New England — comprised today of the states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island — was given its name by English explorer John Smith in 1616, and the term became official four years later.
While other parts of what is now the United States were settled by the Spanish, the Dutch, the French, and even the Russians (primarily in what are now Alaska and California), the English overwhelmingly colonized the far upper righthand corner of our country, and English has been the major “foreign” language spoken in the region since the beginning.
But in some cases, that language has developed into a kind of English that people from other parts of America can’t easily understand. In common with every culturally unique and reasonably cohesive corner of the nation, New England has developed its own vocabulary and its own way of expressing everyday concerns. Often these are unique to just a single state, or even a single city or rural area.
In Boston, for instance, going to the spa for a tonic has nothing to do with visiting a fitness and wellness center for a pick-me-up. It means stopping by the local neighborhood convenience store (what a New Yorker would call a bodega) to buy a soft drink. And how is a Californian or Texan or Floridian supposed to know the difference between a swamp donkey and a quill pig — terms that would likely make perfect sense to someone from Maine or New Hampshire, respectively?
The country that forms upper New England’s northern border has its own way of using English, and there are plenty of Canadian slang words and phrases Americans just don’t get.
But the imaginative, colorful, and often impenetrable ways in which New Englanders — and especially those from the Boston area and Maine (whose regional vocabulary is particularly rich) — communicate are worthy of special attention.
Compiling a credible glossary of regional terms is tricky, of course: People from the places addressed often look at such a list and say, “You do realize that nobody here actually talks like that, don’t you?” Of course, that might be because their own family doesn’t use certain words or phrases, or because the terms in question are uniquely regional to very small areas, or even because they’ve just gone out of fashion. (When’s the last time you used “word” to signify agreement, or, to go back further in time, called nonsense “applesauce”?)
Language is a living thing, and it constantly changes and evolves. Forget ephemeral regional slang. It’s hard enough for us to keep up with our own words that were just added to the dictionary.
All 50 of the words and phrases in this list might not be in frequent current usage — and they certainly aren’t used in every part of New England — but you will certainly hear a good many of them at various times, in various places, and you just might want to know what they mean.