You might be a Yinzer if ...

Bill Cowher once said: “I’m one of you. Yinz know what I mean?” Of course, using a word that’s meant to foster camaraderie with Pittsburghers. It worked on me.



Illustration by Patrick Neil

In 2007, Bill Cowher held a press conference to announce his retirement as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. As he stood in front of the media wearing one of his signature Bill Cosby-like, eyeball-shattering sweaters, he said something I’ll never forget: “I’m one of you. Yinz know what I mean?”

He wasn’t just saying he was one of us; he was saying it while using a word that’s meant to foster camaraderie with Pittsburghers. It worked on me.

I hated that he was leaving Pittsburgh. I prefer that my sports heroes stick around—atrocious sweaters and all. But with that one word, it felt OK. Yinz. He wasn’t going to forget his hometown of Pittsburgh. He wasn’t going to change or stand sobbing in a shower in North Carolina, trying desperately to scrub the ’Burgher off himself. He was and would remain one of us.

He didn’t. But that’s another column. The point is: Just by saying that one word, I bought what he was selling—so much that I purchased three Cosby sweaters in every shade of late-’80s chic.

Fast forward to summer 2010, and we find Ben Roethlisberger giving an interview to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, just a few months after his bad-boy shenanigans in Georgia resulted in an NFL-sanctioned, four-game suspension and a general loss of respect from many fans. In the midst of much hand-wringing over the possibility that Steelers fans would boo him at training camp (they didn’t), Ben said, “I’m a Yinzer. I don’t say it, but I am a Yinzer.”

I read the quote. I rubbed my eyes and read the quote again. I put the paper down thinking I was having an aneurysm. I wasn’t. There it was. Ben was calling himself a Yinzer.

The image of the quintessential Yinzer, as I personally define it, appeared in my mind’s eye, and it was a cheap-beer-drinking, jort-wearing, multiple-tooth-missing man sporting a lush mullet and a tattered Steelers jersey while being interviewed on the 5 o’clock news, saying things like “them there” or “we was” or “dahn ’ere” or “we was dahn ’ere with ’em ’ere.”

I compared this with the mental image of Ben—a wealthy man who travels with a posse, dates famous women and drives cars worth more than most Yinzers make in a year—and I laughed. Oh, how I laughed.

The only thing remotely Yinzerish about Ben was the unfortunate manner in which he chose to arrange the hairs atop his head during his apology press conference—the half mullet, half mohawk hairstyle that I refer to as the “mullethawkenberger.” It’s mine. I own it. Send me a dime for every time you’ve said it.

Reading the newspaper quote, I was incredulous because Ben seemed to think being a Yinzer is a good thing. It was as if he took a page out of Bill Cowher’s Book of Ways to Endear Yourself to Pittsburgh but just skimmed the pages instead of actually reading it.

Wondering if perhaps the rest of Pittsburgh holds a more positive view of the word “Yinzer,” I began an exhaustive investigation, conducting research using foolproof scientific methods to ensure a proper sample size and an acceptable margin of error: I Tweeted. Oh, I hit up my Facebook friends, too.

The responses were generally in support of my belief that “Yinzer” is a derogatory term: Only 12 percent of the respondents indicated that they feel it’s a positive descriptor, while 60 percent think it is negative.

Another substantial number, 28 percent, said it is contextual—that it depends on who is saying it and whom he or she is referring to. The respondents feel that if a Pittsburgher calls another Pittsburgher a Yinzer, it’s a sort of humorous barb; here’s one such example:

“Did you just belch the chorus of ‘Renegade,’ you Yinzer?” However, as I interpret this data, if an outsider calls a Pittsburgher a Yinzer, it’s an insult of the highest order, indicating a perception of entirely too little class and entirely too many Steelers tattoos.

Armed with my percentages and a feeling of vindication, I then got in touch with the most intellectual, smarty-pants entity in Pittsburgh that I could think of: the mayor’s office.

No, not really. Carnegie Mellon University, of course. I asked resident linguistics expert Barbara Johnstone what she thought, and she wrote, “I think your correspondents are right—that it depends on who is calling whom a Yinzer, whether it’s negative or positive. It’s like ‘redneck’ in that respect.”

Ah, so Ben was trying to pull a Bill Cowher (who said “Yinz”) but with the addition of two little letters (when reciting the word “Yinzer”). Ben pulled a Jeff Foxworthy, likely in an effort to put himself on the level of the everyman, hard-working Pittsburgher.

But I don’t call the everyman, hardworking Pittsburgher a Yinzer; I call him a ’Burgher. And if he’s sporting a mullethawkenberger, I don’t call him anything because it’s hard to speak when you’re laughing that hard.

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