Wicked Good Guide to Boston English

Compiled by Adam Gaffin

" '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

Everybody knows about pahking cahs in Hahvihd 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...

Click on any of the following to learn more about the unique brand of English spoken in the Hub of the Universe.

Pronunciation
It'll take a lot moah than dropping your ahs to talk like a native.

Vocabulary
One could compose entire sentences that would make no sense to the uninitiated (the guide starts with A-B; follow the links up at the top for more words).

Place names
The pronunciation of local town names often bears little resemblance to their spelling.

Thanks to the dozens of people who've contributed, and everybody who's sent me nice notes. You are all wicked awesome!

Comments

A few words to add...

(These are some words I've picked up working with toddlers and their families in Boston. I'm including expressions I've heard from at least three families who I don't believe know each other.)

Fresh: Used by Bostonians, particularly white folks in Southie and Dorchester, to mean any undesired behavior on the part of a child. (As opposed to only designating sassy or smart-ass behavior as it does in most other places.) "You better stop being fresh, young man!" Sometimes "freshy" is used with particularly young tots: "You stop being freshy and hold Mommy's hand when I ask you to."

Tubby: Bathing, when talking to a young child, or about a young child. "Hi, we're going to be a little bit late, because Peter just finished taking a tubby." "Peter, it's time for you to come in here for your tubby."

Piggies: Toes. While conducting developmental assessments on toddlers, I've literally had dozens of parents who, when we ask the toddler if they can point to various body parts, explain that "we always call them piggies, so you gotta ask where your PIGGIES are!"

so true

I grew up in Roslindale and I recently had a baby. I'm guilty of all of the above. So funny, I never would have guessed that those words link me to my Boston heritage!
Thanks

Forgotten Word

Hun - Someone who takes too big a sip of a drink from a common container or someone who holds onto an object (ball, primitive video game, etc.) for too long. Noun Example - "Don't be a hun with the watah." or as a verb; "Guy, Stop hunning the ball, pass it."

Hadn't heard it for about 20 years until a few weeks ago.

"hun"

No, the etymology of "hun" is pretty clear, here. It comes from the regional practice during the World Wars (particularly the first) of referring to the Germans as "huns," as in "Atilla the."

hun

I was born and raised in East Boston. When I was a kid in the late 60's, early 70's, we always used the word "hun" for somebody who didn't pass the ball. maybe kids stopped using it after that. I lived on Wordsworth street.

"piggies & tubby"

wouldn't consider those "boston" sayings -
piggies comes from the children's rhyme "this little piggy went to the market, this little piggy stayed home..." and you squeeze each toe until you get to the smallest one and say..."and this little piggy cried wee wee wee all the way home.." a commercial just did a spoof on this rhyme.

tubby - baby talk for tub. like saying sleepy time or something like that.

Hmm...

I don't know, this must be a northeastern thing cause I was born and raised in Queens, New York, and we say all of that.

Boston vocabulary

I grew up in Dedham during the late 40s and 50s. I now live in the midwest (Illinois and Iowa) and have done so for the last 45 years. A couple of nights ago I was out with some friends and I offered to treat the group to some ice cream. As I did so a phrase my father used under similar circumstances popped into my head, "I'll shout" meaning he would buy. None of my friends, all native Iowans, had ever heard the word shout used in that way. It occurred to me that this usage may have been unique to the Boston area. He was raised in East Boston.

Tom Gartland
West Branch, Iowa

"shout"

I'm from the UK. Everyone here uses the phrase "This is my shout" for getting in a round of drinks, coffees or whatever.

Shout

Shout is also an older Australian term often applied to pub scenarios - i.e. meaning buying a round of drinks.

"My shout", or "Its your shout mate".

The rule is, you can't be in a shout unless you intend to make one.

Shout

My Irish Grandmother used it (in W. Roxbury). Never heard it again until I met an Australian. To Shout..means to treat. It must be from the British Isles.

your shout?

This is pretty common in New Zealand English, too. I'd never heard it before coming to NZ in the 90's, even in the six years I lived in Cambridge/Somerville.

