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‘Wicked Good Words’: A Road Trip Through Regional Sayings

BOSTON — How do you know if someone is a true New Englander? There might be a way to immediately tell and it is not just by the accent.

Some dead giveaways to impostors – if he or she thinks a “spa” is a place to relax or if “wicked” is something bad. Then that person must be an off-islander.

Regionalism in language, using words like spa, which here means a drugstore and wicked which means super, are unique to New England. Our dozens of quirky regionalisms have some solid history behind them as well.

Mim Harrison writes about those regionalisms and their history in her new book, “Wicked Good Words.”

Harrison, whose father is from Boston, grew up hearing our local accent. And she says her interest stems from one word close to home.

“It wasn’t so much the word, but the way it was pronounced, it was my mother’s name which is as a young child I kept thinking ‘what a odd name she has,’ my father calls her Masser,” Harrison says. “Then I realized years later that it was the way a Western New Yorker would say as Martha.”

Another colloquialism is “packy.” Harrison explains that it was a throw-back to the days right after Prohibition.

“People were still a little reluctant to admit the fact that they wanted to go buy some liquor,” Harrison says. “So if they talked about a package store it was a kind of a code for the fact that you would get your liquor in this plain paper package when you took it out.”

Check out other local turns of phrase in “Wicked Good Words.”

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  • http://theouteraisle.blogspot.com Christy Z.

    I moved to Chelsea, MA in 2000 from Oberlin, OH and quickly got a temp job in Arlington.  Not knowing my way around Boston, I called the MBTA help line to tell me how to get from my apartment to my new job.  The gentleman on the phone said to take the Blue Line to the Green Line B train and get off at “Avid Street.”  I repeated,   “Avid Street?” which he replied, “Yes, Avid Street.” It wasn’t until I was on the train looking at my post-it note with “Avid Street” written down, searching the B-line map that it dawned on me that he said “Harvard Street.”

  • Lois A. McNulty

    I was new to New England (Boston area) having grown up in Phildelphia and in my first teaching job in 1972 when I was puzzled to see this word on several of my fourth-graders’ spelling tests: “idear.”
    The word was “idea.” I think they thought they were doing me a favor in correcting my obvious mispronounciation!

  • Hmmmm

    Since when is New York in New England?  (It’s not).  And I’ve lived in New England/Boston all my life, and have never heard a pharmacy referred to as a spa.  How can she write a book if she’s not from Boston but her father is?  Has she even been to New England or does she think New York is good enough when it’s completely different from Boston….. I could go on.  Either this book is not valid or the article describing it has neglected some important details.

    • Yup, spa…

      Actually I have heard of a corner store that also sell sandwiches called a spa.  In Brookline on the corner of Harvard st and Brook st the store was called the “Brookline spa” or the “Village spa”.  I have seen other stores similar  with  spa in its name but not a pharmacy. 

  • Really!?

    I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if this is mentioned, but when I was growing up in Lexington in the 60s, I often heard kids in the neighborhood say, “so don’t I,” instead of “so DO I” when agreeing with someone.
    And I agree with Hmmmm below – I’ve never heard of a pharmacy referred to as a spa.

    • Yup, Spa….

      “So don’t I” ….Good one.  I use to say that too when I was younger until I learned it was incorrect.  It probably still slips out here and there out of bad habit.

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