swoon. He said, “Yo, Adrian, I’m not used to tawkin’ to a door.” In South Philly that is some real romantic stuff, analogous with “What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun.”[SIGNUP]

“Yo” can be found in some dictionaries. Some leave out “yo” and go straight from “Ymir” to “Yobbo.” Ymir is a giant from whose body the gods create the world in Norse mythology. Yobbo is British slang for a lout or a yokel. I think you have to be one Ymir-sized Yobbo to put British slang and words from Norse mythology in your dictionary and not one of the coolest words ever invented right here in the USA.

Now I know there are some lexicographers out there reading this who take exception. (Oddly enough, my columns are big with the lexicographer crowd. Lexicographers and circus clowns, oddly enough. We’ve done the research.) The expression “Yo” dates back to 15th-century England according to many word historians. So it is very possible that Shakespeare first wrote, “Yo, what is that freakin’ light? Oh, it’s just you Juliet,” and then edited it later.

English sailors used the term “yoho” or “yo heave ho,” and there is a theory that those sailors started saying that in Philadelphia and it stuck. But knowing that saying the words “Yo ho” to a woman in South Philly can get you pummeled by both her and her brothers, the word was shortened to just “Yo!” The only “yo” combination more lethal than “yo ho” is “yo mamma.”

Still others theorize that the word “yo” is just an old form of “you,” as in “Hey you!” That one seems to make the most sense to me because “Hey you!” is definitely one of the most common meanings of the word “Yo.” But there are so many uses, so many definitions for this underrated word.

It wasn’t until the year 1992 that “yo” had its coming-out party. That’s the year Philadelphia’s word was begrudgingly accepted by the philology elite, 16 years after Rocky introduced it to the rest of America. On page 2,071 of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition is the following entry:

yo (yo) interj. Slang. Used as a greeting or to attract someone’s attention.

Nice try.

To limit “yo” to its bare bones meaning is to ignore the spiritual essence of the word. I agree with Scott Huler of the Daily News who was the first to write about yo’s 1992 ascension into the mainstream. Huler wrote, “Though its inclusion in the dictionary is a nice, validating touch, the Zen truth of yo is this: if you have to look up what it means, you don’t know nuthin.”

That is the Tao of Yo.

It’s all in the inflection. If someone is about to take the last piece of pizza, after already eating four pieces, a strong “Yo!” means “Don’t you dare.” If a man is walking with his head turned to look at a young girl walking past him and doesn’t see that he’s about to walk into a street sign, you might say a quiet “Yo” to your friend, meaning “Watch this.” If someone rubs up against you funny trying to get to a movie seat, an incredulous “yo” means “Hey! Your rear end is way too close to my face.”

The list goes on and on. “Yo” is our all-purpose word. It may be the only true Philadelphia word. Embrace it. Use it. Be proud. And don’t worry that it’s now spreading in popularity, that screenwriters, hip-hop singers and smack-down wrestlers use it as if it’s their own. They are just trying to be like us.

But know this: It never sounds right coming from their non-Philly mouths. “Yo dude, like, wow, look at those gnarly waves,” just hurts to listen to. (By the way, I have come to the conclusion that the words “yo” and “dude” are synonyms. “Dude” is just a west coast version of “yo.” So to use them together is redundant; it’s simple grammar.)

This column is certain to be followed by a slew of comments all starting with “Yo Lar.”

Bring it on.  I like it.

Whether online, along the Wissahickon, on the street, or at a Phillies game. Those two words just mean I’m home.