Boston Slang: A Primer for the Boston Olympics Bid

If the Boston Olympics bid is successful, might this mean that the games will have three official languages—French, English, and Boston slang?

Let’s start with what these games would be called, were they to come to Boston. They would be the “Summah” Olympics, not Summer. And many of the competitions, such as swimming, would take place in the “wattah.”

Do you detect a pattern here? Those pesky r’s at the end of many words don’t need to be pronounced. It’s much more fun to insert them where non-Bostonians least expect them—like “ideear,” for idea.


Now to get your bearings. First, know that, as Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. famously pronounced, Boston is the “hub” of the universe. Bostonians know this, but they rarely say it. And while Boston may eclipse the sun in terms of its position in the cosmos, it’s a compact city, easily accessed by walking or hopping on the T, Boston slang for MBTA, or Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority—its subway system.

If you’re going to the famous Quincy Market at Faneuil Hall, call it “Quinzee” (oh, and that’s “mahket”). Use shorthand for places like the Prudential Center (the Pru) and Massachusetts Avenue (Mass Av).

This is a city of neighborhoods, so know whether it’s the South End you’re looking for, or South Boston. That big green square in the heart of the city? That’s the Common. No “s,” please, at the end of Common, and if you refer to it as Boston Common—at least while you’re in Boston—they’ll know you’re from out of town.

Down the Cape

Speaking of which—if you decide to get out of town for a few days, do what Bostonians have been doing for generations in the summah: go “down the Cape.” Cape Cod, of course—what, you were expecting Canaveral? If you choose to go over the “Bowen” Bridge to get onto the Cape, the sign you see will spell it Bourne.

Once there, surrender all sense of geographic logic. It’s true that when you hit the Cape’s elbow at Chatham, you’re heading north, but no matter: you’re going down the Cape. Why down and not up? Because you’re farther away from Boston, the hub of the universe. Maybe even all the way down to P-town, although the sign will say Provincetown.

Grinding Sandwiches, Dropping Eggs

Some of the most delightful Boston slang involves sustenance. Sure, you can find a stray Starbucks or two here, but know that this is Dunkies country: Dunkin’ Donuts rules. Also know that if you order coffee regular, it will come with cream and sugar.

New Yorkers in particular might find that odd, but remember that you’re in a place where the very idea of Manhattan clam chowder, with its red sauce base, is simply not to be borne (or bowen). It’s “chowda,” thank you, and the real deal always has a cream or milk base.

Want a soft drink? Call it a tonic and you’ll do Boston slang proud. The sprinkles on top of your ice cream cone are called jimmies, and if you want what’s known in other parts of the country as an ice cream soda, ask for a frappe. The word is from the French frapper, meaning to ice. (Note that, once again, the “r” at the end has vanished.)

If you’re hankering for a hoagie (or perhaps you call it a sub), ask for a grinder and pronounce it—yes, you’re getting the hang of it now—”grind-uh.”

Here’s a good test of your strength with Boston slang: do you dare to order a dropped egg? It will come poached; the egg, of course, was dropped in water for cooking.

A Toast to Boston (after a Packie Run)

Certain Boston slang you’re more likely to see than hear: cleanser, on signs for dry cleaning, and spa, for a few drugstore/luncheonette holdouts.

If you’re invited to come along for a packie run, you’ll end up in a liquor store. Such an establishment is called a package store in and around Boston, referring to the plain paper bag your booze is packed in.

Even if the Boston Olympics bid doesn’t pan out, knowing how to speak, if just a little, like a Bostonian is its own kind of victory. If the bid is successful, you’ll take pride in knowing that anybody who calls Boston “Beantown” is definitely from out of town.

Image source: Jorge Salcedo/Shutterstock


About Mim Harrison

Mim Harrison is the author of three books on the English language, Wicked Good Words, Smart Words (both, Penguin/Perigee) and Words at Work (Walker Publishing). A longtime professional writer and editor, she is also a producer of specialty books that are published in cooperation with leading cultural institutions. Her interest in languages began during her misadventures as a college student abroad.