The Wicked Good Guide to Boston English


Compiled by Adam Gaffin

Everybody knows about pahking cahs in Hahvuhd Yahd, but there's a lot more to Boston English than that, despite what Hollywood would have you believe. We have our own way of pronouncing other words, our own vocabulary, even a unique grammatical construct. Journey outside the usual tourist haunts, and you just might need a guide to understand the locals...

Pronunciation

In Boston English, "ah" (the one without an R after it) often becomes something closer to "aw", so that, for example, "tonic" comes out more like "tawnic" (former Mayor Kevin White would often express outrage by exclaiming "Mawtha a'Gawd!"). And it's not just after the A's that the R's go away. They disappear after other vowels as well, particularly "ee" sounds, so that one could properly argue that "Reveah is wicked wee-id" (translation: "Revere is unusual"). But don't worry about poor lost New England R's. In typical Yankee fashion, we re-use 'em -- by sticking them on the ends of certain other words ending with "uh" sounds: "Ah final ahs just disappeah, but wheah they go we've no idear."

Well, it's a bit more complex than that. As seasoned Boston English speakah Alan Miles has gently tried to pound into a poor Nooyawka's thick head, that missing R only reappears when the word is followed by another word that starts with a vowel, for example: "I have no idear if the movie begins at nine or ten," but, "Does the movie begin at 9 or 10? I have no idea." Hey, just like French!

Also, Bostonians, like Nooyawkas, often leave out consonants in their rush to get words out, in particular, d's and t's at the end of words. So "so don't I" is more properly pronounced "So doan I," real-estate brokers babble on about houses with "plenny a chahm" and we get such phrases as onna-conna.

Place names

The quickest way to convince a native that you're just a tourist is to refer to "the Public Gardens" (even if you pronounce it "Public Gahdens") or "the Boston Commons." Both are singular (ie., "Public Garden" and "Boston Common"). Other tips: Tremont is pronounced "Treh-mont," it's COPley, not COPEly, Square (or Squayuh), and the last (or first) stop on the Blue Line is Bowd'n. The pronunciation of many other Massachusetts locations bears little resemblance to their spelling; to avoid the feeling that the natives are snickering at you behind your back, take The Massachusetts Quiz. And never, never call Boston "Beantown;" it grates on the local ears sort of like "Frisco" does on the ears of San Francisco residents.

Neighborhood variations

There is actually more than one Boston English. Some people grew up referring to long sandwiches as "spuckies;" other people, equally long of Boston tooth, say there is no such word. Ditto for "cleanser" and "Hoodsie." Native Cambridge and Somerville residents often complain about "Barnies," but you'll never hear anybody in Allston-Brighton, just across the river, use the word. And are they "three deckers" or "triple deckers?"

Meanwhile, in certain blue-collar communities on the North Shore, speakers sometimes replace Rs with, of all things, Vs, reports John Lawler, who provides an example: "Tevesah doesn't have any bvains, she's from Veveah."

But regardless of neighborhood variation, Boston English has spread around the world. Isobelw@aol.com reports:

There I was, in the middle of the jungle in Guatemala, on the top of the tallest temple in Tikal. It was a beautiful sunset. Suddenly, from the other side of the temple, I heard "Renee, Renee, come around to the noahth side. That's wheah all the monkeys ah!" Sure enough, after we climbed down the temple I asked where they were from: Buhlington, of coahse."

Vocabulary

There are two kinds of words listed here: Words that really are unique to the Boston area, and words that, while not unique, have such an unusual pronunciation that non-natives respond to them either by bursting out in laughter or shaking their heads and going "what?!?" So "ayuhpawt" is out, but "potty platta" is in. The jury is still out on "kahkeez." But it has returned a verdict on "Jeet," which is the question you ask somebody when you think they might be hungry. Yes, Norm Crosby used to use it in his Boston comedy act, but you can hear it all over the country - Jeff Foxworthy even uses it as part of his "how to tell you're a redneck" shtik.

