Rosetta Stone: Massachusetts

There were no border guards or customs officials. I didn’t need a passport. But it was a foreign land….this Massachusetts, this little enclave of individualism in the homogeneous United States.

We moved to Massachusetts the summer just before my junior year in high school. From Iowa. Does that seem like it should have been one of the greatest culture shocks of my life? Well, let me tell you, it was.



And why shouldn’t it have been? The two states are over 1,000 miles apart. Place a pin in the heart of Europe and go out 1,000 miles in any direction and you’d hit dozens of languages and cultures. But wait! At least we all speak the same language in the good ol’ USA.

No, we don’t. We really don’t.

From my first day at my new high school, I knew I was in trouble. There was the usual trauma of being the new girl: figuring out how to remain invisible while sizing up the various cliques; seeing that the brand new pink and gray argyle sweater from “Hit or Miss” was a big MISS here where girls were wearing muslin smocks and bellbottoms; and, to my dismay, realizing that the boys were all short.

Well, maybe not all short but compared to the big strapping Norwegians and Swedes in my high schools in Minnesota and Iowa, I was in big trouble surrounded by these little Italian and Portuguese guys. Was I ever going to have a date?

But worst of all were the “wicked” strong accents. Oy vey, what ARE these people talking about? And why are they calling me Bob? And offering me medicine?

Here I present you with a sprinkling of typical terms and their standard translations just in case you find yourself stranded in the wilds of Massachusetts someday.

  • Tonic = Soda or Pop.  “Wanna tonic?” (the aforementioned medicine)
  • Dungarees = Jeans. “Where’d you get those dungarees?”
  • Frappe = milk shake  “I got a chocolate frappe at McDonalds.”
  • Parlor = living room. “Let’s go sit in the parlor (pahlah).”
  • Grinder = Sub “Wanna go get a grinder (grinduh)?”
  • Pocketbook = Purse
  • Staties = State police  “Slow down, I saw a statie!”
  • Coppa = Town police  “Slow down, I saw a coppa!”
  • Wicked = Very “That grinder is wicked good!”
  • Soft = Dumb  “He’s wicked soft.”
  • Cellar = Basement “Let’s go down celluh” Note: nobody says let’s go down to the cellar.
  • Basement = School bathroom “I need to go to the basement” Note: I spent my first few days wondering why all these kids were so interested in going to the basement. It was later explained to me that the term is a throwback to Catholic schools where the bathrooms were always located in the basement….or down cellar.
  • Bubbler = water fountain (bubblah)
  • You’re a pisser = can be good or bad, depending. Too hard to explain. (pissuh)
  • What a pisser = see above.
  • Bang a U-ey = make a U-turn
  • Elastic = rubber band (I once asked a girl for a rubber band and she laughed.  You mean “elastic,” she said. )
  • Hot Ticket = somebody with a great personality
  • Hot Sh%# = see above
  • No Suh! = often said in disbelief, i.e. “You got an A on that test? No Suh!”
  • Packey = Liquor Store “Let’s hit the packey for some bee-uhs”
  • Jimmies = Chocolate sprinkles on ice cream Note: even grown men are Jimmy, Tommy, Donny, and Mikey.
  • Rotary = traffic circle
  • The Registry = the DMV
  • So don’t I = So do I. (Don’t ask. But imagine my confusion….)
  • Rubbish = the trash or garbage


Finishing up, I went my entire junior year to school with a kid named Pat Haggity. Only when I saw his name printed, did I see he was actually Pat Hagerty. Ahhhhhh.

After twenty years living in Massachusetts, I did embrace a few terms: “grinder” and “rotary.” But then we moved to Virginia, bless our hearts, and it was time for another lesson in language. I’m “fixin'” to tell you about it someday.

How about you? What terms are unique to your area?

And thanks for reading – you hot ticket,

















About Silver in the Barn

Life in a 1915 farmhouse in Central Virginia. And the odd thought or two.
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34 Responses to Rosetta Stone: Massachusetts

  1. I HEART this! I went from AL to IA. Another story for another day. Visual shock: mile-long meat counters at the supermarket; 1-inch counter for seafood. Diversity: Lutherans, Catholics, a sprinkling of other denominations. Dominant: Swedes, Germans, northern Euros. Very nice people.


  2. ritaroberts says:

    Love this post Barbara, Just Hilarious ! I reckon we have all experienced the language problem .My partner comes from the Shropshire area England where the country folk say, for instance, ( I conna for I can’t ) ( I wanna for I won’t. ). and ( I dunna for I don’t ) It took me ages to get used to the Shropshire slang. Mind you my Brummy (Birminghams) slang is as bad.


