Beach-Blanket Lingo

When Jake Tapper of ABC’s “This Week” asked Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey last month for his opinion of the MTV reality series “Jersey Shore,” the contempt in the governor’s voice was obvious. “What it does is it takes a bunch of New Yorkers — most of the people on ‘Jersey Shore’ are New Yorkers — drops them at the Jersey Shore and tries to make America feel like this is New Jersey,” Christie said. In other words, in the parlance of the Jersey Shore, the show is about a bunch of bennies — disagreeable tourists from the metropolitan New York region who crowd the beaches every summer.

When it comes to the seasonal exodus of sun worshipers to the Jersey Shore and other beach spots around the country, language can get fiercely local. It starts with the fundamentals: how do you describe your prospective trip to the beach? In Oregon, you might say you’re going “to the coast.” In New Jersey, you invariably go “down the shore.” Baltimore natives, meanwhile, say they’re going “down the ocean” — but in Baltimorese (make that Bawlmerese), the phrase sounds more like “downy eaushin.” The down of “down the shore” and “down the ocean” doesn’t necessarily imply a southward journey. As in many dialects along the Eastern Seaboard, down can be used as a preposition indicating movement from the inland toward the shoreline.

Once you get to your destination, you might find that the locals have some colorful epithets for you. Old-time New Englanders have disdain for the summer people. On the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland, the come-heres are pitted against the from-heres. Hawaiians call white visitors to the islands haoles. West Coast surfers, a territorial lot, have a plethora of terms for nonlocals: Trevor Cralle’s “Surfin’ary: A Dictionary Of Surfing Terms and Surfspeak” lists put-downs like hondo, inlander, flatlander, valley and casper. (The last one is reserved for tourists whose pallid complexion resembles that of Casper the Friendly Ghost.)

On the Jersey Shore, the two main terms for unpleasant outsiders are bennies and shoobies. Roughly speaking, bennies are those who descend from the New York area to the beach towns of Monmouth County and northern Ocean County (like Seaside Heights, where MTV shot the first season of “Jersey Shore”). Shoobies generally come from the Philadelphia region to towns farther south, with the southern tip of Long Beach Island marking the dividing line between the realms of bennies and shoobies.

Shoobies came first, historically, thanks to the convenient train lines that have run from Philadelphia to Atlantic City since the late 19th century. As John T. Cunningham explained in his 1958 book, “The New Jersey Shore,” day-trippers from Philly took advantage of the $1 round-trip fare to make excursions to the shore, especially on Sundays. “That day,” Cunningham wrote, “week in and week out, found swaying Atlantic City-bound coaches teeming with Philadelphia families, laden with their ‘shoe box lunches.’ ”

Those lunches packed in shoe boxes were so associated with the influx of Philadelphia visitors that they likely gave rise to the term shoobie. The word researcher Barry Popik has traced the localism back to a 1952 recollection of Edward Brown, then a lifeguard in Ocean City, about 10 miles south of Atlantic City. Brown recalled that certain beaches “attracted hordes of ‘shoobies,’ day-trippers or weekend visitors who didn’t have a clue as to what the ocean might do in a fit of whimsy.”

Bennie or benny, though a newer word, is shrouded in greater mystery. The first print appearance documented by the Dictionary of American Regional English is in an unpublished paper by Robert A. Foster, detailing a lexical survey of New Jersey undertaken in 1977 and 1978. Foster wrote that bennie refers to “tourists from New York City and North Jersey,” and speculated that it comes from the Jewish name Benny, used as a label for Jews in general, “well-known in working-class New York City.”

Since then, a raft of other theories has been proposed to explain the origins of bennies. Some say it’s an abbreviation for the “beneficial rays” soaked up by the beachgoers — or for the mutual benefits enjoyed by the visitors and the locals who profit from them. Others relate it to the “Benjamin Franklins” (100-dollar bills) that tourists would spend. Still others claim that it’s an acronym for the chief points of departure from the north, often given as Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark and New York. The story goes that train riders’ luggage tags were stamped with BENNY, but the lack of evidence suggests this is as mythical as the canard that posh originally stood for “Port Out, Starboard Home” (supposedly referring to the most desirable cabins on passenger ships between Britain and India).

Paul Mulshine, a columnist for The Star-Ledger of Newark, witnessed the birth of the bennie brouhaha in the mid-1970s, when “Bennies Go Home” bumper stickers began showing up around Ocean County, where he worked as a newspaper reporter and editor. Mulshine doubts the acronym story, as well as Foster’s Jewish-name theory. “The ethnic variant I’ve instead heard is that it is derived from bene, the Italian term for ‘well,’ ” Mulshine told me. “Italian-Americans have traditionally had a somewhat loud and flashy approach to summering at the shore. And they are much more likely to have been the target of lampooning by the locals in the area where bennie sprung up.” Though that explanation might fit well with the stereotypical “Guidos” and “Guidettes” of MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” Mulshine concedes that the true etymology of the term “probably can never be known.”

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/magazine/08FOB-onlanguage-t.html

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