Ahnt

Your uncle's wife.

Across the river

What lies on the other side of the Charles. Often tinged with a derogatory connotation: "He never amounted to much; he's a lawyer across the river."

American chop suey

Has nothing to do with Chinese food (then again, only in Boston do Chinese restaurants serve French rolls): Macaroni with hamburg, a little tomato sauce and a bit of onion and green pepper.

Av

An avenue with a long name, for example, Massachusetts Avenue becomes Mass-av; Commonwealth Avenue, Comm-av. For many years, the Boston Globe even used "av." (yes, in lower case) rather than "Ave."

The B's

The local NHL team.

Bang

Make a turn: "He went to bang a left and take a uey but lost control."
Keith McDuffee

Bankin

A small hillside or river bank: "The best place to see a game at Fallon Field is on the bankin."

Bahnie

A Hahvuhd student, at least to Cambridge and Somerville residents. Derived from Barnyard, which is what the townies call Havuhd Yahd. However, Eric Vroom recalls: "I can remember about ten years ago people in Somerville had bumper stickers and hats reading "NO BARNIES IN SOMERVILLE!!" And it just didn't mean Harvard students, it was any geek from Cambridge." Meanwhile, R.D. McVout shows how to use the word as an adjective, in a debate in the ne.food newsgroup about trendy restaurants in Somerville: "Why don't all of you terminally hip folks go and discover some other environment to befoul and bemoan. As a resident of Somerville, I'd be beside myself with glee if all of you Barney-assed pseudo-cognoscenti would climb into your Explorers and go back across the river where you obviously long to be."

Barrel

What you deposit trash in.

B'daydas

You can serve them mashed, or whipped, or boiled.

Bobos

Boat shoes, i.e., Keds.

Book

To make tracks: "The cops came and we booked outta there!!" Sometimes, "book it."
Elizabeth Kelley

Boxball

Game similar to punchball, except the ball had to first bounce in the "infield." Played with "pinkies" or "pimple balls" - soft, small, white balls.
Reuven Brauner

Brahmin

A member of the WASP overclass that once ruled the state. Typically found on Beacon Hill. Cleveland Amory's The Proper Bostonians remains the definitive study of this group.

Breakdown Lane

Highway shoulder. Also, an oxymoron - the last place you want to break down in greater Boston is in the breakdown lane, especially during rush hour, when it becomes the high-speed lane (in some places, even legally). The state has built a series of emergency turn-outs along Rte. 128 so you can pull out of the breakdown lane if, in fact, your car breaks down.

Bubbla

That's a water fountain to you, bub.

Bugs

Druggies, at least in Weymouth.
Kathie Young

Bullsh--

Adjective meaning "very upset," as in: "So, I was running to catch the T, and the driver closed the door on me and drove away. I was so mad - I was bullsh--."
Laura Mitrovich

Bundles

Bags full of groceries.

The 'Bury

Roxbury.

Cabbage Night

The night before Halloween and a time for throwing cabbages, eggs and the like, at least in the western suburbs.

Cah

Green Line train: "Take the next cah to Nawth Station; get off at Haymahket."

Candlepins

Boston bowling; involves tiny little pins and tiny little balls (the pins are so hard to hit, you get three tries a frame). R.I.P "Candlepin Bowling" on Saturday mornings.

Can't get

Can get. Another example of the negative positive: "Let's go see if we can't get yoah cah fixed."
Kathie Young

The Cape

Massachusetts has two capes - Ann and Cod - but only the latter is The Cape.

Carriage

What you use to wheel your groceries around at the Stah Mahket.

Cella

Basement.

Chowdahead

Stupid person. The phrase has spread westa Wihsta, but it's definitely of local origins. Casserine Toussaint reports: "It comes from back when people would make a massive bucket of chowder and lay a clean rope in it so that when they put it into the unheated back room it would freeze solid and could be hung up. They'd slide off the bucket by putting a hot towel on it and voila! Anyone wanting a bowl of chowder went in and chipped off a piece to be warmed up on the stove. After a while the frozen block of chowder took on a round shape, like a head."