Two syllables for squirrel.

Two syllables for squirrel. It's pronounced either 'skwur-il' or 'skwer'ryl' depending on location, I think, but two syllables. I grew up in the Dorchester area from mid 1950s to 1980. I moved near the border of Kentucky in 1980, and there THEY DO pronounce "squirrel" with one syllable and an accent, 'skwirl' or 'skwerl'.

Foreign Language

I remember hearing my first completely unrecognizable example of Bostonese. During a break in a business meeting we were told the bathrooms were to the right and the "Waddahbubblah" was to the left. Not a clue. Later it was explained to me that the word was "water bubbler" or drinking fountain to the other 99.99% of Americans. Later that same day I was told to "bang a youey at the packy" which deciphers to "make a U turn at the liquor store" when driving around Boston. It didn't get any better as I was told to make sure "Mock knows about the potty!" and was too confused to invite "Mark to the party".

Waddahbubblah

I'm originally from the Raynham Bridgewater area and born in Taunton. I moved to the south about 15 years ago and I'll never forget my frustration when I was asking for a drink of waddah from the bubblah and no one knew what I was talking about, all with that blank look on their faces as most southerners have.

Oh yea, and how about having to pump your own gas. Good god, I though I would die when every gas station I pulled up to was self service. I'VE NEVER HAD TO PUMP MY OWN GAS until I moved down south. I felt like such an idiot!

Mark and Party

Common Mistake for non-Bostonians. Mark is not "Mock" but rather
"Mahk". Party is not "potty" it's "pahtee". You are letting the New York accent infiltrate Bostonian!

bubbler

The term is used in Wisconsin too. It was in use prior to the 1930's. It heard it when I was growing up in the 1940's and still hear it today. I water fountain is what is in the center of a park and people throw coins into it. You drink from a bubbler.

Zoof

OK so I'm still looking for someone who remembers these words which we used to use in Malden around 1964-65:

Zoof- as in you're a stupid zoof

Click- a kid who dressed in the collegiate style even in grade school

Fusco- Elvis style

Pretty strange and I didn't dream 'em up

I grew up in Dorchester at

I grew up in Dorchester at the same time as you, but the only word in your list that is familiar to me is 'click.' It was used, for us kids, as a fashion style mostly. For instance for girls, white Wrangler jeans and plaid shirts were "click". The boys would wear their hair cut like Justin Beiber. The other style was the 'rats' (hood rats, tough guys) where the girls teased their hair, wore black leather, and the boys hair was greasy and slicked back, and had a 'rat tail' ala "The Fonz" I think 'click' was short and mispronounced, of course, for "college" maybe?

Rat vs. Click

Ummm, I remember going to the Oriental on Friday nights and there were the younger "Rats" and "Collegiates." The Collegiates wore those awful white sweaters with a blue band and a red band around the "v" neck. And white jeans. Some kids were called preppies. Clicks were the style groups like "What click are you?"
My Dorchester Rats wore the thigh length black leather coats. They didn't have greasy hair unless it got greasy working on cars. These were the older guys who many ended up in Nam. And everybody smoked.

Help! People say I speak incorrectly....lol

I have lived in AZ for the last 12 years. I say things like:
-"So don't I"... "So Aren't you"
-I pronounce Didn't...like "Did-dnt"
-I sometimes find myself saying Wada. (Is this an accent or speech problem?)
-Use bullshit, Jacked up (messed up), JImmies,

I grew up in South MA where the accent is even stronger, but moved to Milford and Watertown in my teens. I don't feel like I have an accent anymore, but my husband will constantly correct my language as if I have a speech problem. I would like to be able to explain that this is normal Mass talk!

When I moved south and

When I moved south and enrolled my sons in school (4th grade) they put one in speech because he did not pronounce his "r"s . I said you have to be kidding me, we do not have "r"s in our house.

This made me laugh out loud,

This made me laugh out loud, literally. I'm sorry for your kid, but I get it.

