How local is the slur, "zombie" = homeless person/addict
September 13, 2016 4:49 PM   Subscribe

I moved to a new area (just outside the Bay Area, California) and encountered a new er unflattering euphemism for homeless people or addicts — zombie. I'd never heard this before. I'm wondering if it's local flavor. Have you heard this, other places?

(Story: when I was moving in the previous tenants had a "NO ZOMBIES" sign by the door, and I thought, aw cute they're geeks. A year later, I'm grossed out in retrospect.)
posted by fleacircus to Society & Culture (51 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
To be honest I've lived my whole life in the Bay Area and never heard the term zombie used like that. But I also don't hang around anti-homeless people, so there's that.
posted by picklenickle at 4:52 PM on September 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Not heard of that usage, mostly lived in the Midwest with a few years in the PNW.
posted by ghost phoneme at 4:59 PM on September 13, 2016

I was born and raised in the city and currently live on the penisula and I've never heard the term before as a slur. Not saying it doesn't exist by any means, but that's a data point as not something I'd have pegged as a SF/Bay area thing.
posted by Carillon at 5:00 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Los Angeles area here; haven't heard this one. I'm in a suburb, but about 4 blocks from a park with a sizeable homeless population.
posted by vignettist at 5:04 PM on September 13, 2016

Reno, Nevada here. Never heard the term before.
posted by Malleable at 5:05 PM on September 13, 2016

North Carolina here. I've never heard of homeless people being referred to this way.
posted by Roger Pittman at 5:08 PM on September 13, 2016

I've lived in the Bay Area (in the East Bay and North Bay) and worked in the South Bay and Silicon Valley areas for the last 13 years, and I've never heard that. I work with teenagers, so I feel like that's something I would have heard.
posted by guster4lovers at 5:08 PM on September 13, 2016

I've lived and worked in most regions of the Bay Area, and have only heard this as a euphemism once or twice from a guy who seemed to think he was very clever and original. I could see it gaining some traction among people who share his callous sense of humor, but I don't know it to be in widespread common use. I've certainly never seen signage to that effect, and unless they explained the sign to you as such, I'd still assume your predecessors were geeks being geeky and not, you know, monsters.
posted by Phobos the Space Potato at 5:19 PM on September 13, 2016 [12 favorites]

The closest thing I can think of is "skel", which I was informed was cop slang for people on the fringes of society, petty criminals, local insane homeless... a catchall for people without conventional social traction.
posted by vrakatar at 5:20 PM on September 13, 2016

Grew up in Louisiana, spent 12 years in NYC, now in Los Angeles for a few years now. I've never heard this. Though I do feel like chatter about zombies of the pop cultural sort sometimes has a bigoted angle. (I just thought it was racism or xenophobia before, not hating on the homeless.)

Who have you heard saying this? Is it something that could be specific to a certain social circle or individual household?
posted by Sara C. at 5:20 PM on September 13, 2016

What makes you think this sign wasn't a reference to comic/tv show fandom, like a "zombie assault response vehicle" sticker on a minivan?
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 5:23 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I live in the Mission and I've never heard this. But I also hang out with people who wouldn't use a term like this as a slur, so.
posted by rtha at 5:23 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seattle, here. I know I've heard it (esp. referring to street people on heroin) but I don't remember where or in what context. Certainly, no one I'm close to would say something like that.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 5:30 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seattle area as well, and same -- I know I've heard it, and only recently, but I can't recall exactly where. Definitely in reference to heroin addicts, of which there are many in my former neighborhood (and in fact are a reason why I moved out -- four years of watching people shoot up from my kitchen window was more than enough). I have a feeling it came from an acquaintance who is sort of an edge-lord but not quite. (diet edge-lord?)
posted by palomar at 5:46 PM on September 13, 2016

Lived in the East Bay for a couple of decades in an area that is more progressive towards homeless than most, so has a lot of homeless and non-homeless sharing public spaces. I have not heard this term.
posted by zippy at 5:59 PM on September 13, 2016

It is Australian slang. I believe it roughly means pothead (or maybe just pot).

