"I think it's cute," the very pregnant thirty-something woman at the Squirrel Hill coffeehouse table next to mine said of the Y-word, or "yinser," as I tried to argue with her and Gary, a fifty-something New York transplant and acquaintance of mine who'd just used the slur to rip on someone.
When I’d called him on it he began arguing with me that the Y-word is appropriate as a slur, and that it's OK to use because it's also embraced by many Pittsburghers, who claim it represents a working class ethos of which they are proud. (Never mind that most of those same people have never painted their house on their own, repaired their roof, or picked up a wrench to fix their cars).
Ms. Preggo, a city native, folded her hands over her full, eight-months-pregnant belly and smiled smugly. "I don't mind it," she insisted.
Prior to the turn in conversation she had been complaining about what she was going to do for the next few weeks before giving birth, since she was off from work on maternity leave. Gary's suggestions that she go to Phipps Conservatory, or to Scaife Art Gallery or the Carnegie Museum fell on deaf ears, then somehow Gary brought up the word which triggers the chip on my shoulder like a sledgehammer to a sore toe.
I should explain.
Don't use the slur "yinzer" around me, even if you spell it in a way I think is phonetically correct--"yinser." I don't like the Y-word and never have, never will, and I won't accept people trying to embrace this stupid, derogatory tag.
People are surprised by the hostility I express when they use the Y-word and some no doubt are amused. But I must admit, it all goes back to the elitist schools I attended--Kiski School and Carnegie Mellon. Growing up in mostly working class Bellevue, there was very little elitism in my childhood world, since most of us didn't have a whole lot and most didn't look down on the rest as being inferior for having less. We were pretty much all in the same boat.
Then as an adolescent, I got into trouble and into the court system and Schuman Juvenile Detention Center, and my life changed. My parents sent me to a shrink of dubious character--a minister's wife, no less--and the smartest thing she ever did for me was suggest that a change of environment might be very helpful to keep me away from my hell-raising friends. So I ended up at Kiski--one of the last boy's boarding schools in the nation, run by a hard-ass guy named Jack Pidgeon, who was uncompromising in his expectation that every one of his "Kiski boys" would get as much as possible out of their boarding school experience. I became good friends with kids from the more affluent suburbs of Pittsburgh and some of those fellas introduced me to the "Y-word," using it as a pejorative for people from working class areas of Pittsburgh, like Dormont, for instance, who some of my high school friends claimed always had thick Pittsburgh accents.
On I went to Carnegie Mellon, receiving a partial athletic scholarship for football and a partial academic scholarship, since I'd worked hard at Kiski. I ended up becoming friends with some talented and kind individuals who I will simply refer to as Trustafarians, since they were (as I was) longhaired neo-hippie types, but unlike me, they were trust fund kids who never had to work but always had money with which to party. "Scooby" was one of them, and we became very close for a time, though he and I in some ways were as different as Caketown is from Greasertown.
"Jonny Yinser," he dubbed me, laughing when I’d say something in what he perceived as a particularly thick accent. "You're such a Yinser!" Scooby would say, cracking up. I put up with it because I liked him and knew he meant it with love, and I enjoyed hanging out with him. But Scooby was from Boston and he also liked to use to Y-word in its most negative sense, like when he was trying to get some paperwork through the CMU administration or do something elsewhere and a person with our proud Pittsburgh accent angered him and he’d say, "F-ing Yinsers can't do anything right!"
Some things never change, or rather, sometimes stupid things become the norm, like white suburban boys calling themselves the N-word while akwardly trying to rap, or suburbanites feigning a love for a working class ethos they’ve only heard of and never experienced.
And there's the rub. Almost without exception, the intelligent people who use the Y-word want to use it in both senses: They want to call it a badge of honor and they want to use it in the elitist sense as well, as a bludgeon to insult people whom they think they're above. And when they are called out on this incongruity, and on the fact that many Pittsburghers detest the Y-word, they, like Gary, obstinately refuse to change their ways and refuse to accept that other people’s feelings matter enough for them to stop using one word in the English language.
I am talking about one single word here—I am not sayin you shouldn’t use “hat” or “mouse” or “pussy” or “wimp.” I am insisting that you be a real Pittsburgher, by not using a very specific slur to look down on your countrymen. And if I were talking about the “C-word”—a nasty slur used by some to refer to women—all the gals in the audience would agree. If the “N-word” were the axe I was grinding here, all the African-Americans reading these words would have my back. But since I am using an elitist word, based in class differences, many women and Blacks would disagree with me as stubbornly as people defend their religion and their children. That’s because in America, Land of the Fee and Home of the Knave, it’s always open season on lower class people. God may bless America, but the Deity leaves Americans to curse it on their own.