My Boston accent got the best of me a few years ago ... I was in one room and my kids were watching TV in the next room when I hear "Next up, Porn Stars". My kids were like 9 and 11 at the time. I went flying into the room demanding to know what heck they were watching and was APPALLED when they told me to stay with them because I would really like the show. Well ... turns out the show was PAWN Stars ... of course to a life-long Bostonian like me "porn" and "pawn" sound the same!!!

Where I grew up, Dorchester,

Where I grew up, Dorchester, porn and corn were pronounced differently. At least where I lived, grew up. lol though. Would you really say 'pawno' for 'porno'? lmao Although, I don't think I ever heard the word "pawn" until I moved to the mid-west. lol, so I may have thought the same thing.

Interestingly, there an very

Interestingly, there an very large lexical overlap between USMC dialecticalisms and Bostonian English. This probably has in large part to do with the fact that for quite some time, South Boston had the highest per-capita recruitment rate for the Marines of anywhere in the country.

Telling Time

I remember one time I was coming out of the old Harvard Square kiosk. As I was going up the steps, a citizen, an outlander, asked me for the time. I looked at my watch and told him, "Huppass foah." (4:30) He looked at me as if I'd started babbling in Swahili.
Half past, quarter til/to/of and quarter past/after don't seem to be used much in the USA.

I love this site. I grew up

I love this site. I grew up in St. Louis, my Faathe was from Baastin. Last year I re-connected with a girlfriend I knew since 6th grade. I said something about my dad being from Boston. She replied, All these years I thought your dad was from a different country. LOL. My sister and I LOVE the accent he introduced us to. To all you Bostonians, don't change a thing!

Product of a Bostonian Father

I think I was the only child raised in Missouri that had a Boston accent. My speech teachers were puzzled along with my English teachers.My father tot me well.
1.) we have a tahlit( toilet)

2) we drive a hautomoblile

3) we shop at a Stah

4.)ooooo and my favorite "Go ask your Mummer"

5.) on a Christmas tree you have to put on the oudamints
6.) in the moning you eat bref fast lol

Thanks Dad I love you.

I've lived in Dedham foah

I've lived in Dedham foah ovah foah-ty yea-ahs. When I get together with my family, who now live in New Hampshire, they can't undastand me haf the time -- my accent is wicked bad.

What happened to the word boggus.
I remember using that a lot growin up.

A Bomma Jacket!

My friend from Brookline, married a man from Oakland, CA. In the 80's she asked for a birthday present:

"A wawhn leatha bomma jacket."

He told her he had no idea what she was saying.

A worn leather bomber jacket! Of course.

Boston Accent

Hot having been born or raised in Massachusetts, my parents who are now in their 70's were from the Jersey suburbs of NYC. They recently recalled that when they were in school, ALL students were taught to speak clear and concise English. This included African-American students. Slang was not accepted and in order to graduate, a student had to speak and read at an acceptable level. As I was growing up in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, I do remember being corrected at home MANY times for grammar and pronunciations I had picked up from other classmates, as well as teachers! I am extremely grateful to my parents for insisting on proper speech!! Sometimes I struggle when conversing with life long natives...It's actually embarassing. There is nothing amusing or attractive about poor speech.

Basement and Down Cellah!

I went to school near Woostah and *everyone* at my high school said "basement" for bathroom. As in, "I'll meet you for a butt in the G Basement" So, the space under the house was the cellah, as in "I hafta go down cella for some padados." NO ONE I meet in Boston if familiar with the basement/bathroom thing. Help!

Maybe age-related

It may be age-related - either the poster or the school. When I went to grade school (Washington Allston School, 1961-67) the washrooms were called "the basement" as well. However, there was only one set, and they were IN the basement.

basement = bathroom, grades 1-8

I went to grades 1-8 at St Theresas in West Roxbury and the nuns/teachers used to call the bathroom the basement and the trash dumpster the 'dooley' [sic?].

The school/archdiocese provided us with used text books from the late 60's for our classes (to note, I went there between 80-89).

They also called going to school there an 'education'....

nuns called bathroom lavatory....