I have never heard it used to mean homeless.
posted by Michele in California at 5:59 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

That's interesting, MiC. I remember you once lived close by to the place I'm talking about.
posted by fleacircus at 6:08 PM on September 13, 2016

Could be derived from south park.
posted by jpe at 6:13 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I guess it'd be this episode, Night of the Living Homeless. Charming.
posted by fleacircus at 6:16 PM on September 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm homeless here in the PNW (Bellingham WA) and I occasionally hear it but not as a concerted effort to use a slur. Just kind of idle musings and observations about certain homeless types.

Heck, a couple of years ago I had a homeless acquaintance who came up with a film script based on the premise that everyone thought all the zombies walking around were homeless people who really turned out to be dead people from a wealthy cemetery who were brought back to life due to coal train derailment nearby (that's a thing here in Bellingham).

In helping him brainstorm ideas for it I had this comic-relief character, a homeless guy not-zombie, who always seemed to have whatever piece of equipment the heroes needed stashed away over there behind that bush. The joke being that we homeless folk often stash things away outside because we don't want to have to carry everything with us all the time and this character kind of took it to, hopefully, comedic extremes.

But I guess you had to be there. Anyhoo, I'm digressing. I haven't heard "zombie" used as a specific slur but I have used the terms used as a general description both from within and outside the homeless community.
posted by bfootdav at 6:28 PM on September 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

hmmm 15+ years in Oakland and I have never heard it
posted by supermedusa at 6:32 PM on September 13, 2016

I live in DC and previously lived in Baltimore. I first started hearing it about 3-4 years ago.
posted by seesom at 6:46 PM on September 13, 2016

I know someone who used it a lot until his English improved (or until he got tired of me reprimanding him for it). He was a foreigner new to the US.
posted by cacao at 7:08 PM on September 13, 2016

I'm reading a novel set in Dublin circa 2010ish and it's used to mean that. (The Mark and the Void)
posted by sideofwry at 7:11 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Portland here . . . yes, I have heard it.
posted by ainsley at 7:22 PM on September 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

I commonly hear it used in Redding, CA to describe homeless drug addicts.
posted by scrubjay at 7:23 PM on September 13, 2016

Midwest forever (Wisconsin by way of Illinois and Iowa) and I've never heard this usage ever.
posted by augustimagination at 7:37 PM on September 13, 2016

I live in Oakland, in a very active drug purchasing area, and I've heard it. As others have said, I think the speaker thought he was being original. I don't think it's a term that's being spread socially here. I think that the person was trying to convey the demeanor of some passersby who were likely heroin addicts.
posted by slidell at 8:10 PM on September 13, 2016

Spent some years homeless, mostly here in VA, but hitched around as far north as St. Louis and as far southwest as Vegas, and never heard the term used as such anywhere.
posted by MoTLD at 8:18 PM on September 13, 2016

There was a recent epidemic of drug overdosing in Brooklyn that was referred to in much of the media as a "zombie apocalypse"
posted by maggiemaggie at 9:00 PM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

Sacramento (and Silicon Valley in 2011-12). Never heard that term.
posted by cnc at 10:17 PM on September 13, 2016

I live in Atlanta. I have heard homeless people called "zombies," but only while visiting the Bay Area and from tech bros who have spent significant time there. As others have said, they all seem to think they're being clever and original.

It's not quite the same usage, but I've been told (by black friends who were shocked by white nerds talking about killing zombies in a video game/Max Brooks way) that "zombie" is sometimes used as a slur that's meant to be a coded term for black people generally. I don't know if you've ever heard of servers referring to black customers as "Canadians" so they can make racist complaints about them without others around them knowing, but "zombie" is apparently used in much the same way. Definition #10 on Urban Dictionary (warning: racist language) backs that up.
posted by lemonadeheretic at 11:13 PM on September 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

I've heard it in Portland - from alt-right tech bros. I am with palomar in looking for a diminutive for edge-lord. Edge-baronet?
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 12:26 AM on September 14, 2016

I've never heard of it as Australian slang, btw. I don't know how the men at work link was supposed to support that- maybe a mistake? (I am Australian.)
posted by jojobobo at 2:04 AM on September 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

One metaphor in a Men At Work song doesn't make something "Australian slang". Never heard it, am Australian.
posted by pompomtom at 3:27 AM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

A (singular) datapoint from Canada. I live in Toronto, and have definitely heard it used as such.
posted by whowearsthepants at 3:51 AM on September 14, 2016

The numerous explanations for "head full of zombie" from Down Under on explain it as a reference to being high on grass, nothing to do with addicts or homelessness.