    • Thanks, Rita. I am fascinated with the various British accents/dialects. Once on our local PBS station, they provided subtitles when interviewing a country Irishman which was a very good thing. Same language, indeed. I conna understand him!


  3. carolwallace says:

    Lovely, you hot ticket — but only if that also means “cute.”


  4. vannillarock says:

    that’s a fun lexicon! arizonans frequently ask me( a scot) to repeat what i just said so that they can hear it again- i play along. i do admit to making myself drop the ‘t’ in random words like water, just to avoid a quizzical look from the waiter. i need subtitles for mumbling actors more than accented ones!


    • I’m sure the Arizonans don’t hear too many lovely Scottish brogues. I did fine in Scotland until I met an old-timer – in kilt- in Pitlochry. Understood very little of what he was saying and loved every word.


  5. Diane Ahlberg says:

    Oh my you have brought back so many memories!! Also a Massachusetts girl I remember the Sunday rides for ice cream and Jimmies- Howard Johnson- finding a lady slipper in the woods- ice skating- sledding and never having ” snow days” to look forward to- going to Farnhams for fried clams – Plymouth Rock ( now that was a disappointment )the Cape and Horseneck Beach and Waldons Pond- the Gristmill and the school where Mary who had her little lamb went to school
    Thank you for a walk down memory lane- then the move to North Carolina where nobody knew what a rotary was
    Among a myriad of so many other things!
    Thanks Barb


    • Fried clams! Ahhh, the taste of summer, aren’t they? And I can’t help but laugh at your remark on Plymouth Rock. I felt exactly the same way!! When we moved to Mass. from Iowa, we LIVED in the Howard Johnson’s on Route 2 in Concord for four weeks until we found a house. And North Carolina….another new language for sure. Hey, y’all.


    • And I notice you said just “the Cape.” We all know only foreigners say “Cape Cod.”


      • Diane Ahlberg says:

        Such a fun site
        Milkshakes and frappes there really is a difference
        Can’t wait for your follow up
        When the north moves south!


  6. From Mary Ellen in Michigan sent via email:
    Actually I live in the “Middle of the Mitten.”

    The Mitten = refers to the lower peninsula of Michigan. (you can use the back of your had to explain to someone where you live in Michigan.The left hand can be used as the upper peninsula.)
    Michigander = Some that is native to Michigan
    UP = (u – pea) Upper Peninsula of Michigan
    Yooper = Someone that lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan
    Thumb = geographical significance using your hand as the Michigan map.
    Fudgie= term used for a tourist in the Northern towns of Michigan (comes from the Fudge on Mackinac Island.)
    Big Mac = Referring the the Mackinac Bridge connecting lower and upper peninsula’s of Michigan
    “Mackinaw” Island =Mackinac Island
    Secretary of State = Where you go to renew or register for a Michigan drivers license.
    Party Store = Liquor Store
    You guys – stands for plural of “you”, any sex or age included.
    Mier = Mirror
    U of M = University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
    State = Michigan State, East Lansing, MI
    Land of two Seasons = Winter and Construction
    “Going up North” = any travel north of Detroit
    Ja-eet? = “Did you eat?”
    Cranz = Crayons


  7. Parnassus says:

    Hello Barbara, Luckily, you went through Ohio on the way to Massachusetts, so you got a chance to hear the correct terms for everything. Seriously, when I lived in Boston for a while, the only Midwestern term I had trouble with was Pop for Soda-pop; it really brought blank stares. (They had black raspberry pop there, a favorite flavor of mine but one not found in Ohio.)


    • Hi Jim, I completely forgot about black raspberry “tonic!” — how funny. Was it Polar brand? I met a man from Ohio back when I was selling real estate and he had a funny little linguistic tic. He said things like “the house needs painted” eliminating the “to be” entirely. Does that sound familiar? —Barbara


      • Parnassus says:

        Hi again, Yes, I have heard that pattern, especially from older people, it seems. These days, I don’t think you would hear it too much. –Jim


  8. Mary says:

    Love this post! As your sister and fellow transplant, I remember the shock of school and wondering what a bubbler and basement were. I still love the word grinder for some odd reason and packey was not in my vocabulary as I was just a tiny sprite. I haven’t noticed too many Colorado nuances but the constant references to pot, mary jane, marijuana is getting super old!
    I am looking forward to Rosetta Stone: The South! Hopefully our dear friend, Kayleen will chime in….Bless her heart!


    • Thank you. I hear no discernible accent in Colorado or your previous state, Washington. The only thing I’ve heard you say that I know you didn’t grow up with (so you must have picked it up in one of those states) is “spendy” for expensive. Might be a Western thing, I never hear it here.


      • Mary says:

        Yep, that is a word I picked up in Washington and I thought it was really strange but now I use it too.


