Travels with Trifey.
Dear Word Detective: For many years, I have worked with juvenile delinquents at various institutions in Ohio. They used to use the word “trifey” as a synonym for “dirty” (as in “a person gets lice by being trifey, don’t he?”), but now it just seems to be an all-purpose insult. Moreover, it seems that they are conflating it with the word “trifling,” only not pronouncing the “g.” An online urban dictionary stated that it originally meant “slutty” but I have not heard it used that way. I read somewhere that the word may have derived from “treyf” (sometimes spelled “traife”), a Yiddish word meaning “un-kosher.” Can you tell me if this is the correct etymology, and if not what is? — Emily Coulson.
Read it somewhere, eh? You weren’t living in New York City back around 1996, were you? I ask because back then I was writing a column for the Daily News called City Slang in which I answered questions about, well, city slang. And I happened to write an item about the word “trife,” which I still have on my computer, which is amazing. This may mean I need a new computer.
Anyway, the good news is that I actually remembered writing that column as soon as I read your question, which should prove to certain people that I am not enfeebled, despite the fact that I sometimes leave a dog or two outside after a walk. So I’m glad this question came round again. I just hope it doesn’t mean I’m about to be inundated with a new wave of questions about “the third word ending in ‘gry’.” If that doesn’t ring a bell, please don’t ask.
It’s apparent from your explanation that the “trife” a reader asked me about in 1996 and the “trifey” you’ve encountered are, in fact, the same word. At that time I wrote that “In current hip hop and rap slang, an action or thing that is ‘trife’ (rhymes with ‘wife’) is bad or degrading in an especially low way. Cheating on your income taxes may be wrong, but ripping off your friends or hurting your family is truly ‘trife.’” The term seems to have appeared in rap slang in the 1980s, but the earliest example I’ve found so far is from the song “Mecca and the Soul Brother” (Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, 1991): “Okay, you wanna act trife and flip the script / With your Wonderama drama slash coma riff.” (“Flip the script” is a great slang phrase meaning “reverse course, change your mind, turn the tables, do the unexpected.”)
At the time I first wrote about “trife,” I noted that its origin was very uncertain, but that the source might well be “the Yiddish word ‘trayf’ (rhymes with ‘safe’), used to describe food that is not Kosher and thus forbidden. In a broader sense, ‘trayf’ is applied to anything thought to be wrong or harmful, from racy movies to shady business deals.” The word “trayf” (which is also spelled “trefa,” “trifa,” “treyf,” “traife” and a few dozen other ways) comes from the Hebrew “taraf,” meaning literally “to tear or rend,” and originally referred to the flesh of an animal that had been killed by a wild beast, i.e., the roadkill of the day, not slaughtered in accordance with the dictates of Jewish religious law.
No sooner had my column on “trife” been published, however, than I received a note from Dr. Angela Taylor, then at Rutgers University and now an authority on criminal justice at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, who suggested that “Rather than stemming from the word ‘trayf,’ it is more likely that trife is an abbreviation of the word ‘trifling,’ which is in common use among African-Americans. Especially among the young, ‘trifling’ has acquired a meaning that goes beyond its dictionary definition (i.e., petty, unimportant) to describe negative behavior that is beyond the pale.”
So is “trife” (or “trifey”) an expanded sense of “trayf” that made the leap into the hip-hop world of the 1980s, or a greatly expanded use of “trifling” to mean “very bad, dishonest, unpleasant, dirty”? It’s impossible to say, although I tend to lean towards the “triflng” theory simply because it involves a linear expansion of a common word and not a radical leap over cultural boundaries. Of course, it’s also possible that both theories are somewhat true; “trayf” is not an obscure term in urban areas, even to non-Jews, and its expanded sense of “no good, disgusting, wrong” makes that one little word very useful.