In the time before traffic, air conditioners, leaf blowers and the irritating like, the city’s streets were full of cries. Not cries for help, but calls of peddlers selling (in summer) peaches, watermelons, and ice cream and (during the cooler months) pepper pot soup, hot muffins and split wood.
Pretzels, of course, were sold all year round.
One 19th century observer admittedly “astonished at the variety of noises which assail his ears on every side” celebrated “the bawling cries of all sorts of petty traders and jobbers” in a fine, illustrated book. That was in 1850. Seventy years later, Kate Rowland worried about the “passing away of the old Philadelphia street criers,” and collected dozens which she “performed” at a meeting of the Philadelphia City History Society. Rowland demonstrated the city still had vendors with traditions, tireless lungs and occasional musical ability. From the publication that followed, we know the proper intonation for “Pretzels!,” as well as that for potatoes, strawberries, cherries, shad, cat fish, lavender, sweet corn, hominy cakes, umbrellas, brooms and soft soap, among many other goods and services.
Philadelphia street culture at its best, you might say. Even though “Yo!” was conspicuously absent.
Where are we today with our street cry tradition? You might say it all comes down to that one generic expression—“Yo!”—a pronouncement powerful enough to go up against today’s traffic noise and flexible enough to mean whatever one might intend. Today, “Yo!” seems to work just about anywhere and is made to work for just about anything.
“Yo!” came into this world as an abbreviation of “gualione” which means “young man” or “kid” in Italian dialect. A Neopolitan song titled Gualione was a hit in the 1950s, especially Perez Prado’s excellent Mambo version.
If Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang can be believed, “gualione” was shortened to “walyo.” “Yo!” wasn’t far behind. In the 1970s, we witnessed “Yo’s” Rocky road from South Philadelphia to Hollywood. And more recently, it’s been adopted as Jesse Pinkman meta catchphrase.
But propelled by the media, “Yo!” forgot its roots.
In 1993, New York claimed as their own this “short and sweet” greeting and had the temerity to even suggest “there is no yo in Philadelphia.” What the writer really meant to say was “Philadelphia, once again, has provided the world with something of great value.”
The recent launch of a free app of the same name (available on iTunes) once again makes clear that this strong, accessible, and possibly elegant utterance has morphed, as the Yo people put it: into “the simplest & most efficient communication tool in the world.” At least that’s what their investors, who extended their faith to the tune of $1 million, fervently hope.
Thanks to this start up now based in San Francisco, what started on the streets of Philly is now, everywhere and is everyone’s. Not only is Yo (the app) available in English, it’s also offered in Arabic, Bokmål, Norwegian, Catalan, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Malay, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Simplified Chinese, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Traditional Chinese, Turkish, Ukrainian and Vietnamese.
What is there for a Philadelphian to say?
“You’re welcome” would be about right.