(The South Park episode is...South Park-y, but better-intentioned than many things dealing with the homeless. It has its good satirical moments. "The town council has also taken notice of the problem, and come up with ridiculous, ineffective solutions, such as turning the homeless into tires for their cars or giving them designer sleeping bags and makeovers "so they would at least be pleasant to look at."" "They are distrustful of the boys and threaten to shoot them, since, being minors, they are not homeowners and are therefore "homeless."")
posted by kmennie at 5:02 AM on September 14, 2016

I am with palomar in looking for a diminutive for edge-lord.


I am getting a picture that it's not that local. The word itself has some natural affinities, but I think maybe the application to homeless people isn't so ready, and probably owes a lot to South Park in most places.
posted by fleacircus at 6:12 AM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Salt Lake City here, yep that term is in use.
posted by trbrts at 6:21 AM on September 14, 2016

I've heard it many times in Baltimore. I haven't heard it (or haven't understood it anyway) to refer to homelessness, but mostly to people who've nodded off in unnatural postures in public. Some of those people are homeless, of course, but the zombie-like thing is not their shabbiness or their demeanor but their slumped bodies. I don't think the people I've heard it used by thought of themselves as original or clever. It's obviously demeaning and not something most polite people would say.
posted by vathek at 6:23 AM on September 14, 2016

Denver here, never heard the term used that way.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:50 AM on September 14, 2016

Like lemonadeheretic, I live in the south and I've heard it more as a euphemism for black people. If you ever see "Zombie Hunter" stickers on cars, those can be dog whistles to their fellow racists. Like they're prepping for the zombie apocalypse (race war). You can even buy zombie bullets.
posted by LoveHam at 8:33 AM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

In Phila, I have heard zombie used in the same way as (heroin) junkie, but not towards other homeless types.
posted by WeekendJen at 9:09 AM on September 14, 2016

Also in Philly, and agree with WeekendJen.
posted by sepviva at 11:44 AM on September 14, 2016

Two data points: Bay Area native, lived in SF and Oakland for the past five years - I've never heard it. My husband is a transplant to the Bay Area (living here ~ five years) from Europe, with a stopover on the East Coast, and says it sounds vaguely familiar. He also watches a lot of South Park.
posted by Jaclyn at 12:22 PM on September 14, 2016

Have heard it in reference to people who are heavy meth users. I'm in Portland.
posted by medeine at 12:58 PM on September 14, 2016

I am with palomar in looking for a diminutive for edge-lord. Edge-baronet?

posted by zippy at 4:08 PM on September 14, 2016

It's also a Heinlein slur for time-travellers.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:47 PM on September 14, 2016

SF for almost two decades, haven't heard it. (Yet?)

In NYC before that, I was familiar with the use of 'skel' that vrakatar mentions - cop slang for the emaciated, hollow-faced, shambling, incoherent, 'skeletal' street addict.

I can see a pack of drunken bro-grammers on the street in SF waiting for their Uber, encountering their first real-life skel, and the one from the most privileged suburb turning to the rest and saying semi-seriously, because he's only seen a face like that on the Walking Dead, "holy shit, was that a zombie!?".

Everyone laughs and it catches on in the group: "Oh, watch out leaving the Twitter offices downtown if you work late - Lower Market Street is full of 'zombies' after dark."
posted by bartleby at 8:57 PM on September 14, 2016

LA here. I have not heard it said but I've seen it in the comments section on LAist and Curbed LA, written by people I assume live here.
posted by rednikki at 9:21 PM on September 14, 2016

I heard it in the bay area occasionally for/among addicts, some of whom were homeless (see also vampire), and also heard it applied to white collar office workers (primarily post-Shaun of the Dead).

The former is pretty tasteless, but doesn't seem like much of a leap; those sixties-seventies "slow zombies" seem at least partially based on people in later-stage opiate or alcohol dependency. I suspect it goes back even farther than that; zombies in earlier (racist) film iterations were usually people that had been drugged.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:31 AM on September 15, 2016

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