Cleansa

Where you bring your clothes to be Mahtinized. You'll never actually hear anybody say the word, but there are still any number of dry cleaners named "Such and such Cleansers" in the Boston area (Here's proof!).

Coffee regula

Coffee with some cream and two sugahs.

The Combat Zone

The city's "adult entertainment district," located between Downtown Crossing and Chinatown, more or less. Once notorious, now mostly gone.
Chris Gassler

Common

The green in the center of town. So-called because it was land held in common for residents; however, one rarely sees cows grazing on the Boston Common anymore.

Cuber

Island south of Florida; capital is Havanner.

Dot Av

Dorchester Avenue.

Down

Where somebody is, for example: "They're down the Cape today." Sometimes prounounced "downna," as in "Wanna go downna Boston with me?"

Down Cape

Heading north on the Cape.

Down Cella

The part of the house under the first floor: "Go down cella and get me some b'daydas."

Dunkie's

The donut shop on the corner.
Eric Vroom

Dungahs/Dungies

Bluejeans. It's "dungahs" in Hyde Park; "dungies" in South Boston.

Dressa draw

Piece of bedroom furniture used for storing clothes.

Eastie

East Boston.

Egg rolls

Large, fluffy rolls, a.k.a. kaiser rolls.
Reuven Brauner

Elastic

Rubber band.

Fence viewer

Appointed official in suburban towns whose job is to mediate disputes between neighbors about fences.

Foddy

The numbah aftah thirdy-nine.

Four H-er

Someone who went to Harvard as an undergrad and then went to Harvard Medical School. See also Triple Eagle.
Casserine Toussaint

Frappe

A milkshake or malted elsewhere, it's basically ice cream, milk and chocolate syrup blended together. The 'e' is silent.

Frickin'

The F-word as an adjective in polite company. "Often paired with 'wicked,' creating the sublime poetry of 'That kid's wicked frickin' queeaahh,' or 'The Ozzy cawncert wuz frickin' wicked!!!'"
Daniel Boudreau

Fried

Bihzah. "The only time my car ever breaks down is when it's right in front of my house - Isn't that fried?!?!?"
Dan Lebowitz

Fudgicle

A Boston Fudgsicle.
netexpert@aol.com

Gahkablahka

Traffic tie-up caused by people looking at an accident on the other side of the road (or sometimes at excessively enthusiastic human billboards). Only in Boston could you get "gawker" and "blocker" to rhyme. Coined by long-time WEEI traffic reporter Kevin O'Keefe, who also came up with "stall 'n' crawl," "cram 'n' jam" and "snail trail."

Gahbidge

In the good ol' days, residents of many Boston suburbs divided their waste into two piles: rubbish (or trash) and gahbidge. The former was the "dry" stuff and would be taken to the town dump. The latter was "wet" (coffee grinds, waste vegetables, and other food remains) and would be picked up by a local pig farmer to feed to his animals.

Get on the state

Land a job with the MBTA, MWRA or some other state agency.

Ghouls

A game of tag, with safety zones (usually a tree or lampost) which served as the "ghoul."
John Lawler

Ghoulstickah

Taunt for players who stick too close to the ghoul in a game of ghouls.
John Lawler

Gravy

Tomato sauce. Primarily heard in the over-40 set in East Boston.
KJMac

Grinda

A sub or spuckie.

Half moon

Pastry known as "Black and Whites" elsewhere.
Reuven Brauner

Here you go!

When a waiter or waitress states the obvious - what they say when they put food in front of you.
Laura McAvoy

Hermits

Molasses cookies.
Jane Morris

Hoodsie

1. A small cup of ice cream, the kind that comes with a flat wooden spoon (from H.P. Hood, the dairy that sold them). KC Black reports: Part of their charm was on finishing them you'd suck and then fold the wooden spoon risking splintahs from the folded wood."
2. Certain teen-aged girls, who, like the ice cream, are "short and sweet and good to eat."