I was born raised in Chelsea. The nuns in school called the bathroom the lavatory and the trash always went to the incinerator, they called the coat room a cloak room (idk why), we called soda tonic and the basement was the celler. I haven't lived there since '89 but I still have trouble w/ some words especially words w/ an "r" in the middle like parka. I always forget & say parker. I guess I over compensate the "r's". hehehe I miss it a wicked lot! :-)

basement

When I was in elementary school (South River School - Marshfield 1964-1969) we called the washroom "the basement", too.

accent

I grew up in Connecticut, and shuttled between NYC and Boston. I live in Florida now and still have "ideers"

Gypsy

Basement

Born in 1949 - Went to Ingalls Elementary in Lynn. We used the word "Basement" for the bathroom in school. Of course, the bathrooms were located in the basement (cellar). But I can't recall what we called it at home when away from school? I'm thinking it was just "bathroom" since that's what I have always called it. Not a restroom. Not a washroom.

"Basement" = Bathroom

In a similar vein, back in North Reading we used to call the kitchen a "bedroom", and a glass of club soda with ice was called "pants". The doctor was "buckwheat farmer" and a Big Mac was "Burt Lancaster".

Basement

I grew up in Hyde Pahk in the 1960s and went to the tiny Weld School which only had Kindergarden and grades 1 and 2; the latter were in one classroom! Anyway, the girls' and boys' rooms were called the basement and were actually downstairs. I spent my summers on the Cape. Our neighbors there were from Connecticut and would sometimes have me say "My fahtha pahks his cah..." I didn't get it as a kid, speaking Bostonian was just normal! My family moved to Europe when I was in my teens and I've been here for over 30 years now, but in my heart I'm still a Bostonian and proud of it!

Basement

I remember asking the teacher in 3rd grade to go the basement at my school in Lowell, and she asked why I needed to go home. I don't think I ever used it again.

Basement/Cellah

Yep! In Tewksbury, at least in grade school in the early 70s, the school bathroom was definitely 'the basement'.

Some friends with panelling and furnitcha in the undaground pahta their homes had a finisht basemint, but we just hadda cella with the washa right next to the drya near the furnace and not too fah from the bulk-edd. We fancied ahs up some, tho. We hung a daht boa-d down theya.

Yes!

I grew up in Worcester. Any time we had to use the bathroom we'd raise our hands and ask to go to the basement. This was elementary school, after than we just asked for hall passes. I went to Kindergarten in 1969 at Dix Street, which burned down when I was in 1st grade. I then went to Elm Park and after that Nelson Place. So perhaps it is a combination of time and place? To this day when I hear basement I think bathroom.

Having a Boston accent is not

Having a Boston accent is not embarrassing and nothing to be ashamed about. I have an accent and I am very proud of it. It's part of who I am and where I come from. Technically speaking English was brought here by people who were from England and dropping the r is something that came from that variation. Accents in other parts of the country are influenced by the people who settled there. For example, New Orleans has an accent that sounds French because of French settlers. So my point is if your going to criticize, you should really think about what you are saying. Pronounciation is up for interpretation and Boston accents came from our founding fathers. So I guess Boston is the closest to proper English if you want to base the language from it's origins. So I am proud and will continue to drop my r's and use whatever other local terms I chose to. And by the way after reading your post which sounded very demeaning, I must add to this that I am an intelligent and educated woman and if you have a problem with the accent there's no need to seek out a public forum to talk badly about it. Someone has way to much time on their hands.

re,boston accent

hi. the boston accent is not improper speech.all depends where you are from. remember, this never stopped the late bette davis,john kennedy etc..

