Wicked! The flavors of Boston English

Posted by on July 03, 2010

We started our grand tour of American English in Philadelphia. Our next destination is: Boston. Karen Stern, freelance lexicographer and editor, sent us this guest blog about her local American English.

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It’s 4th of July weekend here in the US, so it seemed only natural to dip into the version of American English spoken in the Boston area, the birthplace of the American Revolution and my current home. (A quick editorial note: ‘Boston area’ here is a very loose shorthand for the region that, linguistically speaking anyway, covers eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.)

First, the accent. You can’t talk about Boston English without mentioning the accent. President Kennedy’s aristocratic version made New England’s flat a’s and dropped r’s famous. The variety spoken on the street is even more colorful, turning the local town, Revere, into Reveah, potato into b’dayduh, and the soft ‘s’ in Quincy and Fridays into a ‘z’ (Quinzy and Fridiz). Add to that the tendency to elongate a single vowel into two (my son, Sam, is ‘Se-am’ and the direction opposite of south is ‘no-ath’) and you have something that, even to other Americans, can sound like a foreign tongue. Witness a librarian I know who tried diligently to respond to a request for a book about ‘heamahed shahcks’ – a topic she gleaned was beach-related – by looking for information on seaside architecture rather than fish. (For more on pronunciation see Adam Gaffin’s site. To listen to a couple of samples from IDEA, the International Dialects of English Archive, click here and here.)

Boston vocabulary and idioms are equally juicy. Wicked is the Bostonian’s emphasizer of choice, as in: It’s wicked hot – I need a drink. To find that drink you might try the bubbler (drinking fountain) or go down the packie (the liquor store aka package store). Speaking of going down places, it’s something Bostonians do all the time; they go down the Cape (to Cape Cod) and down the hospital. They also go up places, with the same missing prepositional to. Ask a Bostonian about his dear old ahntie Mabel, and he might tell you she’s up Mt. Auburn, under a tree, at which point you’d express your condolences, Mt. Auburn being a beautiful old Cambridge cemetery.

Food vocab provides more New England flavor. For lunch you might try a grinder or spukie (both sub sandwiches) or maybe some scrod (young haddock or cod) or lobstah, and wash it down with a tonic (soda or pop in other US dialects). For dessert you could savor a Frappe (milkshake) or some ice cream covered in jimmies (candied sprinkles).

If you’re not the sharpest Bostonian in the box, you’re either a chowdahhead (wrt the famous New England clam chowder) or a Chucklehead (an oblique nod to the local Charles River?). And if you’re the last one to get a joke, someone may laugh at you with, the light dawns over Marblehead or dawn breaks over Marblehead, where Marblehead is both your thick skull and a coastal town north of Boston.

There’s much, much more, but I’ll finish with this one, the origin of which seems to stump most linguists: a native of the region might agree with your last statement with the intriguing if grammatically suspect So don’t I! As in:

A: I think people around heah talk wicked cool.
B: So don’t I!

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Comments (3)
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  • That’s good to know! My students would love that!

    Posted by AllaSobirova on 7th July, 2010
  • I loved this post, Karen! Thank you!
    That Boston meaning of ‘wicked’ was taken up in the UK too, where it has been used (and I don’t know how dated it might be now) to mean terrific, delightful, and a whole host of other positive things. But I came a cropper using it in that sense in Philadelphia a while ago.
    I described the deceased at a funeral as having a ‘wicked sense of humour’. I meant he had a wonderful gentle sense of fun. The guy officiating during the ceremony repeated it back to the congregation as: ‘And although he had a sarcastic [ meaning unkind] sense of humour, he was dearly loved.’ Everyone thought it was an odd thing to say, and it took me a while to figure out that it was all my fault! If only I’d been in Boston, eh?

    Posted by Vicki Hollett on 8th July, 2010
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