New England vs. Los Angeles: A Battle of Words

A Super Bowl-inspired look at east coast/west coast regionalisms


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Ram - a male sheep

Patriot - one who loves and supports his or her country

Okay, these aren't necessarily regionalisms specific to either Boston or LA, but they're important nonetheless. The names of sporting teams tend to be built on a combination of crowd appeal and a hope that nominative determinism is a real thing. Both of the teams in the 2019 Super Bowl have names which carry positive connotations: rams are forceful, strong animals, and patriots are, well, patriotic. Yet each of these words has senses, or variations, which are somewhat pejorative.

Patriot came into English in the second half of the 16th century. In early use it tended to be found with some sort of modifier (such as good); patriot rarely stood alone until later in the 17th century. Beginning in the middle of the 17th century, the word also was often used in derogatory fashion, referring to hypocrites who professed love of country.

Courtier or Patriot by turns,
The Hypocrite our Patience tries;
Disgrac'd, our Grievances he mourns,
Or laughs in place at Jealousies.
— Anon., Aesop return’d from Tunbridge, 1698

Ram has been around longer than patriot; it dates back in use to before the 12th century. Should one wish to use the adjectival form of this noun, it is rammish. However, in addition to meaning “resembling a ram,” rammish also means “rank in smell or taste.”

What shall I tell you of that other fish, which the Abbot would not meddle with, because it was so rammish, and stancke so vilely?
— Mateo Alemán, The Rogue, 1623

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Milkshake - a thoroughly shaken or blended drink made of milk, a flavoring syrup, and often ice cream

Frappe - a thick milkshake

Watching sports and eating food seem to go together, and though there is nothing more American than the Super Bowl, our traditional sports-watching foods have origins or names that come from elsewhere: nachos are Mexican, hamburgers and hot dogs (frankfurters) are named for German cities, and French fries were most likely invented, confusingly, in Belgium.

One thing that seems as American as apple pie is the milkshake. But we don’t always agree on what to call a thick beverage made of blended milk, syrup, and ice cream. Is it a milkshake or a frappe?

The answer depends on where you’re from.

Milkshake is certainly the generic term (and the one used in our definitions for other names for this drink), used over a wide geographical area that includes California. It dates back to the late 1800s.

In New England, this same desserty drink goes by a different name: frappe. Frappe comes from the French verb frapper (pronounced /frah-pay/), which means “to hit” or “to strike” in the majority of its uses, but can also mean “to chill, to ice” when used of drinks (like chilling wine, for example). This led to the past participle of the verb, frappé, to be used for an iced drink, sometimes specifically referring to a liqueur served over shaved ice. Ultimately, the word came to be used for a milkshake, and when used with this meaning today, often the accent mark is dropped, giving us frappe (pronounced /frap/).

Frappe is overwhelmingly used in New England, though the logic of this choice has been lost to time. But if you think New Englanders are weird because they use frappe instead of milkshake, imagine what fellow New Englanders think of citizens of Rhode Island who have their own perfectly odd word for a milkshake: they call it a cabinet. Seriously.

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Liquor store - a store that sells liquor or wine for consumption off the premises

Package store - a store that sells bottled or canned alcoholic beverages for consumption off the premises

This pair of terms is not so much ‘in New England they say X, and in L.A. they say Y’ as it is ‘in New England they say X, and everywhere else they say Y and laugh at New England while they do so.’ New Englanders have been referring to the establishments where they buy their bottled happiness as package stores since the beginning of the 20th century. Although one may encounter this term (or the shorter packy) outside of New England, such use is rare.

T. Flanaghan & Co. 100 West State St. Tel. 80. Wholesale Liquor Dealers A Package Store. No Bar.
The Springfield Republican (Springfield, MA), 20 Dec. 1909

A complete assortment of the Oils necessary for making and flavoring every variety of liquor, and a package of the articles used for giving ARTIFICIAL STRENGTH to liquors (converting 70 gallons of Whiskey to 100 gallons) and every article necessary to commence a LIQUOR STORE will be furnished for $29.
—(advt) The Placer Herald (Rocklin, CA), 21 Mar. 1857

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Freeway - an expressway with fully controlled access

Highway - a public way; especially, a main direct road

The use of freeway is hardly restricted to the city of Los Angeles (or the state of California), just as New England does not have a monopoly on the use of highway. However, if one uses the former to describe driving on a morning commute, or when taking a trip, it does inform listeners that one is not from New England.

