Local Words & Phrases

A while back I ranted here about authors setting novels in a New York City they obviously knew only from movies and TV shows. In their City, subways stopped in the wrong places, it’s easy to find a parking place and everyone is fearful and rude. Bad cop shows from the 1970s, vintage Woody Allen films and urban legends about the sewers replace real research. Language can also be local and require a bit of research.

I was reminded of this today when I was asked, “Which way is Avenue of the Americas?” by a woman walking on 12th street.

Avenue of the Americas is one of the major avenues running North/South in Manhattan and locals always refer to it by its other name — 6th Avenue. This is likely because it’s between 5th and 7th avenues — kind of a no brainer. The Jefferson Market Library’s address might be written as 425 Avenue of the Americas, but a local will say 425 6th if pressed for an exact address, but when giving directions we’d say 6th Avenue at 9th Street — as cross streets locations is the local lingo style. Today I met a friend for coffee at Café Lalo — 83rd between Broadway & Amsterdam avenues. That’s New York speak.

Local language exists everywhere and when it’s wrong, it can jump out at an informed reader and undermine the credibility of the storytelling. Pop or Soda, Bag or Sack, Sub or Hero — simple, everyday nouns that mean the same things in different places.

Know your local words and phrases. Using the right ones is worthwhile. Got some fun examples from other locales? Please share them!


  1. Grace

    I have more examples of pronounciation i.e. Houston Street locally is prounounced “how-ston.”

    • Candy Korman

      YES! That’s one of the times that the word is the same but the pronunciation is dictated by geography. If you’re writing dialect, it’s one of those things to keep in mind.

  2. Idaho girl that I am, it took me forever to get acclimated to hearing all of the English tourists refer to queues when I was a hostess at a restaurant in the Everglades. People in the town I grew up in would know lots of mining terms others would probably find strange like calling work clothes diggers.

    • Candy Korman

      I listen to the BBC Radio most mornings and the language we share with the Brits is and interesting combination of same and totally different. I was completely annoyed a few years ago when I saw a Hollywood movie about British characters (with British and American actors) and they discussed “Making a decision” (U.S. English) instead of “Taking a decision” (British). Queues Vs. Lines, Lifts Vs. Elevators…

      I LOVE your example! “Diggers” so so local/regional and specific. And yet, an outsider would soon catch on to its meaning from the context, the way I know a paper sack is a paper bag and a sub is a hero without pondering for more than a few minutes. It’s also the kind of word that signifies credibility to a local reader.

      One thing I didn’t discuss is the TIME period for words. Some grow old, some are new (or their use is new). Anachronisms in dialog can be as distracting to the reader as a watch on the wrist of a medieval knight. Perhaps that’s a topic for another post?

  3. -grin- And then there are the weird exports! I’m thinking of that old commercial where Australian Paul Hogan winks and talks about putting another shrimp on the barbie. Shrimp? Over here we call those teensy weensy prawns that go in fried rice ‘shrimp’. Real prawns, the kind that are big enough to go on a bbq are NEVER shrimp. 😀

    • Candy Korman

      JUMBO SHRIMP is my all-time favorite oxymoron (contraction in terms).
      Yes, the Aussies have their own words and phrases, nationally, and I’m sure there are regional and local variations too. It must make you crazy when some U.S. based writer sets a story in Melbourne, after a brief vacation in Australia, and pulls the “shrimp” on the BBQ hat.

  4. The infantry training camp on Camp Pendleton is pronounced differently based on if you are local or not. It is spelled Onofre. In Spanish the Os are pronounced in the long O sound (Oh No Fray). To everyone else it is (On ah fray).

    • Candy Korman

      Like HOUSTON (Texas) and Houston Street (NYC) — pronounced HOW and HOO. Fortunately for readers, these distinctions on the page won’t give the writer’s naivete away. In New York we have Subways, in Washington DC they have The Metro. I know DC pretty well, but if I set a story there I have to be careful when I have a character take the Red Line to a destination. A silly snafu in my references would undermine my credibility.

      So… do the folks at Camp Pendelton have a nickname for the training camp? Something attendees & employees use that “townies” would not use? That would be a really interesting local word.

      I first heard “townies” when I attended (for one very long and horrible semester) the wrong college. It was in Upstate New York and it was the wrong choice for me. Down in “The City” (New York City) there’s a not completely derogatory, but not exactly happy phrase used to refer to folks who live in the “outer boroughs. They are called “The Bridge and Tunnel Crowd” as it takes bridges and tunnels to get from Staten Island, Queens, Brooklyn and The Bronx to Manhattan. You might describe a bar as having a “Bridge and Tunnel Crowd” clientele. The funny thing is that with real estate prices so high — especially for rentals — living in outer boroughs is not exactly a criminal choice. It’s logical and, in some cases, totally cool. (Lots of cool hoods out there.) I’ve been wondering when the phrase will morph into a compliment. We’ll see if it happens.