My Fraternity: The Endearing Debate Over YITBOS & Other Cultural Stuff

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“In 1899 at the City College of New York,” is how I started about half of the gazillion public speeches I gave as a staff member for Delta Sigma Phi. Our story is truly heartwarming. 

I’m going to ignore all of the stuff that the modern fraternity and sorority movement sells: The idea that we are all bound by common values which encourage us to establish a utopian world of men and women who study leadership and expertly execute their newly acquired skills after checking a series of “do good” boxes like raising money for the less fortunate and serving the community.

That conversation is for another post. How about Saturday’s?

Instead, I’d like to focus on something I feel is too often overlooked within the world of fraternity and sorority: the unique qualities of my individual fraternity.

I am not talking about our values, or our national philanthropic focus (Hey, Red Cross). I’m talking about our men and how they interact with Delta Sigma Phi.

In today’s age, every leader and their mother takes care of their brand. It’s a wonderful buzzword that has likely boosted the career of many a graphic designer and seduced thousands of uncreative leaders into the idea that everyone who relates to them must think, step, speak and act as “the brand” demands.

Style guides are circulated. “Use this name, not that name” or “That’s not an official hand signal” are little things you hear at all conferences for all fraternities and sororities. But if there is one thing that has remained consistent about fraternity men and women, it’s that they are stubbornly rebellious. Since day one – every time.

Enter Delta Sigma Phi. 

My fraternity already has a bit of a problem. A business fraternity, Delta Sigma Pi shares a nickname at many institutions, forcing local members of either organization to alter their nickname so as not to be confused with the other. I’ve set up chapters of my fraternity at several schools where the students wondered why I was trying to create a 2nd chapter of one fraternity.

Not too long ago, our headquarters team and the Delta Sigma Pi team came to some agreements, but it’s rare that students and alumni members ignore their local cultural heritage to bend to the demands of brand-obsessed suit types, and ours is no different.

I don’t mean this in any negative way. I do think brand consistency is relevant. Why wouldn’t we all want to know how to identify one another? Why would we want divisions to exist within our fraternity?

On the other hand, there is a sense of wonder associated with the regional differences associated with my fraternity. I assume the same can be said for other fraternities and sororities as well.

I took it upon myself then to put up a brief survey to determine how men from chapters across the United States choose to identify. I organized the results into “heat” maps, which indicate where you can most likely expect to hear any one term.

We already have a national historian who is piecing together a history of our fraternity, and I’m well on my way to fleshing out my own chapter’s history, but this was different. How members pronounce “YITBOS,” a word with a secret meaning, and the nickname they choose for their chapter, “Delta Sig” being the official nickname, can give insights into the creation of those chapters, and opens us to a world of studying how men from different parts of the country perceive the same thing.

I hope to conduct the same survey prior to every Convention, and just learning about those two things, the pronunciation of YITBOS and a chapter’s preferred nickname, has only enhanced my curiosity to explore other questions. I’ll get to those questions as well as the details of the survey at the end of this post.

For now, enjoy a brief exploration of the varying identities within Delta Sigma Phi, and I hope you will, as I have, learn to appreciate the rich diversity associated with something more than 100,000 men have pledged their lives to.

BACKGROUND

My fraternity was founded in 1899 at the City College of New York – now the City University of New York. A group of men were barred from joining other fraternities as a group because they were a mix of Christian and Jewish faiths, and so they established Delta Sigma Phi.

Over the next ten years, the students expanded the Fraternity from C.C.N.Y. to roughly a dozen schools in the Northeast and eventually out west to Chicago and Texas, and south to South Carolina and Alabama. This was accomplished primarily by absorbing local fraternities, and there were many challenges in these early years, one being that most of the absorbed organizations were either entirely Christian or Jewish, and found it hard to reconcile their personal beliefs with the diversity of Delta Sigma Phi.

The Fraternity became entirely Christian less than two decades after its initial establishment, and remained so until the middle of the 20th Century, when chapters, starting with those on the Pacific Coast and in the Midwest, began recruiting black students, among others.

The Fraternity’s headquarters remained in the Northeast for much of our existence, moving later to Ohio, Colorado and Indianapolis, where it remains today.

Not much of this information will relate to what we see in the survey questions provided, but they do give a general insight into the growth of our organization. It began in the Northeast, moved South, then West, then Southwest, then to the Pacific, filled in the interior, and then each region blossomed on its own from that point.

Because the Fraternity grew by students recruiting other local organization to petition for membership in Delta Sigma Phi, chapters of a region adopted the vernacular of other chapters in that same region (in theory), and so there are some distinct differences.

It is also important to note that Delta Sigma Pi, the fraternity that is often confused for our own, sprouted from Ohio, and it is in the northern reaches of Ohio, Northeastern Illinois and the state of Michigan where one of the most resilient nicknames took hold, perhaps as a way to distinguish one fraternity from another.

YITBOS

I’m not going to tell you what YITBOS means. Shut up and enjoy the mystery of something for once. You don’t need to know everything about every-thing.

YITBOS offers the least room for variation. Chapters tend to pronounce it with a strong or weak “o” sound. According to our national historian, the proper pronunciation has the “o” making the same sound as it does in “row” or “bow.” This is the dominant form, but many members pronounce the “o” to sound as it does in the words “boss” or “toss.”

I don’t really care which is right, and I think that people miss the point of “YITBOS” when they focus too intently on whether a person is saying it properly. It means the same thing to everyone, and that’s what matters right?

Here is a map for those who pronounce it the proper way, with the “o” sounding as it does in “row.”