Highway is far more widespread, and has been in use for a considerable length of time longer (it dates back to the 12th century). Freeway does have additional means which predate its application to expressways (in the 19th century it could refer to unimpeded access); the ‘thing upon which you sit in traffic while angrily musing on the incongruity of its name’ sense of the word does appear to have originated in California, in the early 20th century.

An automobile in this positinon (sic) can either drive forward into the clear, or back up and get into the freeway.
Oakland Tribune, 7 Jul. 1916

It is hereby enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Vermont. That highway taxes … shall be construed to extend to such taxes only, as shall be assessed for making and repairing highways and building bridges, as are made payable in labour.
Brattleboro Messenger (Brattleboro, VT), 21 Nov. 1828

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Santa Ana - a strong hot dry foehn wind from the north, northeast, or east in southern California

Nor’easter - a storm with northeast winds

The nor’easter (or northeaster, if you’d prefer to be formal with your storms) tends to occur in the colder portion of the year (although they can occur in any season), typically near the East Coast. It is named for the direction from which its winds come.

The Santa Anas pass through the mountains of this name (located in Southern California), which is why they are so called. From time to time claims have been made that the wind is named after the 19th century Mexican president, Antonio López de Santa Anna; these claims are, as is the case with folk etymologies, factually challenged. Nor can we claim with factual certainty whether they truly make things weird.

Sometimes in October the district is visited by a warm and dry desert wind called the Santa Ana wind. It comes from the cañon of the Santa Ana river, and originates, no doubt, in the Mojave desert, and rising high up in the air is again precipitated over the hills on the lowlands towards the ocean. This Santa Ana wind is always welcome.
— Gustavus A. Eisen, The Raisin Industry. A Practical Treatise on the Raisin Grapes, Their History, Culture, and Curing, 1890

The power of wind to raise water above its common level in the sea, is known to us in America, by the high tides occasioned in all out sea-ports when a strong north-easter blows against the gulph stream.
— Benjamin Franklin, Philosophical and Miscellaneous Papers, 1787

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Drinking fountain - a fixture with nozzle that delivers a stream of water for drinking

Bubbler - a drinking fountain from which a stream of water bubbles upward

Water fountain chiefly US - a machine that produces a small stream of water for drinking

Sometimes it almost seems like the idiosyncratic words used by New Englanders are deliberately anachronistic. Terms like spa for the old soda fountain counters, or package store for liquor store, or frappe for milkshake can make it seem like time has stood still in the northeast corner of the country.

Among the most localized of these terms is bubbler meaning “drinking fountain.” Except for a part of Wisconsin and the historic downtown drinking fountains in Portland, Oregon, it seems that bubbler is unique to New England use and is by far the least frequent of its synonyms. According to one linguistic survey, water fountain is the most common term in the U.S. as a whole and particularly in the southeastern states, followed by drinking fountain, with bubbler accounting for about 4% of the usage.

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Cobb salad - a tossed salad made typically with chopped chicken or turkey, tomatoes, bacon, hard-boiled eggs, blue cheese, and lettuce and dressed with a vinaigrette

Lobster roll - lobster salad in a long roll

Cobb salad may not now be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Los Angeles, but the restaurant staple is believed to have originated in this city, likely named after Robert H. Cobb, a Los Angeles restaurateur. There are many variations on how this salad came about (some of which hold that it was baseball player Ty Cobb who invented it), and we will not claim to have the final answer on its genesis. However, our earliest evidence of use for Cobb salad does come from Los Angeles, and multiple citations in the mid and late-1940s connect it to Robert Cobb.

This couple like good food and they know how to prepare it, or order it as the case might be. Two portions of Cobb salad they thought would be enough for the three of us.
— Lucille Leimert, The Los Angeles Times, 2 Jan. 1947

On the other side of the gustatory aisle we have that quintessentially New England offering, the lobster roll. This sandwich has been eaten since at least the beginning of the 20th century; our earliest records of its name come from 1909 in a magazine printed in … London, England.

