Slang City Mail

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March 13, 2008

Slang of the Week: townie (noun)
a person who lives in (and usually grew up in) a university town but is not connected to the institution

Example:
As a townie, meter maid Betsy enjoyed giving tickets to the college students who parked illegally.

Celebrity quote:
“In Sandy Springs, is it a source of pride or fighting words to be called — or call yourself — a townie?”
—Brian O’Shea in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

This term is often used to talk about the conflict between “town and gown.” Gowns are the robes once worn by university professors and students, and though such gowns are now only worn on special occasions (at least in the US) the expression remains. As suggested by the quote above, townie is often derogatory. However, at nearby Tufts University, Pete McKeown wrote a column called the Daily Townie until he graduated last spring. Unlike most Tufts students, he had grown up in this area, making him an anomaly as both “town” and “gown.”

One famous depiction of the tension between these two groups was the 1979 film Breaking Away. The townies in that movie are called cutters, for the stonecutters who worked in that area, and one of them makes it his goal to beat the condescending college students in a bicycle race. (Curiously, Townie is also the name of an Electra vintage-style bicycle that would be very poor for racing.)

But while that is the common meaning of the word in the US, it isn’t the only one. Here in Boston, a Townie is also someone from Charlestown, and is not pejorative; it’s the name of their high school basketball team. In fact, locals were incensed last year because a new film called Townies, about the Irish mob in Charlestown, gave the word (and the place) a negative connotation.

In the UK, however, the term is used quite differently from both of those. Similar to the derogatory British word chav, it describes people with bad taste, behavior and style who, if they lived stateside, would appear on the Jerry Springer show. The British-American dictionary Bum Bags and Fanny Packs describes them as “Britain’s burgeoning underclass, but with a certain council chic, ghetto fabulous.”

British council housing is government sponsored, similar to housing projects in the US. As in the US, young people who live in them are stereotyped as anti-social and promiscuous ne’er-do-wells who have out-of-wedlock children at an early age. While I have never seen that kind of townie, the internet sites on the topic (all of which, it should be noted, are disparaging of townies and therefore somewhat unreliable as references) agree that “council chic” is characterized by gelled hairstyles, track suits, Burberry brand clothing and lots of fake bling.

Bookstore

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick: The Perfect Insult for Every Occasion, by Slang City Mail author A. C. Kemp.