Hoper

Irish resident who hoped to be accepted into Brahmin society.

Hub

What Boston is: The Hub of the Universe. First coined by writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, who actually referred to the State House as the hub of the solar system; today, a plaque in the sidewalk in front of Filene's downtown commemorates the exact center of the universe. Actually, pretty much the only people who use the word anymore are headline writers looking for a short synonym for "Boston,'' as in the aprocryphal Globe headline:

2 Hub men die in blast;
New York also destroyed

Human billboards

People who stand at rotaries or on overpasses with campaign signs, sometimes causing gahkablahkas. The candidate's the one who doesn't have a sign in his hand.

Inbound

A direction on the T: Towards Park Street/Downtown Crossing. The antonym of Outbound.

Irish Riviera

The South Shore, extending from Nantasket Beach as far south as Sandwich on the uppa Cape, with its cultural center in Scituate.
J.D. McVout

Jimmies

Those little chocolate thingees you ask the guy at the ice-cream store to put on top of your cone.

J.P.

Jamaica Plain, a.k.a. the Poor Man's Cambridge.

Lace-curtain

Adjective for a three-decker with delusions of grandeur.
KC Black

Kegga

A beeah bash.

Killa

Wicked cool or funny: "Did you see his new TA? It's killer!" or "I rented that movie 'Dumb and Dumber' - what a killer!"
Elizabeth Kelley

Light dawns ova Mahblehead

The point in a conversation at which a particularly dense person finally comprehends something: "I asked Debbie and Rick if I could come along, too, and they were all, like 'We kinda got plans,' and stuff. Then I was all, 'Light dawns over Marblehead! Hel-LO!' They wanna be alone together!"
Laura Mitchell

Live 'n' kickin'

The only kind of lobstahs you'll find at Boston deli countahs.

Mecca

Massachusetts General Hospital.
KC Black

Mehfuh

A city next to Sommaville. People on the north side of the city pronounce it "Medfid."

Milkshake

Milk with some flavored syrup, but NO ice cream. See, also: Frappe.

Mint

Excellent.

Morgie's

Officially, Morgan Memorial, but can be used to refer to Goodwill, the Salvation Army or any other charity that picks things up or runs a thrift store.

Mummy

What you call your female parent if you grew up on Beacon Hill.

Na-ah

No way!
Al Donovan

Naw

Opposite of "yuh" or "yah."

Nizza

Something that is very cool: "I just bought a nizza looking sports car for only $18,000."
John Scaro

No SUH!

"Really?!?" or "What did you say?!?" Often answered with "Ya huh!"

OFD

Originally From Dorchester. Can be used as both adjective and noun: "The South Shore's full of OFDs."

Onna-conna

On account of: "I can't go out tonight onna-conna my mom is pissed at me."
Marty St. George

Open Air

Drive-in movie: We used to go to the Open Air on the Lynnway."
D. Bucks

The Otha Side

The rest of Boston to an Eastie resident (because the rest of the city is on "the otha side" of the tunnel).

Outbound

A direction on the T: Away from Park Street/Downtown Crossing. The antonym of Inbound.

Ovah heah, ovah theah

1. Wheahevah. "Eddie, wheah da frig were ya tonight? Ahh, you know, ovah heah, ovah theah."
2. Theah. "I went ovah heah, ovah theah"
Eli Slater

Packie

Wheah you buy beah.

Packie run

What you make when you go downna Mahty's or some otha packie.

Pahluh

Living room.
Jason Lachapelle

Da Pan

Where the Mattapan High Speed Line goes.

Penuche

The fudge equivalent of mystery meat.
Jane Morris

Perambulate the bounds

Ancient tradition in which selectmen of neighboring towns meet once every five years to walk their town boundaries to ensure nobody has moved the boundary stones. Usually done early on a Saturday morning with a couple of bottles of liquor for company.

Piazza

Front porch.