It’s clearly very widely adopted. The darker areas simply represent chapters that participated in the survey, and logic leads me to assume that the men from those chapters typically remain within the same state and region and that they influence the dialect of other chapters within the same region.

So you could imagine that if you meet a Delta Sig from a chapter within any of those green regions, there’s a good chance that he’ll pronounce YITBOS with a strong “o.” An important feature of any of these maps is the ability to see the shape of the United States if we were to remove the state boundaries. In this case, we would have a pretty good image of the US if we could only see the green blobs.

It’s important to note, however, that Georgia and Michigan, both almost completely in white (more on the green within these states later) are two states that have historically, and to this day, had many chapters of Delta Sigma Phi. They trend toward the other option: YITBOS with the “o” sounding as it does in “toss” or “boss.”

I don’t know what’s going on in northern Idaho, but it’s clear that this pronunciation is quite popular in the deep south. It is the preferred term from surveyed chapters in Georgia, Alabama, northern Florida (FSU is a closed chapter but a member completed the survey – Thank You!) and North Carolina.

A few chapters in other, mostly southern/central states use it, and then most of central and northern Michigan prefer the weaker “o” sound.

It’s very likely that South Carolina would be entirely in red if its two oldest chapters at Furman and Wofford were still operating, but they both closed a few decades ago, which leads us to the splotches of green seen in the first map in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina (as well as eastern Michigan).

Those are areas where chapters were recently established and taught by the recruiters to say YITBOS with a strong “o” sound. Some may consider that disruptive or be encouraged to attempt to convert these chapters to saying YITBOS another way, but I would like to stress that these regional variations add vitality to our organization, and members should ultimately be able to choose to say YITBOS how they’d like in my personal opinion.

Here’s a map of the two combined. If you were to remove the black state lines, you’d have an almost perfect image of the United States. (We were never too strong in New England to begin with).

Now there is another variation of YITBOS I refuse to acknowledge, “Yitties,” but this term is more or less a casual nickname than it is region-defining, and given it has no official place in our ritual (it’s the equivalent of receiving the “hang loose” hand signal from a stoner) it would only ever be used in combination with one of the two pronunciations mentioned above.

Still, I’ll be interested to see where “yitties” goes in the coming years. I’m basically a grandpa in the body of Hercules, so I can imagine that younger generations will take to it well. Especially as marijuana is legalized across the country. YES I said that; I know what you kids do in your free time.

NICKNAMES

The nickname of the Fraternity is taken a little more seriously than YITBOS because it is focused on an external audience. It is meant to serve as a means of recognition to the outside world, and so it makes sense that nationally minded Delta Sigs have put more effort into ensuring that there is, at least, a common nickname. Everyone knows what the nickname is – “Delta Sig” – even if they have their own regional variations.

Delta Sig is widely used. For this portion of the survey, I asked chapters which nickname they heard “most often” in their chapter, but included a follow up question asking the members to choose from a list of nicknames they occasionally used. Delta Sig was selected for one or the other by almost every chapter.

 

As you can see in the Gallery above, Delta Sig is widely spread. Eliminating the state boundaries, one could easily identify the borders of the United States.

 

Take note that fewer northeastern chapters completed the survey, though more than 15 of the Fraternity’s ~110 chapters are based in Pennsylvania and New York respectively, and an equal number of dormant chapters exist throughout the region, many with living alumni.

The next most-used nicknames are DSP and D-Sig respectively. The former is also commonly associated with Delta Sigma Pi, and is an official nickname of that fraternity per the aforementioned agreement between the two organizations. Still, it is a preferred term among many western chapters and is a secondary nickname throughout most regions of the country. D-Sig is a natural shortening of Delta Sig, and so it’s popularity makes sense as well.

Delt Sig is the preferred term throughout much of Michigan, and it has a lighter presence in the areas surrounding the Great Lakes. Through my experience on staff, it’s clear that many chapters along the lakes preferred “Delt Sig,” but many of these chapters have been recently re-established, and students were the primary respondents to the survey, so it’s likely that it’s limited presence in the area is mostly due to modern founding fathers of the re-established groups preferring “Delta Sig,” but hearing “Delt Sig” among some involved alumni members.

Rounding out the nicknames are “Delta,” which is certainly more popular in the Northeast than we would be led to believe from this map, “Sig,” “Sigma,” or some other variation of Sigma are used in some central parts of the nation, and “Dig” is a term very popular with one chapter. . . my chapter.

Other nicknames were entered into the “Other” category, but they all fit within one of the aforementioned categories or were (hopefully) jokes.

LINGERING QUESTIONS

Prior to the 2019 Convention, I’ll attempt to redistribute this survey to a wider audience, and perhaps expand upon some of the questions offered (and answered).

It would be great to include generational cues, to determine how different generations of Delta Sigs refer to the fraternity. “Yitties” is a perfect example of what may become a clear generational divide, as many already find it an abhorrent term, while the modern student seems to enjoy its use.

Meme culture and greater connectivity through the internet may result in a blending of terms, or a breaking of regional boundaries for some terms such as “Delt Sig.”

Additionally, it would be wise to study the growth trends of the Fraternity. Members recruit men like themselves, and trends in elections of our national leaders and influential staff may also affect the spread of unique pronunciations and terms. For example, prior to this set of maps, no such set of maps has been put together and made public – at least in recent years.

If you’ve gotten to this point, I commend you. More will come in line with this study, as I continue to explore the history of my chapter, my fraternity, and the cultural traditions of all fraternities and sororities.