Written By Nik Koulogeorge
Fraternity men obsess over their organizational brand. Hand signals, nicknames, and symbols are all curated and protected by members at all levels. The community as a whole has opinions about words like "pledge" and "frat," but fraternity members are stubborn and naturally rebellious. That's an interesting aspect of fraternity: the blend of disciplined homogeneity and youthful chaos.
My fraternity, Delta Sigma Phi, had a branding problem for many years. Another fraternity, Delta Sigma Pi, went by a similar nickname at many institutions. When both fraternities existed at the same school, members of one fraternity would alter their chapter's nickname so as not to be confused with the other. Students would occasionally ask why I was setting up a second chapter of the business fraternity when I worked in expansion.
The two fraternities eventually agreed on "official" nicknames they'd teach their members and use in publications and marketing. But nicknames can take on an identity of their own. It would be the equivalent of your parent or guardian deciding that you needed to go by a new name, regardless of whether or not you liked your old name. Many chapters maintained their alternative nicknames, a decision that drives some brand guardians mad. I have learned through interfraternal experiences that many fraternities deal with the same lack of brand congruence. This should not frustrate us. Local and regional differences like this should be embraced. They add flavor to the story of each fraternity; they don't detract from it.
I took it upon myself to create a brief survey to determine how Delta Sigs across the United States identify with the fraternity. I organized the results into "heat" maps, which indicate where you can most likely expect to hear a particular term or pronunciation. Maps are interesting tools but are rarely used to tell the stories of fraternities. I had two goals:
Determine if there was a clear regional variation in the nicknames my brothers used to refer to their chapter (Delta Sig, Delt Sig, Delta, etc.)
Determine if there was a clear regional variation in the way members pronounce "YITBOS" (a term with a secret meaning, but the primary source of controversy - members playfully argue about this at almost every fraternity program).
From my historical knowledge, I knew that different nicknames and different pronunciations of "YITBOS" were regional phenomenons. I also knew that the answers would give insight into how the fraternity grew over time. Learning about these cultural differences opens up new, creative ways to tell our story. So many fraternity members focus only on the founding of their organization or the history of its governing structure and policies. This pseudo study is meant to encourage greater exploration of our respective cultural histories.
I'm not going to tell you what YITBOS means, but it is taught to every initiate. For non-Delta Sigs reading this post: Relish in the mystery.
Anyway, chapters tend to pronounce it with a strong or weak "o" sound. The "official" pronunciation (the one promoted by the national fraternity) 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 how people say it, and I think that people miss the point of "YITBOS" when they focus too intently on its pronunciation. It means the same thing to everyone, and that's what matters right? Here are the results from the 2017 survey in map form:
The darker areas simply represent chapters that participated in the survey. Common sense led me to assume that the men from those chapters typically remain within the same state and region. It is also assumed that they influence the dialect of other chapters within the same region.
Figure 1-A, the map with green areas, identifies areas where YITBOS is pronounced with the "o" sounding as it does in "row." Figure 1-B identifies areas where YITBOS is pronounced with the "o" sounding as it does in "boss" or "toss." The latter is prominent in the Southeast and Michigan, with occasional use throughout the midwest. To get a better idea of how they compare, I combined the two maps into one.
Figure 1-C offers a few takeaways. First, the strong "o" sound is by far the dominant pronunciation of YITBOS. Another interesting tidbit, and one which relates to the history of the fraternity, are the patches of green (strong "o" sound) in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. These are areas where one would assume YITBOS would be pronounced with a soft "o." Why are some chapters different?
The answer probably relates to expansion. Fraternities used to grow by absorbing local or regional fraternity chapters. They would often be taught the traditions and rituals of the fraternity by students or alumni volunteers for the same area. That explains how these little differences in pronunciation become regional. Today, many fraternities hire professional recruiters to establish or re-establish chapters of the fraternity. Those chapters in the Southeast who pronounce YITBOS with a strong "o" sound were all recruited by national recruiters who taught them the "official" way to use the term.
The nickname of the Fraternity is focused on external audiences. It is meant to serve as a means of recognition to the outside world, and so it should make sense that the Fraternity has put more effort into ensuring that there is a common nickname. In my fraternity's case, the official nickname is "Delta Sig." For this section 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 as a primary or secondary option by almost every participant.
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. "DSP" is preferred at many western chapters and is a secondary nickname throughout most of the country. "D-Sig" is a natural shortening of Delta Sig, and so it is understandably popular.
Delt Sig is the preferred term throughout much of Michigan. It has a diminished presence in the areas surrounding the Great Lakes. I say "diminished" because I learned while on the fraternity staff that alumni from that still use the term "Delt Sig." That said, many of the chapters in the area were re-established using the professional recruiter growth model. Most respondents to the survey were students. It's likely that Delt Sig still has a presence in Chicago, for example, because students occasionally hear alumni use the term.
Rounding out the nicknames are "Delta," which is probably 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. Finally, "Dig" is a popular nickname for one chapter in Florida.
Again, the variations here can be connected to the fraternity's history. Delta Sigma Pi was founded in Ohio. Chapters of my fraternity in the areas around Ohio may have chosen alternative nicknames so as not to be confused with Delta Sigma Pi. Delt Sig, D-Sig, DSP, and Sigma are all popular in those areas. More than 30% of the active chapters of my fraternity (as of 2021) were established in the years since 2009. They were all taught to say "Delta Sig," but many still pick up alternative nicknames from alumni or other chapters in their area.
I would be interesting to conduct this survey with a larger audience. Taking answers from more alumni, more members from the Northeast, and the members of chapters established between 2017 and 2021 may shed new light on the strength of some terms. We may notice some fall out of favor and others grow in strength.
One idea is that greater use of social media and higher attendance at national programs (due to an increase in the latter) may result in a greater blending of terms. This is likely more common with nicknames than with something like "YITBOS." Pronunciation of the term seems to be a point of pride for many members, whereas nicknames are more trivial points of interest.
To all my brothers - YITBOS. :)