Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Although I've lived in New York for 21 years, I often rely upon the rich and memorable phrases that I learned as a child in South Philadelphia to express emotions that no standard English word can convey. Here is a list of my favorites:

You're enjoying a fine forceful spray under fire plug, but realize to your horror, that the water has shimmied the waistband of your pants down, or (if you're a girl) your top has suddenly become see-through. To which, your mother or grandma calls out "Pesch-Ma-Shame." I love this phrase for all the subtlety and tenderness it evokes. Within is the notion of Catholic guilt associated with one's body, but at the same time, there's something oddly loving and accepting about it.

The word "sceve" is not exclusively used in South Philadelphia, but has been heard in many Italian American neighborhoods. Still, if a fly lands on your proscuitto, your classmate has body odor, blackheads, or stepped in dog poo, the only words in South Philly that will do are "I sceve." Variations include "scev-otz" and "scevey." The word "sceve" is much more effective than modern terminology such as "that's gross" or "disgusting." To sceve implies more than a mere sensory offense. There's the implication of an almost moral outrage when one sceves person, place or thing.

I was often referred to as a "Medigan" because of my fair complexion, light eyes, etc. It's a shortened, Italianized version of "American" and I hated being reminded I didn't share the olive, swarthy, never-got-sunburned skin of my cousins and friends. That's what you get for being half Irish. No one ever believed that I was the daughter of the dark haired, dark eyed, Roman-nosed little Italian woman who pushed me in a stroller up and down 7th Street.

My grandfather Rosario, who died at the age of 101, moved to the United States when he was nineteen. He sired ten children with my grandmother Theresa DeGregorio, all born on the second floor of the their storefront on 12th and Porter. You'd think that 10 kids and a wife would keep him busy and content. Rosario, however, always had a "comare" also known as a "goomah" or "goomar." The word was said with a wry chuckle, and as a kid, I couldn't quite understand what they really meant. The truth was Rosario turned out to be the genetic Johnny Appleseed of the neighborhood, and now know I have way more cousins and aunts than were officially counted for at Sunday dinner.

There's also a variation of this phrase. Whenever I wore an unbecoming dowdy dress, glasses, or had a bad haircut, I ran the risk of being called "Cumare Jenny." Any woman whose sex appeal fell into the negative numbers, whose chance of marrying was less than zero, who preferred thick cardigans, flat shoes, and no make up, might be labeled as such.

My mother and aunts argued, traded gossip and gathered in the kitchen around sizzling pans of veal cutlets. When one of them got on the other's nerves, they'd say "Go Shit in Your Hat!" When they took offense, were unconvinced or otherwise dismissive of a remark, they'd say "Your Sister's Ass!" While this was not a strictly Italian use of language, they were shared by the Boccuto sisters with zest.

When my daughter was born almost 14 years ago, I suffered from a bad case of post-partum nerves. At night, as she lay in the crib and a hush fell over the house, I comforted her, and more truthfully myself by repeating the phrase "Ninna No."
I only just recently learned that the phrase translated from Italian into English means "lullaby." I can still hear my mother repeating those words to me before I drifted off to sleep. Good Night.

1 comment:

  1. I still say sieve, I remember a couple years ago, I was working Denver Air traffic control all night, up for 24 hours and just solved a major problem. I told my boss I scene, he looked me crazy, but I said I just want go home and take a bath.

    My mom is mergain, thought I inherited the olive skin and never sunburn, but I loved her shepherds pie