Local Lore and Lingo in Boston

Explore Boston neighborhoods and master key terms and pronunciations to fit in with the locals.
By: Kimberly Blanton
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Boston proper forms a half moon that curves around the bay — Boston. Tiny downtown neighborhoods provide access to the harbor and its waterfront activities, from whale-watching to sunning. All the city's geographic reference points can be traced from there.

The Charles River meanders into the harbor from the west and provides Boston's northernmost boundary. The grid of streets that make up the city's iconic Back Bay neighborhood — labeled in alphabetic order: Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth etc. — runs horizontally along the Charles River.

Cambridge is visible across the river from Back Bay and can be reached on foot via a bridge with a long span that locals call the "Mass Ave. Bridge."

Emanating in a northeastern direction from Boston's half moon is the North Shore, which runs up to New Hampshire. Similarly, one can follow the South Shore in a southeastern direction all the way to Cape Cod and the islands, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. On the Shores are expensive waterfront suburbs backed up in the interior by bedroom communities and gritty, working-class cities.

Neighborhoods and Squares

Ranked by land mass, Boston is the nation's second-smallest city, after San Francisco. Inside the city limits, it is organized, first, by neighborhoods and, second, by squares within each neighborhood. Urban neighborhoods are crowded around the bay's semicircle: Charlestown on the north, and next to it the North End, the Waterfront, Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and South Boston.

But Boston's green neighborhoods — Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, Hyde Park and Jamaica Plain — fill the vast majority of the city's 48.4 square miles, which extend in a liver-shaped lobe southwest of the central city. These neighborhoods have ample green space, ponds and the Franklin Park Zoo, which are interspersed with small town centers and dense-packed residential areas or sprawling lots with 19th century mansions. The parks that are linked together to create the city's Emerald Necklace tend to be small in the central city and blossom into large green spaces in the outer neighborhoods.

All over Boston, squares are named for famous city founders and politicians, such as Winthrop Square in downtown Boston — for the first government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony — and for local politicians and private citizens that few would recognize outside a two- or three-block radius. There is a square — Louisburg Square — named for the 1754 Battle of Louisburg in which Massachusetts militia sacked a French fortress. And there is must-see Copley Square, named for the American portraitist John Singleton Copley, where Trinity Church, built by the famous Back Bay architect Henry Hobson Richardson, is located. To find Fenway Park, look for Kenmore Square on the Green Line subway map.

Squares are also prevalent outside Boston, including in Cambridge. Leaving Boston and crossing into Cambridge on the Red Line subway, the train stops are: Kendall Square, Central Square, Harvard Square, Porter Square and Davis Square. Next, Somerville’s squares include Ball Square, Teele Square and Powderhouse Square.

Pronunciations and Key Terms

Boston's accent is unique, and it resembles a Southern accent in its distinctiveness (and only in that way). There are actually two accents. The one outsiders may know is the Brahmin, upper-crust accent of the city's descendants of those who came to this country on the Mayflower. Their influence is fading but their lilt still lingers. The classic example: Pahk your cah in Hahvad Square.

But Boston’s working-class brogue is more colorful and creative. The language is dominated by dropped 'g's — goin' — and inserted 'a's — it's betta in Boston. Bostonians also love to shorten the long colonial names of their places and tourist spots.

Know these key terms:

  • The Hub: Shorthand for Boston, considered the hub of the New England states and, locals might say, the universe.
  • The T: Bostonians never hop on the subway to get across town. They take the T, which is shorthand for "transportation." The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority runs it. The T got its catchy name during a 1964 ad campaign, which also distinguished each subway lines by color. Hence, the Red Line, the Blue Line, the Orange Line, etc.
  • The Big Dig: The $22 billion highway project running underground through downtown Boston allowed the city to tear down the monstrous, rusting iron highway that once blocked pedestrians' access to Boston Harbor from downtown.
  • The Greenway: Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy replaced the highway that once sliced through downtown. The mile-long green space was dedicated in 2008. Bostonians no longer can complain about the ugly highway, so they now debate whether the Greenway has enough trees.
  • Emerald Necklace: A series of parks wandering throughout the city's many neighborhoods. The parks' sizes and shapes vary but are all linked. Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the architect of New York's Central Park, the necklace connects the Franklin Park Zoo in Dorchester to Jamaica Pond in Jamaica Plain to the Fens near Fenway Park to Boston Common. The Common served as a cow pasture in 1600s colonial Boston.
  • Boston's Left Bank: Cambridge was always known for its bohemian lifestyle, Harvard University and the diverse population it attracts. In recent years, it has become upscale and housing is extremely expensive, but it still offers loads of restaurants, shopping and diversions such as jugglers and musicians in Harvard Square and the Kendall Square Cinema for independent movies.
  • Smoots: Oliver Smoot was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge in the 1950s. Bostonians know him because he used his height as a unit of measure for the bridge across the Charles River connecting MIT to Boston. Lying on the bridge, he marked off a full length before moving on to the next unit. The bridge is 364.4 smoots and one ear in length.
  • Squayeh: That's what Bostonians riding the subway will hear when their train approaches the city's many squares: Harvard (pronounced Hah-vahd), Squayeh, Andrew (pronounced En-drew), Squayeh or Copley Squayeh (pronounced Cop-ly, not Cope-ly).
  • Av: Most people say Avenue. For example, glorious Commonwealth Avenue in Boston's Back Bay is simply called "Comm Av."
  • Grinda: A grinder or subway sandwich the way the locals order it.
  • P-town: This is the popular spot on Cape Cod that Bostonians visit for lobster and shopping by hopping on a fast ferry across Boston Harbor. On a map, it's called Provincetown.

Boston Icons

Cheers. This may be blasphemy but the Cheers bar, one of the biggest tourist draws in the city, is a nonstarter for locals. To be clear: The Boston bar was not the set for the popular, 1980s television show. It did provide inspiration for the show's writers, and a photograph of its facade was shown every week for the sitcom’s opening shots. It has been reduced to a chain: There is now another faux Cheers bar at Faneuil Marketplace.

Brady. Bostonians are obsessed with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. He’s not just any superstar quarterback; his celebrity status has risen a notch here since he began dating his Brazilian supermodel girlfriend, Gisele Bundchen. Bostonians track his knees' progress: he has a torn anterior cruciate that has yanked him out of this season’s play. They know his real estate dealings: Brady purchased a building on chic Beacon Street in Back Bay, renovated the building, sold off the units, except for the top two floors, which he kept for himself. They know he's purchased property in California, and speculation is that he'll build Bundchen a mansion there. And they know he’s hanging out a lot in New York City with her. The couple also turned up at Goodwill in Roxbury to pass out holiday turkeys.

Big Three. Refers to professional basketball stars Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. The trio led the Boston Celtics to the NBA Championship in 2008, beating the Los Angeles Lakers to earn the team's first national title since 1986. Victory was sweet because the Lakers were Celtics fans' arch nemesis throughout the 1980s.

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