The Pike

The Massachusetts Turnpike. Also, the world's longest parking lot, at least out by Sturbridge on the day before Thanksgiving.

Plenny a chahm

What all houses for sale have, at least according to the brokers. Really old houses also tend to have "characta," especially if the roof and floors need to be replaced.

Potty platta

You go downna Stah deli counta to order one of these when you're having a potty. Yes, yes, it's really "pahty platta," but darnit, if you're not from around here, the first time you ever hear somebody say it, it sounds like "potty platta."

PSDS

What you get when you want to wear earrings.
Reuven Brauner submits the following similar examples: We saw BSNDS at the zoo in Franklin Park. We bought it at CS and Roebuck's. Mother always said, "Don't forget to wash behind your ES." The Boos and GS got to Mantle. PS are a juicy fruit. Crying causes TS. This car VS to the left.

P-town

The town at the end of the Cape.

Pushcahd

Cards that political workers try to push into your hand as you go into vote.

Rat

Young resident of certain neighborhoods, for example: "Rozzie rat" and "Dot rat" (the former being a denizen of Roslindale, the latter of Dorchester). The Back Bay and Beacon Hill do not have rats, at least not of the human variety.

The Rattler

What novelist George V. Higgins called the T.
William Carlson

Rawregg

An uncooked egg.
Linda Petrous

Rawrout

Meteorological condition characterized by low temperatures and a biting wind: "Boy, it's wicked rawrout theah!"
Linda Petrous

Reefah

Refrigerator.

Rozzie

What the natives call Roslindale, Boston's premier neighborhood. Not to be confused with Southie, Eastie or Westie.

Roll

A bun stuffed with some sort of seafood salad, for example, a "lobsta roll." Often served on Massachusetts frankfurt buns, which look like they've been turned inside out (i.e., the outside of the bun is as white as the inside).

Rotary

A traffic circle. One of Massachusetts' two main contributions to the art of traffic regulation (the other being the red-and-yellow pedestrian-crossing light).

Roxbury Puddingstone

Native, brownish stone that was carved into large blocks and used to build large public buildings in the 19th century (frequently under the direction of architect H.H. Richardson). Examples include Trinity and Old South churches in Copley Square, one of the Chestnut Hill Reservoir pump houses and the Framingham train station. An outcropping of the stone has been preserved on West Street in Hyde Park.

Saddadee

The day after Friday.

Scoop

In Hyde Park, to kiss. In other neighborhoods, to engage in rather more intimate behavior: "Guess who I scooped on last night?!?"

Scrod

A small, ambiguous piece of fish that never knows if it's cod or haddock. Some people claim that "scrod" is a young cod, while "schrod" is a young haddock, but, in fact, there's no difference - it's basically whatever's cheaper at the fish pier that day.

The show

The movies.

Sked

Teen-age druggie; may be limited to Saugus, Lynn and Wakefield.

So don't I

An example of the Massachusetts negative positive. Used like this: "I just love the food at Kelly's." "Oh, so don't I!"

Soft

Crazy, bold, daring: "You're soft for questioning the professah."

Southie

South Boston.

Spa

A luncheonette or ma-and-pop convenience store (e.g., the Palace Spa in Brighton). Store 24s are never spas.

Spider

A frying pan. Now largely obsolete; refers to old-style pans that had legs to keep them off the coals.
Connie Nowlan

Spuckie

Sometimes, spukie. What some Bostonians still call a sub or hero (there's even a sub shop in Dorchester called Spukies 'n Pizza). The single most controversial word in this guide; some people refuse to believe it's real, but it must be, because the Middlesex News wrote about it in 1993. From spucadella, a type of Italian sandwich roll you can still buy at some of the bakeries in the North End and Somerville.

David Keene reports: "Spuckie" is indeed a Boston word. It is not used much anymore, the older Italians used it. Growing up in Chelsea we alway bought "spuckies" at Gallo's market. My wife bought spuckies at the Italian stores in Eastie when she was a kid. The word is not used much anymore, because there are so few of us that know what it means.

