Do You Speak Princetonian?: The Language of Princeton

By Zachary Bampton ’20 with April C. Armstrong *14

Princetonians past and present have enjoyed the creation and use of language to refer to Princeton-specific places, acts, and things. Here at the Mudd Library, we have combed the archives to put forth some notable and, we think, fun words and phrases to capture what life was like, and how life was described, through the University’s history. These selected Princeton-isms range from the 1800s through today. While some have fallen out of fashion, others are still used on campus, though perhaps with a different meaning.

Poler’s Recess, 1915. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box SP17. “Poler’s Recess” is linked in spirit with the “Horn Spree” initiated by the Class of 1848 and the modern “Holder Howl” and “Whitman Wail.”

First: some slang that has fallen out of regular use on campus. Princetonians have always purported to work hard, but working hard in excess, at least during the early 1900s, was known as “poling”. Naturally, one who worked hard was a “poler”, and, during the exam week, the tradition of “poler’s recess” was born. At 9 pm each night, the campus undergraduates would throw open their windows, firing off firecrackers, blowing horns, and discharging firearms. Needless to say, a “well enforced fireworks ban” and strict punishments for the use of ball cartridges led to this term’s disappearance. Two rituals involving the freshmen class were competing in the cane spree and wearing the “dink”. The former was an inter-class wrestling competition between the freshmen and the sophomores over prized canes, and the latter was the name of a small, usually black, hat decreed to be worn by freshmen at all times to signal to sophomores they were, in fact, freshmen. Sophomores harassed dink-wearing freshmen and punished those not in compliance with arbitrary hazing rituals.

Some words have fallen out of use because they reflect shifts in social attitudes at Princeton, formerly a bastion of white male Protestantism. You can see some of our work on racialized use of language in previous blogs about William Taylor (the “jiggerman”) and Howard Edwards Gansworth (“savage”), though there are many other examples to be found. Princeton’s slow acceptance of women within the University community is also reflected in the language used to describe them. The first female undergraduates attending classes on campus were part of the Critical Languages Program, derisively nicknamed “Critters,” and most administrative records from the 20th century tend to refer to female undergraduates as “girls” rather than women. Finally, one will encounter a variety of terms to refer to non-Protestants in our records: Jews are often “Hebrews,” while those not affiliated with a religious group are sometimes dubbed “Heathens.”

This directory of the Class of 1914, taken from their Nassau Herald, includes name, permanent address, campus address, birthday, age, height, vocation, religious denomination, political party, literary society, favorite subject, favorite sport, and nickname. Almost all students had nicknames, though not all had one as notable as “Froggie” or “Socrates.” Click to enlarge.

Naturally, language evolves everywhere, and many modes of expression once popular on campus were also popular beyond it before fading away. Students commonly gave each other fanciful nicknames and classes once voted on who was their “prettiest” (male) member or “biggest drag with the faculty.” These are not exclusive to Princeton. Also, like peers elsewhere, they once avoided direct mention of latrines and toilets, preferring, as did most of society, to resort to euphemism. Some of these euphemisms, like “South campus,” were Princeton-specific.

In this page from the diary of Thomas Hall of the Class of 1853, several outdated Princeton slang terms appear, including references to “middle South campus” (the outhouse) and having “poled” (studied hard) for an unnamed class and “fizzled” (done poorly) in Rhetoric class.

Many words have stuck around through the years and across generations of students. Undergraduates still refer to Prospect Avenue, the location of Princeton’s Eating Clubs and social scene, as “The Street”. When one seeks to join an Eating Club, the process is called “bickering”, which is similar but not completely analogous to rushing fraternities.

The “Street,” undated. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP77, Image No. 3112.

Similar to “poling”, being “on the grind” or “grinding”, or working hard for a long period of time, is still common in the vernacular. Some words, while still in use, carry different meanings than when they first became popular. The P-Rade, the procession of Princeton alumni around the campus and through the Fitz-Randolph Gate at Reunions, was once simply the word used for any parade or march. Additionally, P-Rade was also once used as a verb. Until 1844, Commencement began the academic year in September rather than ending it in June, and graduates would return for exams and other academic exercises before degrees were conferred.

The Class of 1950 in the 1970 P-Rade. Princeton Alumni Weekly Photograph Collection (AC126), Box 4.

And how about now? Princeton today touts just as many bizarre or particular words and phrases: when getting into their dorms, undergraduates and graduates use “proxes”. When students take a course with the intent just to pass, they are “PDFing it”, derived from the Pass/D/Fail option. Location provides the source for much of the current slang: buildings like the Frist Campus Center or the McCosh Health Center gave rise to words like fristing, going to or hanging out in Frist, or “McCoshing”, reporting someone for excessive inebriation.

As a companion to the text above, we have included a cross-generational glossary of selected terms through Princeton’s history. Terms continue to go extinct or evolve, depending on their popularity with those in a position to use them. Where might the path of language take us in the coming years? Check back in fifty years; you might be surprised. (Note: This is by no means an exhaustive list of Princeton slang.)

Glossary of Selected Terms

Beer Suits – d. 1912, n. a suit originally created to cover the fabric and the cost of cleaning beer-stained clothing for seniors. Became a jacket only during World War II; now, sometimes called Senior Jackets.

Members of the Class of 1940 in beer suits on the steps of Terrace Club. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP197, Image No. 5241.

Campus – d. 1774, n. term referring to college grounds. This use originated at Princeton.

Elephant Scabs– ca. 1977, n. derogatory description of the “breaded veal cutlet” served in campus eating facilities.

Fizzle – ca. 1850, v. to fail in a weak and disappointing manner; essentially, to “fizzle out”

Flushogram – ca. 1977, n. letter or “curt note” declining invitation to come down to campus.

Cane Spree – ca. 1870, n. athletic competition between Freshmen and Sophomore classes where the goal was to obtain a special cane, central to the Freshman-Sophomore rivalry.

Horn Spree– 1858, n. a late-night romp featuring undergraduates blaring horns around campus.

Huxing/Hazing – ca. 1840s, v. the act of coercing incoming Freshmen to join either Whig or Clio, the rivalling debate societies on campus. Huxing was in use in the 1840s but evolved to Hazing by 1898.

Late meal – ca. 1990, n. policy of allowing students to take meals at a secondary, later time at the Student Center, now Frist Campus Center.

Raking – ca. 1850, v. derived from the satiric magazine, the Nassau Rake, edited and published by the Sophomore Class, raking means to publicly shame another undergraduate for some action or vice, often humorously.

Smoking Out – ca. 1858, v. a literal hazing technique of the Sophomore class against Freshmen, where Sophomores would sneak into the room of a Freshmen and proceed to vigorously smoke their pipes until the air was thick with smoke. The victim, and in some cases, the perpetrators, would find themselves in coughing fits.

Temples of Cloacina – d. 1869, n. the euphemistic term of the unsanitary and undesirable privies constructed to prevent repeated fires in outhouses set by undergraduates.

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