Lobster Rolls. On the evening before the rolls are required put a half-pint of warm milk and water into a basin and dissolve in it 3/4 oz. of yeast. Stir in sufficient warm flour to make a batter, place a cloth over the basin, and let it stand in a warm place all night. Next morning add a little salt and a quarter pint of warm water. Rub 1 oz. of butter into 2 lb. of flour, pour the yeast batter into the centre, and knead all together. Leave the dough in the basin for 1 1/2 hours. Divide it into small pieces, form into rolls, and after they have stood for ten minutes to rise, bake them in a hot oven on a floured tin. When cold, cut off the top of each, remove most of the crumb, fill with lobster mixture, and replace the top. For the filling:—Pick all the meat from a large lobster, chop it, and add a little lemon juice and pepper. Add a quarter pint of cream that has been whipped and seasoned with salt and pepper.
— Blanche St. Clair, The Quiver (London, Eng.), Jul. 1909

This does not mean that the lobster roll did not originate in New England, and there is written evidence of this name in New England from around the same time.

You’ve Missed Something If You Have Never Tried Our Chicken and Lobster Rolls.
— (advt) Boston Journal, 4 May 1910

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Photo: Jannis Werner

Everybody knows about the Boston accent that makes a sentence like “Park the car in Harvard Yard” sound like “Pahk the car in Hahvuhd Yahd.” Many people from New England drop the /r/ sound when it comes before another consonant, replacing it with a vowel sound, often ah or uh. That’s why a word like Harvard end up sounding like Hahvuhd.

The phenomenon of r-dropping is perhaps the best-known feature of the Boston accent, but where did it come from? Many people who settled early American port cities (roughly before 1750) came from southeastern England, where one feature of the 18th-century dialect was the dropping of the /r/ sound before consonants or at the end of a word (in words like car or art). This is why r-dropping is a sound we associate with some southern accents (think Charleston and Norfolk) as well as the New England one.

English speakers who drop the /r/ sound before consonants speak with what linguists call a non-rhotic accent. (Rhotic means “retaining an /r/ sound before consonants and finally in a word at the end of an utterance.”) In a non-rhotic accent speakers only pronounce /r/ when it comes before a vowel, whether in the same word or the following word. For instance, a non-rhotic speaker would not pronounce the /r/ in the sentence “The door was open,” but would pronounce the /r/ in “The door is open.”

Speakers of non-rhotic accents may insert an /r/ into speech when a word or syllable ending with a vowel sound precedes another word or syllable beginning with a vowel (e.g., “I saw it” may sound like “I sawr it”). Sometimes a word like drawing sounds like “drawring.” This is how words like pizza and idea sometimes sound like they end with an /r/ when spoken by non-rhotic speakers.

Although this type of accent is considered typical of Boston and elsewhere in New England, it has been showing decline, and younger speakers are increasingly speaking with rhotic accents. But it lives on in our hearts and Cheers reruns.

Appropriately enough for the Super Bowl matchup, there’s another phonetic phenomenon that is connected to the sound of /r/, but this time it has to do with the vowel that comes before it rather than the /r/ itself—and it’s well represented by speakers of English in California (as well as much of the western United States). For most Bostonians, the words merry, marry, and Mary have distinct vowel sounds. But for someone from California, these vowel sounds are often merged before /r/, making them all sound the same.

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Hella - very, extremely

Wicked - very, extremely

It’s interesting that the Californian hella and the New England wicked, which are synonymous when used as adverbs, are quite different when used as adjectives. Wicked as an adjective carries the meanings “vile,” “vicious,” and “exceptional,” while hella as an adjective means “a lot of.”

As with other terms associated with New England, wicked feels old. It seems to have echoes of the Salem witch trials, and the pronounced second syllable is an archaism it shares with words like blessed or learned (as opposed to other common participles used as modifiers, like finished or warmed).

The use of wicked as an intensifier (“wicked good,” “wicked fast”) is closely associated with New England.

Hella, on the other hand, seems new by comparison. It’s closely associated with northern California, and likely began to be used in the 1970s. Our files have examples of the word used in print in the 1980s, and it spread further after No Doubt’s song “Hella Good” was released in 2002.

Hella is also frequently used as an intensifier (“hella good,” “hella loud”). It seems that its use has spread more north to the Pacific Northwest than south to L.A., so this one is more a "California vs. New England" than specifically "L.A. vs. Boston" thing.

One thing that they share is apparent reference to the biblical source of evil, something that we can all agree on, even if you think the Patriots have made a deal with the devil.




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