A metonym is a word which symbolizes another word with which it has some relationship. (Not the most elegant definition, I know). A good example is the way we substitute geographical locations for authority figures or bodies of Government. We use Capitol Hill for the US Congress; Downing Street for the British Cabinet; and of course, the White House for the US presidency.
There’s a unique type of metonym that has emerged within the past few decades whereby a US city’s area code comes to symbolize the city itself. You often hear this in Hip Hop: the New Orleanian Lil’ Wayne boasts of being ‘live from the 504,’ while there is an East St. Louis rapper who goes simply by Mr. 618. And Seattle MC Macklemore pokes gentle fun at the convention in his track The Town (Seattle is 206 territory):
Now when I say 2-0 … nah, you know the rest …
This is our music, our movement, the history lives through us.
(He seems to suggest that his love for his hometown can’t be reduced to a standard Hip Hop trope.)
What I find brilliant about area code metonymy is the way it’s recognizable by residents yet baffling to outsiders. For instance, a Philadelphian probably sees the digits ‘215’ twenty times a day, while the rest of the nation is oblivious to this detail of the city’s culture.
I believe this is an example of how cities have both ‘dialects’ and ‘registers.’ There is overlap between the two, but they’re not quite the same thing. A ‘register’ (I’m going off Peter Trudgill‘s definition) is both a kind of jargon and a way of indicating one’s belonging to a group. Just as physicists and Star Trek aficionados have registers*, so do those who claim ‘membership’ to a city.
Another example of such lingo can be seen in neighborhood names. How you use them in conversation is a way of displaying your value as an urbanite. Not only your knowledge of a particular neighborhoods’ existence (if you claim to be an Angeleno, you’d better be aware of a neighborhood called Los Feliz); but also your ability to demonstrate understanding of that neighborhood’s cultural nuances. This is why New Yorkers roll their eyes at a New York Times piece about Brooklyn as if it’s next hip nabe (because Brooklyn is not a neighborhood and this isn’t 1986). Some Grey Lady scribes don’t quite grasp the register of their employers’ namesake.
Other ways urban registers manifest themselves are through mass transit terminology (El, MAX, Muni, BART, MTA), the names of bars and restaurants, names of suburbs, foreign loan words, highways (Atlanta’s ‘outside the perimeter’), political boundaries (LA’s ‘behind the Orange curtain’), industries, weather (Seattle’s ‘the mountain’s out’), and many other terms both abstract and concrete.
To reiterate, though: this doesn’t constitute the dialect of a city. An ardent newcomer can speak the register as fluently as a native (not to mention that there are really many registers depending on the community within a city which you most closely identify with). But I find it fascinating how the two mingle and overlap.
*Um, I’m not saying they’re the same group.