Yo Adrian! This Term’s Etymology Is Very Overdetermined, yo!

by zunguzungu

Over at Easily Distracted, Timothy Burke notes that “Yo joe!” in the cartoon GI Joe “is not an inspiring battle cry.” Perhaps; far be it for me to say anything positive about that show. But I have been thinking about the term “yo” lately, and the funny way it signifies in our present cultural moment. On The Wire, to pick an a propos example, referring to young, urban, African-American males as “yo’s” is fairly common, and if you scan the various entries at urban dictionary, you’ll note that two major positions predominate: “yo” is a word that defines black inner-city culture, or it’s a word that defines the ways that white people think black culture is defined. Somewhere in between lies The Wire, so there you go. An alternate etymology is also suggested both at urban dictionary and at etymology online:
as a greeting, 1859, but the word is attested as a sailor’s or huntsman’s utterance since c.1420. Modern popularity dates from World War II (when, it is said, it was a common response at roll calls) and seems to have been most intense in Philadelphia.
This Philadelphia connection, after a very cursory google search , brought me to the following letter to the editor, from someone who seemed also to have contributed to the urban dictionary entry:
the term originated in Philadelphia, or more accurately, South Philadelphia. In the 1930’s a large proportion of the residents of South Philadelphia were Italian immigrants, mostly from the Campania region of southern Italy, the principal city of which is Naples. In the Neapolitan dialect “guaglione” (pronounced guahl-YO-nay) signified a young man. The chiefly unlettered immigrants shortened that to guahl-YO, which they pronounced whal-YO. That was inevitably further shortened to yo. The common greeting among young Italian-American males was “Hey, whal-YO!”, and then simply, “Yo!” And so it remains today.

This is plausible, I suppose. But the thing about “common response at roll calls” suggests another possible derivation, one that I’ve noted in every single cowboy-cavalry movie I’ve been watching lately. They say it a very particular way (sort of like “Company, yo-ohhhhhhh”), but it’s extremely consistent, and one of the things that’s interesting about the John Ford cavalry movies is what a stickler he was about all the little details; you don’t always know what they mean, but you do get the sense of a complex system of signification behind the various maneuvers and signals that he puts his men through. Which suggests to me that he did his research. Which suggests to me that maybe these cavalry soldiers trooping through the American West after the civil war really did say “yo” a lot.

In any case, what they really said is not really important; more relevant is the fact that in a variety of cowboy westerns (including this one, about a black soldier in an all-black indian-fighting unit, or a “Buffalo Soldier”) you hear the term “yo” a whole lot. And in the song “Buffalo Soldiers,” Bob Marley sings a chorus which goes something like this:

yo, yo, yo. yo, yo, yo. yo, yo, yo, yo, yo, yo, yo, yo.

Buffalo Soldiers were a big deal, actually; they made up about twenty percent of the cavalry units that were used to “clear out” the American west after the civil war. Idris Elba (of The Wire fame) was even in a movie called Buffalo Soldiers, and I’ll be interested to see if anyone says “yo” in it. But in any case, the example of black soldiers out there on the frontier, making America into America, is quite a symbol, right? And American cinema, for which the cowboy genre is one of the most important metonyms, was mega-popular (or at least omnipresent) in places like the Kingston of Marley’s youth, and in the places where American hip-hop culture was born, and a lot of places in between.

I’m not trying to be exact here, obviously, but all this adds up to make it fair for me to say that the places where whatever culture “yo” seems to signify come from, the twentieth century sites where specifically urban black subjectivities were articulated, yo, were places where American cowboy movies, and buffalo soldiers like Sergeant Rutledge within them, were a presence. So the hypothesis would be this: the same way that kung-fu movies provided a vocabulary through which the Wu Tang Clan could verbally repudiate the “Ku Klux Klan,” the word “yo” had something to do, in some overdetermined way at some earlier moment, with the ways the figure of the “buffalo soldier” allowed blackness to be represented, by certain black people, as “American.”

All speculation, of course. But, who knows, there might even be something to it. After all, what’s more American than killing indians? And, for that matter, what better battle-cry for a cartoon teaching American kids to love American militarism than a term identified with white kids mimicking black folk mimicking white folks killing indians? Or anywhere in between.