Why Do Philadelphians Just Love to Play With the Word “Philadelphia”?

Puns! Portmanteaus! Phonetic switches! Inside our city's somewhat newfound passion for the linguistic equivalent of a selfie.


When I returned to Philadelphia in 2011 after a few years spent in D.C. and abroad, I couldn’t help but notice Philly’s borderline obsession with, well, Philadelphia.

More precisely, the word “Philadelphia,” which we just absolutely love to mess around with. “Philadelphia” finds its way — in part or in whole, one way or another — into countless other nouns in this toponymically infatuated city.

To wit, consider the following incomplete list of charities, businesses, art projects and other neologisms courtesy of some pun-lovin’ Pennsylvanians: PhilaDanco!, PhilaSoup, Philabundance, PhilaFound, PhilaKids Medical-Legal Partnership, Philadoptables, Philaposh, YOUTHadelphia, PhilaMOCA, Geekadelphia, Danceadelphia, Tankadelphia, Philaphilia, Philadelinquency, Philahoops, Paradelphia, Philebrity, Vapordelphia, Grilladelphia, Aphillyated, Aphillyation, Philadelphonic, and Philagrafika.

And then there’s whatever this is: Pilladelphia. (Note: awesome, that’s what.)

On top of that, we collect Philly portmanteaus like the Sixers collect loses — with rapacious panache! A Philly portmanteau is where we slam “Philly” onto the front or back of another word, without a space, like we’re a bunch of goddamn Germans. (Fun fact, “bunch of goddamn Germans” auf Deutsch is “Gottverdammtdeutschebündel.”). Consider: PlanPhilly, Phillybloco, TreePhilly, PhillyTapFinder and PhillyRising. I’d give you more examples, but my editor here at PhillyMag (look, another!) said I have to keep this article somewhere under 5,000,000 words.

Finally, trying to list all the times we replace an ‘F’ with a ‘PH’ – e.g. Phillies, Phanatic, Phawker, Phlash, Phaithful, Phresh, etc. – would be an exercise in phutility.

Like throwaway Rocky references in local journalism, Philadelphians so regularly integrate “Phila-“ or “-adelphia” into other words that we don’t realize how extremely unusual a practice it is. Like idolizing a fictional athlete, our fascination with the city’s name is a uniquely Philadelphian phenomenon.

BUT WHAT’S IN a name? The thing we call a rose would smell just as sweet if we called it by any other name, but would our Philalogoisms sound quite so sweet if we’d called Philadelphia something stupid — like Pittsburgh?

“If you look at the word Philadelphia, in its form, it offers a lot of area for play,” said Dr. Anne Pomerantz, senior lecturer of educational linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Our most crowded linguistic playpen is replacing an “F” with a “PH.”

“Phillies, Phanatic, Phan — all of them are offering up Philadelphia flavor,” she said, going on to explain that the PH/F switch plays on English’s relatively low level of sound-letter correspondence. That the characteristic of our language that drives elementary students and non-native speakers crazy with seemingly incoherent spelling rules — think of the old witticism about how “fish” could be respelled “ghoti,” or just try spelling anything these days without spellcheck.

Linguists call the PH/F switch “productive,” meaning it is particularly common. It also is particularly effective in making people think about Philly, writes Professor Rolf Noyer of Penn’s linguistics department.

“Because <ph> is relatively rare in English, it is all the more surprising to find any word which has two instances of <ph> in it,” said Noyer in an email. “On top of this, the name <Philadelphia> is fairly long … and unusual looking for an English word.” Those factors give the PH/F switch a particularly strong association with Philadelphia, and not, say, Pharrell.

The PH/F switch is just one of Philadelphia’s many productive playgrounds for word play. Philadelphia is made up of two Greek words: Philos (loving) and Adelphos (brother), hence our nickname, the City of the Gay Porno Twins City of Brotherly Love. Two Greek-based morphemes provide ample opportunity to play with both Philadelphia’s meaning and its form.

When it comes to our official moniker — the City of Brotherly Love — we’re basically a city of 1.5 million middle school boys (e.g. that last paragraph).

BUT IT IS the form of the word Philadelphia that really holds the greatest potential for witticisms, and Philadelphians haven’t let that potential go to waste. (We’re talking about morphological linguistics, after all, not a waterfront.) Pomerantz pointed out that “Phila-“ and “–adelphia” are both derivational morphemes — word parts imbued with meaning that can be added to other morphemes easily to create new words, called blends, like Geekadelphia (a brotherhood of geeks).  Noyer wrote that “Phila-“ and “–adelphia” are both accented syllables, giving Philadelphia a “metrical structure” — something most other city names don’t have.

“When forming blends, speakers usually respect the metrical division, and the fact that the word is long enough to have two metrical parts (aka “feet”) means that substituting something new for one of the feet is possible,” wrote Noyer. “In a short name, such as Boston, there is only one foot, so it’s not possible to switch out one foot for something else.”

Noyer suggested a fantastic technique for finding the foot division of Philadelphia or any other word for that matter: “Expletive Insertion.”

