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Is a combination bar/liquor store a "slashie"?
October 1, 2009

Dear Cecil:

As anyone who cares about Chicago culture knows, we describe a bar/liquor store as a "package(d) goods store" or a "taproom." A few years ago, Time Out Chicago recklessly published a piece on Chicagoese that claimed we call these venerable institutions "slashies." This was a blatant falsehood, invented out of whole cloth. A year later, someone wrote a piece published by both the Sun-Times and Centerstagechicago.com that used the same term, evidently taking Time Out at its word. At the time, I sent out an e-mail asking if anyone had heard the term "slashie." No one had.

Well, the word is popping up again on the Internet. I believe it's time to take the gloves off. We just can't have people coming to Chicago and telling us how we speak, how we like our beefs, etc. Where will it end? "Slashie" is a truly despicable piece of cultural carpetbaggery [rant truncated; you get the idea].

— Indignantly, Joe Drogos, West 21st Street

Cecil replies:

Joe, buddy. Relax. I completely sympathize with your desire to keep local culture free of despicable carpetbaggery, blatant falsehoods, etc. However, the way to defeat these inauthentic intrusions is to fight them with science. This I have now done. After lengthy consultation with you and other knowledgeable parties, the following may be stated as fact:

(1) Nobody other than a few knuckleheads ever called a combination bar/liquor store in Chicago a slashie prior to 2006.

(2) However, regardless of whether this usage was invented out of whole cloth, the word slashie itself wasn't. It seemingly originated with — well, I hate to keep you in suspense. But the story is best sipped, not chugged.

The first job was establishing who said what and when. Time Out Chicago's vocabulary piece appeared in the issue of March 2-8, 2006. Under the heading "Local lingo" was a list of alleged Chicago terms, among them slashies, the entry for which read in its entirety as follows:

Slashies (n.) Bars/liquor stores.

In 2007 Centerstagechicago.com expounded at greater length in a story entitled "Slashies: Historical Hybrids":

When young urbanites began swarming dive bars for sport, you mourned the loss of anonymous, pretense-free drinking. Rest easy, nostalgists; the slashy, a Chicago classic liquor store-slash-taproom, promises reliably low-key environs. Glamorously mussed up it ain't; if the dive bar is the booze equivalent of a lightly dusted PBR can, the slashy is a chipped 40-ounce of Steel Reserve that'll slice you up if handled improperly.

RedEye got in on the slashy/slashie action last year:

Check out today's RedEye cover story about the best dive bars in the city and the difference between a dive bar and a hipster watering hole. The story also mentions the slashy, which is "when the bar is a bar-slash-liquor store, a place to drink and/or buy a six-pack to take home," said Ted Koerth, a lawyer who lives in Lakeview and conducts Dive Bar Tours.

I can't say the term went viral after that, but it shows up on the net now and then. Like Joe, I'd never heard of slashie (I settle on this spelling to avoid tedious repetition of slashy-slash-slashie), but one wants corroboration. I called up a source cited in the unexpurgated version of Joe's letter: Bill Savage, Ph.D., senior lecturer in English at Northwestern, occasional Reader contributor, brother of sex columnist Dan Savage, Chicago lore authority, Rogers Park resident, and a guy who, I venture to say, has seen the inside of a bar. Bill had been among the first to call Time Out Chicago on their slashie claim, writing a letter to the editor that stated in part:

I asked Tim Roti, co-owner of the bar I go to all too often: have you ever heard the term "slashie" to describe this kind of place? He looked at me as though I'd just put ketchup on my hot dog. No, he'd never heard the term. Of course he hadn't, I thought, it doesn't exist. But just to be sure, I emailed 35 Chicagoans I know — North Siders and South Siders, lawyers and cops, scholars and artists, journalists and actors, most of whom I've spent at least some time in various saloons with, all of whom have expertise in Chicagoese. Not one of them has ever heard the term "slashie" used to describe any sort of bar.

So, Bill had asked 35 people. Joe told me he'd checked with a dozen. Add in the three of us and you've got 50 Chicagoans having no knowledge of slashie. (Oh, and Tim Roti. That makes 51.) By newspaper standards that's a statistically significant sample. You may object: By newspaper standards, two is a statistically significant sample. True — and as we'll see, that tradition lives on.

Additional data points:

  • I checked with celebrated word investigator Barry Popik, who among other achievements had helped clarify the origin of "Windy City." Barry could find no published uses of slashie in the sense of a Chicago liquor establishment prior to 2006.

  • I spoke to the author of the original Time Out Chicago piece, associate features editor Martina Sheehan. Martina, I was interested to learn, has a master's in linguistics from UIC. However, she concedes she didn't apply major scholarly resources to the project in question. She asked the rest of the staff. Slashie came from the restaurant writer, a nonnative, who claimed to have heard it a few times.

OK, not the most rigorous procedure. However, Joe, our purpose isn't to persecute Martina, but to ascertain the facts. You allege that Time Out Chicago invented slashie out of whole cloth. Not so. Bill Savage mentioned he'd heard it had been used in the 2001 movie Zoolander starring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson. I hadn't seen the film, but determined via Google that it features a cameo by Fabio, who receives the Slashie Award as the best actor-slash-model ("and not the other way around"). The term "slashie," meaning someone with dual roles, became common after that — Google turns up 58,000 instances.

Matters now began to clarify. Back to Barry Popik. He reminded me the usage [noun]-slash-[noun] (writer-slash-director, etc.) had become current in the '90s. He even came up with a local cite:

"I've ended up being described with a lot of slashes — you know, she's a playwright slash actress slash professor. She does documentaries slash theater." ("Voice Of The People Anna Deavere Smith Brings Complex Human Stories To Life," Chicago Tribune, May 7, 1995)

We deduce that slashie=bar/liquor store isn't an ancient Chicago term, but rather a recent derivation from slashie=person with dual roles, which in turn was popularized by a 2001 movie. In fairness, Time Out Chicago didn't actually say the term was ancient, nor did Centerstagechicago describe it as classic. (It says liquor-store-slash-taprooms are classic, a different matter.) Also, to state the obvious, if people want to call these joints slashies now, what's to stop them? However, considering slashie isn't local, has nothing to do with bars or liquor stores, and suggests we're talking about guys running around in goalie masks, you have to wonder why anyone would.

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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