Boston Slang

Boston Slang

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Boston is a unique town with special people, especially when we start speaking. Boston slang is as celebrated as the Kennedys. I've been busted as a "Chowderhead" just by ordering a Heineken in Florida. You could spend four years of college studying the Boston language patois, but I'll save you the trouble and money by giving you a brief working list. Some items are things we say; while others are things you probably shouldn't say. Let's get stahhhted.

1. "Yankee"

This is sort of like that "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game. Europeans think that everyone in America is a Yankee. Go down South, and everyone there uses Yankee to refer to the whole northern USA. Go to Michigan, and they use the term to describe New Yorkers. Go to New York, and they think the Yankees are a baseball team. Pressed for details, Noo Yawkers would use Yankee to describe New Englanders. New Englanders split the word Yankee between eastern Massachusetts (swamp Yankees) and people from New Hampshire/Maine/Vermont (regular Yankees).

But be careful in Boston. A slang term elsewhere, "Yankee" refers to the aforementioned and despised New York Yankees baseball team. Call someone from Boston a "Yankee," and you're in a fight. Bostonians hate the Yankees with a fever. And it's easy to catch. I moved here from France as a child, having never seen baseball. By the end of my first summer here, I too hated the Yankees.

2. "Frappe"

The French think of this as "to strike." It means something different in American slang, and then again, something completely different from that in Boston lingo. We use it as most Americans would use the term "milkshake."

This one snuck up on me. I was driving to Florida and stopped at a Dairy Queen in Georgia. I ordered a frappe. The kid at the counter looked at me, weighed my accent, and went to get his manager. The manager and I then had a lengthy, and at times, heated discussion about milkshakes vs. frappes. It was funny, because we were both talking about the same thing. The only thing funnier than a Bostonian hearing a Georgian say "frappe" is a Georgian hearing an imported-to-Boston Frenchwoman saying it.

In Boston lingo, a chocolate "milkshake" is a beverage made with milk and chocolate syrup, whipped into froth. A frappe is the same thing, just with ice cream. I have no idea how it came to be called a "frappe," but that's what happened. The rest of the USA apparently do not have milkshakes as Bostonians define them and use the term to describe a frappe.

3. "Chowder"

Chowder is a soup, thickened with flour, featuring milk and clams or corn. Everyone knows what this is, but we still fight with New York over it.

Order clam chowder in Brooklyn, and they'll bring you tomato soup with clams in it. That is actually illegal in Massachusetts, if you believe that. We prefer a milk-based soup that is served sort of off-white.

Blame the French for this one, too. The term "chowder" comes from the French word for the pot used to cook it in, "chaudiere." The English prefer cauldron, but we're going off on a tangent, now.

Play it safe. In New York, pronounce the "R" in the word. In Boston lingo, say "chowda." You'll do OK.

4. "Tonic"

This one is an American slang hornet's nest. You can't drive three hours without having to switch terms for this. We'll start with "sweetened carbonated beverage" and work around it.

Basically, what we in Boston refer to as "tonic" is a "coke" in the South, regardless of what brand you drink. It's "pop" in the Midwest. Cross the Rockies, and it's "soda pop." Texas and Louisiana use the term "cold drink." Then, go to New England.

Here, we split it between Eastern Massachusetts and the rest of the region. Someone in New Hampshire wants a "soda." Someone on Cape Cod would order a "tonic." The border for these terms is hazy enough that I generally order orange juice.

5. "Sub"

This makes the soda/tonic/pop debate look easy. You can't get from Boston to Philly without using a bunch of different slang terms for the same thing.

We'll start in New York. An oblong sandwich served in a lengthy (when compared to sandwich bread) roll is called a hero sandwich, as "only a hero could finish it." Pennsylvania folk refer to this as a hoagie. Go to Connecticut, and the same thing is a Grinder (one has to grind the teeth to eat the hard bread). It's a zeppelin in New Jersey. Go down South, and Cajuns call it a po' boy. When you get to Massachusetts, however, it becomes very confusing.

We use the term "sub," or submarine sandwich." The term came from the Charlestown navy yard, when someone had a fine idea to sell sandwiches geared to navy people. Connecticut tries to claim it (via the Groton submarine base), but they blew their bid when "grinder" became their prominent term. Another Boston slang word for the same sandwich is "Spuckie," which is an Italian immigrant term. We get a lot of tourists, so "hoagie," "grinder," and "hero" get some play here as well.

6. "Packie"

This Boston slang term bit me in the rear when I started using the Internet socially. No one uses this term, except Bostonians. You most likely use the term "liquor store" instead.

I think the term dates back to Prohibition, when they would package the hooch so you could walk around with it and not get Elliot Ness on your case. Don't go to the bank on that one, though. I just made it up. Sounds good, no?

7. "Jimmies"

To the rest of the world, that term is a possessive pronoun used to describe something owned by a guy named "Jimmy." In Boston, local language defines this as the chocolate or candy coated sprinkles used to top ice cream. The story I heard involved a birthday party for Jimmy. The host shaved some chocolate on his ice cream. All the kids at the party wanted these chocolate shavings on their ice cream, but the host said, "No. These are Jimmy's."

8. "Bubbler"

You most likely call this a drinking fountain. We use "bubbler," although the water doesn't bubble or anything. This Boston slang term managed to skip half the country and has come to be in use in Wisconsin as well. I have no idea how/why/when.

9. "Wicked"

This is the grandfather of Boston local language. In short, the term "wicked" is an adjective that means "evil" to everyone in America...except in Boston, where it is an adverb meaning "very." You'd use it here like, "I got wicked hammered last night!"

I looked this up in the dictionary, and both sides are correct. Wicked is derived from "Wicca," which is Olde English for sorcerer or witch. It means "evil." It is also listed as a slang adverb for "very." The term can be traced back to 1227 AD and was most likely in use far before that.

I should repeat that for the most part, the people who use it as an adverb are Bostonians and or English. As the English invented the English language, and as Boston (America's oldest big city) invented American English, we're correct and everyone else isn't.

10. Duxbury, Leicester, Scituate, Gloucester, and Worcester

None of these are Boston slang terms; they are local towns. But, I dare you to pronounce them. Go ahead. I'll wait.


As with many things in the Boston local language, pronunciation can be a challenge. Allow me to help.

"Scituate" sounds like saying "sit chew it" quickly. "Leicester" is pronounced "Lester." "Gloucester" is "Glossta," and "Worcester"- which I have personally heard country singer, and Tennessee resident, Charlie Daniels pronounce as one would pronounce the steak marinade, is pronounced "Wussta." (The commercial with the Gorton's Fisherman pronounces "Gloucester" improperly, I should add.) And, incidentally, my adopted American hometown of "Duxbury" is pronounced as "Ducks Berry."

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