  9. Ha ha ha! Funny and informative, for us Europeans. LOL! Thank you for this post. 🙂


    • You are welcome, “PIL”. If we Americans have a hard time understanding each other, I can only imagine how difficult it might be for you Europeans. But actually most of you speak better English than we do! Glad you enjoyed. I always enjoy your photographs.


      • Thank you. I enjoy your blog very much, too. And yes, you are right about Europeans communicating mostly in English these days, wich makes it so much easier for everybody, actually. On the other hand I think in the old days people here new more languages at least on a basic level, mostly the one of your neighbouring country with which you were usually doing some sort of business anyway.


  10. Audrey says:

    Well, that was a wicked good depiction of our beloved Massachusetts lingo! I remember the “Haggity”! You know, I used to say “Bang a U-ey” all the time, til my siblings informed me it was “Hang a U-ey” – go figyah! Ha-ha!
    – Audrey


  11. nrhatch says:

    Haha! This ties in nicely with my post today. My dad and brothers went to school in Boston, and dad grew up in Vermont. So your list rang lots of bells for me.

    We’ve lived in NJ, VA, SC, NC, MD, and FL and have noticed different twangs and word tweaks in each. I ought to make a list like yours. You did a great job.


    • I agree! I thought we were on the same linguistic wavelength today. Wow, you’ve lived in almost as many states as I have. It’s fun, isn’t it, to note all the ways we use our “English” language. Thanks so much.


  12. dorannrule says:

    I love your study in “foreign” languages. Can’t wait to see what you come up with for Virginia! Maybe we should compare notes. Like we had two mountain men come by who were lookin’ for “sang.” Ever hear of that one? It’s Virginian for ginseng. 🙂


  13. dorothy says:

    Being a former farm girl from VA I wouldn’t know where to start with our country sayings. But since summertime is almost here I must run now and “string me some snaps and fry me some cymlins for supper in my old black skillet. “Lord child,”‘ that is some fine eatin. Barb….you know what l’m saying……


  14. Hello! I just stumbled across your blog by accident and I’ve spent half an hour reading and enjoying. This is a great blog post! I’m from Missouri and am currently living in North Carolina. I tell people all the time that it’s like moving to a different country, but I’ve never met anyone who understands what I mean. Sometimes my husband and I make fun of each other about the different way we use words. (He’s from NC and has never lived anywhere else.) For example, he calls a winter hat a toboggan and I call it a sock cap. And he had never heard the word pallet used when referring to sleeping on the floor. He gave me such a hard time about it until I Googled it, and it is indeed a word used to mean a makeshift bed. They also say “might should” and “might could”, in place of “maybe I should/could”. It’s not just the vocabulary and the accents though. Everything is different. The driving rules are different, and you only have to have a license plate on the back of your car. Also, the dirt is red instead of brown. I don’t know why that’s weird to me, but it is. I’ve always thought about it in relationship to Europe, like you said in your post. I moved to a different country!


    • Oh boy, can I ever relate. North Carolina has some serious accents, doesn’t it? Makes Virginians sound like Yankees! I have only heard toboggan used as a type of sled, never a hat. That is funny. We called them stocking caps in Massachusetts. I’ve definitely heard the might could usage and it is so strange to the ear. Actually, I just love this stuff. … all the ways we use the English language. Someday I’m going to write a Virginia version of this post. Another foreign country but I do love this southern accent. Thanks for reading and leaving me such a kind comment.


  15. Oh, the Boston accent. Before my son moved there and started classes at Tufts University, I phoned the financial aid office with a question. The woman who answered the phone spoke with such a strong accent that I had to ask her to please slow down. Rather embarrassing for this Minnesotan, but I had no option. I definitely understand the issues you had as a Midwest transplant.

    Upon returning to Minnesota recently from Boston for holiday break, the son informed me that we have an accent. Really? He gets ribbed about his pronunciations of “bag” and “sorry.” He has not picked up a Boston accent as far as I’ve noticed.

    He also told me that I wash dishes differently than Bostonites. I fill my sink with water, add soap and wash. His friends, he says, put water and soap in/on each item they want to wash, no filling the sink. Maybe it’s a college thing and not an East Coast thing. I have no idea.


    • The dishwashing thing is NOT an East Coast thing, I assure you. It sounds rather like wasteful young men who were never required to wash dishes before college! Oh, goodness, Audrey, when I lived in Minnesota with my dear Grandma Helen, I never heard the Minnesota accent. Only after living in New England for many years and then visiting MN, did I hear it and then some! To my ear, the Minnesota accent is infinitely preferable but maybe that’s just my heritage nudging me in that direction. I totally understand your need for “subtitles” when speaking to that financial aid person!


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