Standout

An assemblage of human billboards: "We've got a standout at the Holy Name rotary from 4:45 to 6 on Thursday."

Stylene

A grown-up hoodsie who never quite adjusted to becoming older. Usually seen during daylight hours wearing the uniform: curlers, kerchief, sunglasses, a Marlboro with a heater end, tight pants, high heels, accessorized with a screaming rugrat or two named Jenifuh, Dante, or Shawn, having that unmistakable aroma of cologne and nicotine. If employed, a hair stylist, bahtendah, or receptionist.
R.D. McVout

'Sup?

Hello, how are you?

Take a left (or right)

How Bostonians make a turn. See, also: bang
Phylis Erman

Take a Dudley

Get lost.

The T

The Boston subway system. Represents the triumph of fuzzy logic, or something, because it does not actually stand for any single word. Cambridge Seven Associates thought it up in the early 1960s when the state hired them to design graphics for the then new MBTA. Their goal was to come up with something as recognizable as a cross that also evoked the idea of transit, transportation, tunnel, etc.

Time

A party, usually of the political or retirement type: "We're throwin' a time for the Dap down at the Eagles. Count you in?"

Tonic

What other people call soda. In some Boston supermarkets, the signs will direct you to the "tonic" and "diet tonic" aisles.

Tookie

Somebody who goes out with a much younger person: "He's such a tookie! He's going out with a ten-year old!!!" See also, "Hoodsie."

Townie

Often, a resident of Charlestown. But townies also live in Reveah and Whiskey Point ("da Point") in Brookline, so it's also a state of mind, or perhaps hair. You can often tell a townie by the way he or she adds the phrase "'n shit" to the end of many sentences, as in "Oh my gawd, like yestihday, right, he was totally down Nahant polishing his TA (Trans Am) 'n shit."

Three-decker

Originating in Worcester, this quickly became a staple of Boston residential architecture: a narrow, three-story house, in which each floor is a separate apartment. Sometimes also called "triple decker." In Dorchester, though, they'll tell you that "triple decker" is a Yuppie affectation; but in Winthrop, that's what everybody calls them.

Triple Eagle

Somebody who went to B.C. High School, B.C. and B.C. Law School. In some circles, more prestigious than a Hahvuhd degree.

Two-toilet

A two-toilet three-decker is the ultimate in comfortable living.
KC Black

Uey

A U-turn - the Official Turn of Boston drivers.
Keith McDuffee

Up Cape

Heading south on the Cape.

Wanna go?

"Let's step outside to the parking lot and settle this like real men."

Westa Wihsta

Terra incognita; beyond the bounds of civilization (some Bostonians will argue that that boundary is actually Rte. 128 or, if you really want to stretch it, Rte. 495).

Wicked

A general intensifier: "He's wicked nuts!"

Wicked pissa!

Something that's way cool.

Wicked f-----' pissa!

Something that's just absolutely too cool for words.

What's doin'?

How are you?

Whoa

Expression of surprise: "He was like, my parents have fifteen kids, and I was like, whoa."
Diana ben-Aaron

Whole 'notha

A complete replacement; "I got a whole 'notha computa on my desk now."

Ya huh!

Reply to "No Suh!"
Laura McAvoy

Zoo on

To make fun of, for example: "What are you, zooin' on me?" Heard in Hyde Park.

The author of this is originally from New Yawk, so he's probably missed a word or two. Feel free to correct him on his Boston English, at adamg@world.std.com. Thanks to the dozens of people who've contributed!

Copyright 1995-1997 Adam Gaffin.


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" 'Everybody says words different,' said Ivy. 'Arkansas folks says 'em different, and Oklahomy folks says 'em different. And we seen a lady from Massachusetts, an' she said 'em different of all. Couldn't hardly make out what she was sayin'!' "

-- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939

"Boston State-House is the Hub of the Solar System. You couldn't pry that out of a Boston man if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crow-bar."

-- Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, 1858