Boston accent

I would just like to say the most annoying accent in the world is a Boston accent, sorry , but I think it makes people sound unintelligent. I grew up here and I pronounce my "r's" all of them , all the time.

accents & dialects

I totally agree, that's what makes us unique. Do we really all want to sound like generic "neeyooz" reporters. In the Mass. NH. areas we would say, "I just wahcht that on the Nooz." I think that people just don't like it when they don't understand what people, they aren't familiar with, are saying but once they become familiar, they learn the new dialect & pronunciation & adapt to the new style by first understanding, & if they stick around with these speakers, they too will sound somewhat like them. It's the same thing as learning a new language, in way, and what's wrong with broadening one's linguistic proficiency??? I think it will result in strengthening your language skills, which will make you a better communicator no matter where you find yourself.

spukies

Where die the word spukie originate? grew up in Lynnfield but lived in Southie for several years when I was in nursing school and we are spukies. My hubby is from Wellesley and never heard of spukies. Tonic yeah.

The same happens to me sometimes

I went into the Navy in 1989. I spoke a thick, East Boston dialect of Boston english. I ran into some serious issues on my fist ship, because I was the only one from Boston. My LPO (Lead Petty Officer) was going to grade me low on Communications on my eval unless I changed my ways. Luckily there was a PACE instructor riding the ship with us. He was an English professor from the University of Texas. He trained me on how to speak American English. I had to learn to relax the jaws, and slow down my speech. I also learned to not pronounce the letter A so strongly. It's the strong A that drowns out the Rs in Bostonese. This allowed me to enunciate the R sounds, and not run the words together. Eventually, I picked up a southern accent which stuck with me to this day. I now live in West Virginia and speak like the locals here. Twice a year I visit my kinfolk up in Saugus. I am constantly asked where I am from. Folks are shocked when I tell them I grew up in Saugus. Sometimes, however, when I've had some adult beverages or am real tired, I'll start losing R's and using that gutteral "A" sound famous among Boston English speakers. I tell people I am bilingual now - American English and Boston English. When I am out with my wife and my Mom, I have to translate between Southern English and East Boston English so they can understand each other. A "Potty" is a "Party", Sprinkles are Jimmies, Soda is Tonic, and my wife is still trying to find what kind of starch a Badayda is. I think they are related to taters. LOL!

Rayzah

Last night at the CVS on Mass Ave by Symphony Hall, I was shopping for some razors. The store is under renovations, and a very kind, female CVS employee walked up to me and said:

"If yuah lookin' foah rayzah cahtrahges, they'ah byack behind the registah."

I've been living in Boston for over a year, and the accent never gets old. I love it!

Boston accent

I grew up in Boston, as did my parents and both sets of grandparents. I have lived most of the last 20 years in New Zealand but have not lost my accent, and likely never will. My accent is overwhelmingly noticed by New Zealanders as being a 'really pleasant', 'easy to understand', 'not annoying', 'soft', and 'nice to listen to' American accent! I laugh when I tell them what the rest of the US thinks of it. Everything is relative... (New Zealanders don't pronounce their "r"s either.)

Accents

Accents are great! They make our world colorful! It's interesting to figure out where people come from by listening to their pronunciation. You just shouldn't sound like you've never been anywhere else (not only a matter of the accent!)
So we Bostonians don't pronounce our "r"s. But elsewhere they don't say short "o"s, they say "ah", or why would anyone confuse a party and a potty?!

Bostonese

We go back to 1908, right off the boat into Boston...I moved to California for college and was shopping at the Coop, I told the checkah' about getting padadahs and cohn form the cella etc. she called over to the the supervisor and said she needed someone to interpret for her she had a foreigner from someplace in Europe or Canada! I laughed until I almost peed my pants...she was dead serious, later I explained and she stil had a tin ear for the most colorful dialect of English outside of Aberdeen Scotland...

The Boston Accent

Try this with people trying to speak like us. These 3 words to us are not pronounced the same: Mary, marry, merry. Someone said it's the a and it has something to do with the roof of the mouth.a lot of people do not find any difference between Mary and marry. If you can pronounce those 3 little words differently you just might catch on.