“All speakers of English know (unconsciously) that if one is going to insert an expletive — standard example in the U.S. is <fuckin’>, in the UK <bloody>, but <friggin’> and <goddamn> work just as well — into a word or phrase, one has to do it at the foot boundary, where the expletive is itself a whole foot.

“So while (Phila)(fuckin)(delphia) is a fairly unremarkable, if vulgar, utterance, no speaker would ever think of saying Phi-fuckin-ladelphia, Philadel-fucking-ia, or Philadelphi-fuckin-a, which are logically possible,” writes Noyer.

You can’t jam a “fuckin’” into Dallas (unless you’re the Eagles, amirite?!), so it’s hard to make Dallas-based blends. The same goes for other shorter city names, like Boston or Houston, because they lack an obvious metrical division into two parts. That also makes the recoverability of the city’s name in a blend less likely.

“If we blend <Rome> with <whore>, for example, we get <Rore> or <home>, and in neither case is the name of the city or the blend word particularly evident,” writes Noyer (who, incidentally, really embraces the blue part of his employer’s colors). “But there’s no mistaking where <Killadelphia> comes from.”

WHILE IT IS undeniably true that Philadelphia is a Lego set of a word, that doesn’t fully explain why Philadelphians are so eager to play with it. There are other cities with long, easily divided names based in foreign languages, but not the same giddiness for irreverent self-reference. Baltimore, Sacramento, Nashville, Tallahassee, Albuquerque, Milwaukee: all pass what I call “Noyer’s Fuckin’ Test for Metrical Division.” But there isn’t so much as a Maryland bar called Baltipour, a Tennessee gas station called Nashfill nor a Florida sporting good store or club called Ballahasse. And the folks in Phoenix decided to call their basketball teams the Suns and the Mercury, not the equally hot — yet more phonetically playful — Phire or Phlames.

If the word “Philadelphia” itself was the sufficient cause for these Philaffectations, then we would expect other Philadelphias — for instance, the one in Mississippi — to be just as playful, right?

I called the Neshoba Democrat and asked Judy Mason if she knew of any examples of Philalinguistic fun down in Mississippi. “I can’t think of any,” said Mason, almost apologetically, in a lilting Southern drawl. She graciously offered to take a survey of the newsroom and call me back.

While waiting for Judy to call me back, I scanned an online directory of businesses in Philadelphia, Mississippi, looking for a play on “Phila-“ or an “–adelphia,” or even just a PH/F switch. I looked at 2,189 listings without a single hit, making my nickname for the tiny town — Missadelphia — work on two levels (which is approximately four times as many levels as my puns usually operate on).

A short while later, Judy called back and confirmed my findings. “No body here recognized anything in our community like that, Mr. Jim.”

IT REALLY SHOULDN’T surprise anyone that a vibrant city of 1.5 million replete with professional sports teams, a momentous history, and its own flavor of freedom and cream cheese is a smidge prouder than a sleepy county seat of less than 8,000.

But if pride alone were the differentiating factor, then nearly any city with a silly sounding name would be our match, but neither haughty Houston nor vainglorious Vegas, not self-aggrandizing Seattle nor me-first Miami play the name game with Philly’s gusto.

In cities like New York and San Francisco, where they idolize the Übermenschen of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, individual glory is the ultimate ideal. But our past — as a “greene country towne” founded by modest Quakers, transformed into a metropolitan workshop of the world with union-laid bricks that then crumbled demeaningly during 50 years of urban decay — shapes our self-effacing form of hometown pride.

And as proud as we may get, Philly has never taken itself too seriously. In this town, only Mummers strut. Think about that for a second: We really only tolerate ostentatious preening once a year, and only from drunk union carpenters that are, quite literally, clowns. The only other exception to that rule is Allen Iverson, and while he wasn’t exactly a clown, he was a three-ring circus unto himself. It’s Philly’s “spirit of not taking yourself too seriously,” says Pomerantz, which makes Philadelphia so “ripe for language play.”

Noyer, a Philly native, mentioned parenthetically the old sobriquet Filthadelphia, which “used to be common … but I don’t hear it anymore!” Like Killadelphia, Filthadelphia is an epithet in decline as our violent crime rates drop and parks improve. Today, Thrilladelphia and Chilladelphia seem more appropriate monikers for a city suddenly beset by ice skating rinks.

Notably, most of the Philadelphia blends, Philly portmanteaus, and PH/F switches mentioned above came about in the last decade or so. Sure, the Phillies have been around since 1883, but like the city’s interest in the Phillies, the Philadelphia wordplay phenomenon really only took off a few years before 2008. Not coincidentally, that’s around when Philly finally reversed a half-century of decline, replacing lingering despair with the kind of newfound hope necessary for getting giddy over geeky word play.

So, what’s in a name? For Philadelphians, the City’s name evokes the sort of warm affection for a brother that makes playful ribbing and kidney giving alike seem only natural.

Natural — just like the sweet sound of “Phila-fuckin’-delphia.”

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