Although I write a lot about New York City history and “BACK IN THE DAY” type stuff, I’m not from New York. I moved here when I was 20.
I’m from Newton, Massachusetts, a city bordering Boston. When you grow up in Boston and people hear you’re from Newton, they tend to assume you’re rich or Jewish. But, that stereotype is more based on the south side of Newton. The neighborhood I grew up in was mostly working class Irish and Italians. This chart from some guy’s paper on the MIT (!) website kind of sums it up.
It seems odd to explain now, but the north side of Newton had its own unique slang. For example, instead of calling someone “guy” or “dude,” you called them “mush.” What “whoadie” is to New Orleans, “mush” is to the north side of Newton. If someone was acting like an asshole, they were a “divia” (pronounced “divya,” the spelling is most likely an Italianized phoneticization of something that wasn’t originally written down at all). There is a whole glossary of these terms online, most of it coming from a Boston Globe article from 2001.
The ground zero for this slang was the historically Italian neighborhood of Nonantum (also called “The Lake,” a reference to the long since filled in Silver Lake), and it sort of rippled out into the surrounding neighborhoods. The real Lake guys talked it all the time and extensively, whereas in my neighborhood we mostly just threw a word or two into conversation.
Interestingly enough, the origin of the Lake slang traces back to Romany gypsy words. Doing some research on the Romany language (most of it focused on Anglo-Romany communities in the UK, the same ones I read about when researching my piece on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding), I found several examples that translate directly:
How the Italians in the Lake picked up these Romany words is a question probably lost to the mists of time. The Globe article says that the Romany slang was “brought back to the Lake early (last) century by local youths who worked for a time with traveling carnivals,” which could certainly be true. The history of the Romany in America is not well documented, but many have traditionally worked in carnivals. The Lake is home to the St. Mary of Carmen Festival, an Italian street fair that features carnival rides and dates back to 1935 (only 9 years after the Feast of San Gennaro started in New York). So, there is certainly a direct connection between The Lake and carnival workers.
Having not lived in Newton for quite some time, I tend not to think of these words too much, unless I am driving in traffic and a guy cuts me off and some voice in the back of head yells “You fuckin’ divia!”
Another person like me who left Newton soon after graduating from Newton North High School is comedian Louie C.K. I’m a big fan of Louie C.K.’s comedy and especially his TV show Louie. I almost fell out of my chair watching it a couple years ago when he had an episode where he comes back to Newton, and gets called “mush” by a guy he almost gets into a fight with.
Talk about making a joke for a select audience. Out of the millions watching, the only people who’d catch that reference would be those from the north side of Newton.
Matt LeBlanc from Friends is also from Newton. In fact, he and C.K. were in the same graduating class at Newton North. LeBlanc is from Nonantum (I have a vague childhood memory of seeing him there when helping a friend do his paper route in the late 80’s, but this could be my overactive imagination) so he has a real working knowledge of Lake slang. Last week he was on Conan O’Brien’s show and talked about it. Props to Brookline native Conan for knowing enough to bring it up with LeBlanc.
O’Brien brought up the traditional Newton North/Brookline High sports rivalry and then eased in to asking LeBlanc about the Newton slang. LeBlanc corrected him, stating that it wasn’t all of Newton that spoke that way, and then gave the following example:
“There is this weird slang that, like, for example, they would say something like, ‘yeah, we were down the corner, there was some quister jivals down there, mush'”
and then was nice enough to translate:
“That means some really pretty girls down there, buddy”
WordPress will not let me embed this Conan video, but check it out.