A Northeastern thing

New Yorkers distinguish the three as well (I say this as a former Brooklynite). Midwesterners, however, yes, they have the hardest time with it (I say this as a former Brooklynite married to somebody from Illinois).

accent verification for anon

Merry and Marry, they are the same pronuncied. It is probably off from your accent only in that we say mehhhhhhhhhhhhry or mahhhhhhhhhhhhhhry. sometimes it is drawn out a slight. As for the name Mary, completely different pronuncy. It plays out pretty much Boston North to NH border, and probably beyong into So NH, bc its all about taxes etc, people migrate. Thats said, Mary, to us, would be pronounced, Mayahree. Not quite so easy! It actually has to to be Mayahr,ree. So like mayar,ee. different from breaking off syllable in grade school! Thats actually why i think 99.9 percent of the boston movies have the wrong accents although they mean well, its the sylable. Even the Wahlbergs, Matt Damon, who do Boston movies, I notice within the first minute its wrong. They have been out o the element for so long. But they do okay. I also notice LA actors have the exact same accent as the prior do. I think its just an LA accent for so many years. In any case, still love them! remembah, most people just say membah? and its wicked awesome for good, and wicked bad for agreeing with what the person just stated, meaning totally true.

I grew up in a small town

I grew up in a small town about 25 miles from Boston,495, Route 1 and 2 go straight through it and Route 3 is about 10 minutes away, I worked as a waitress in my teen years. Many people from Boston came through, I got used to Boston slang growing up as well as working, but I have learned a true New Engander will always say jimmies and/or get irritated when people say sprinkles.

Grew up on the South Shore

Grew up on the South Shore during the 60's and 70's. Had a wickid thick Boston accent until I learned to speak Spanish. One thing I still say though is "i-in" as in "I need to i-in my pants they are wrinkled". Accents make us interesting.
Rosie

a favorite lingua Bostonia story

A friend of mine (not from Boston) was teaching her Dorchester middle schoolers about words we use in English that derive from native American words. After defining a number of words, she wrote "toboggan" on the board and said "does anyone know what toboggan means?" A boy raised his hand and said, "sure, it's when you're buying something and you argue to get the price down."

Some of my favorites.

Thank you for your works regarding our peculiar ways of speaking. I love reading about observations of the Boston accent and it's variations. I wear mine proudly.

Some others are.....

POCK•A•BOOK is a woman's pocketbook.

PITCHA- it can be anything from the guy on the mound at Fenway or a movie (motion picture) as in "Did you see the Depahted? That was a swell Pitcha" to something you put lemonade in (a pitcher.

ORAN•JADE or orangeade is orange soda (which is tonic.) Funny thing is when in Washington DC one time I asked for tonic and they thought I meant some kind of medicine or hair tonic.

And other places we add R's where they shouldn't be are Lisa= leeser, pasta is pahster, and idea is idear.

We "werk" at our jobs.

And you don't have a heart attack, you take one. As in Sully took a haht attack at his job on the T.
Of course then he got bettah so we had a time for him when he retired (re•tie•yed)

and if you get a job with the state you "got on the state" or with the MBTA you "got on the T"

We eat "pah•day•duhs" mashed or boiled.

We drink Boddled Wodda now since bubbelahs are rare.

Filene's was pronounced Fill•eans

We shopped at the Quinzee bahgin centah.

And Quincy was Quinzee and Worcester was Wista but Medford was not Meffa unless you lived on the north shore.

And if you were a narcissist you were "con•seeded".

And typing this on an iPhone with auto correct on has been quite a chore.

Thanks,

From a Dot Rat now living on the northern part of the Irish Riviera (Nantasket Beach)

Others I remember from

Others I remember from Dorchester were.....

You i•yun your pants when they are wrinkled.
An almond was an armand
A hoss race was something you bet on.
The Red Line was called The Rattler.
The nuns called the bathroom the lavratory which we thought was laboratory.
We had a swill bucket in the ground next to the back porch.

Bawbee an Ahleen...

...were the names of our neighbors when we first moved here from Ohio. I never knew what to call them! If I said Bawbee an Ahleen, I felt ridiculous; but if I said Bobby and Arlene, it seemed like I wasn't saying their real names. Overheard in a movie theater: "Hey Bawbee, yawant some bawnbawns?" Gawd, I love the Boston accent!