Monday, May 26, 2008

Globe: Jimmies thrive, tonic declines.

This Memorial Day, the Boston Globe reports on the state of the English language in Eastern Massachusetts. Though I'm hard-pressed to find a connection between the holiday and the article, the Globe has some interesting things to say about the continuing evolution of Boston English. Here's an excerpt:
Jimmies. Regular coffee. Elastic. Bubbler. Tonic. Dungarees. Carriages. Gonzo. Packie. Parlor. Rotary. Bang a U-ey. Hosey. Wicked. There are hundreds of local terms. Some are going strong. Some have even gone national. Some aren't ours alone. And some are fading fast. Almost no one says "scoop" or "score" anymore. Boston teens have become like their counterparts around the country; they use the blanket term for youthful intimacy, "hook up."

So in the age of the mass media, with our national dialect becoming increasingly standardized, which of our local slang words are going to survive?

To gauge the status of Boston English, City Weekly polled the two camps that know the most about our language - the adults who study it, and the teenagers who dictate its evolution. Linguists say the terms that have the best chance of surviving are those that don't have an accepted term nationally, or that cover something that is relatively obscure.

"The media isn't telling you what to call 'jimmies,' " said John McCarthy, a linguistics professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, referring to the local term for the rod-shaped chocolate bits used as an ice cream topping. "You don't see any advertising or discussion of jimmies, so people don't know that there is another word for it - 'sprinkles.' " (There are some who believe jimmies to be a racial slur - a play on the Jim Crow segregation laws - but McCarthy says it originated as a trademark name from a local company that made the chocolate topping, a contention that is supported by the Dictionary of American Regional English.)

What do you call the thing you push in the grocery store? "In Boston," McCarthy said, "that's called a 'carriage.' To the rest of the world, that's a grocery cart. But unless you've traveled, you don't know that there's anything else to call it because it's not the sort of thing they usually talk about on a television show."

At Boston Latin, the city's elite entrance-exam school that draws kids from all corners of "the Hub," an informal poll of nearly 200 students found that 61 percent still use the term jimmies, and 29 percent still say carriage. But some of the other iconic words are not so lucky.

Ever spill tonic on your dungarees? The kids at Latin don't. They spill soda on their jeans. Only 11 percent said they still used tonic - one of the more peculiar Bostonisms because it's the name for a completely different beverage - while just 7 percent still use dungarees as a term for denim jeans.
On one level, to speak of "Boston English" as a monolithic dialect is somewhat inaccurate. It's often lost on people who grew up elsewhere, but Massachusetts is home to a great variety of dialects. The accents of people in my native region are not identical with those of people who grew up in South Boston, though there are similarities in vocabulary as well as some differences. I've always preferred to ask for "jimmies" and not "sprinkles," I drink from a "bubbler" rather than a "water fountain," I keep a bag of "elastics" in my desk, and I can navigate a "rotary" with relative ease. As far as I can recall, I've never used the word "tonic" as it is used in Bostonese, nor am I aware of the term being used that way by members of my family. However, I think I've always been aware that "tonic" was a word that some older people used to refer to the stuff that I always called "soda." (On an unrelated note, the Midwestern term "pop" still sounds strange to my ears, and the generic use of "Coke" for all soft drinks baffles me completely.)

"Wicked" is a class by itself. I've used "wicked" as an intensifier for most of my life, but I've noticed that over time the term has crept across the country and acquired a certain degree of national usage while retaining its reputation as Bay State slang. I've always thought of "sketchy" and its derivatives as having a similar canonical status as part of the Massachusetts lexicon, partly because "wicked" and "sketchy" (or just "sketch") were commonly used together when I was growing up - to describe a person, place or thing as "wicked sketchy" was to label he, she, or it as dangerous or simply suspect in a vague but nonetheless definite way. I don't know if this use of "sketchy" really originated in the Bay State, but as far as I'm concerned it might as well have.

More seriously, I believe that the distinctive regional identities that local accents and dialects represent are worth preserving. Reading the Globe article, I was intrigued by what UMass linguist John McCarthy had to say about the impact of the media and of popular culture on the death or survival of purely local slang. The use of a term like "jimmies" continues because it isn't challenged by the larger North American culture - unlike, say, the use of terms like "tonic" and "dungarees," which haven't held up well in the face of national ad campaigns pushing "soda" and "jeans." Truly distinctive elements of local culture would also seem to be better able to survive - a frappe, for example, really is different from a mikshake, so the term hangs on. May the same prove true of some of the other terms that make "Boston English" distinctive. AMDG.


Post a Comment

<< Home