You sit down in a Rhode Island ice cream shop, and the server says, “Want a cabinet?” Is she offering you something to drink or a place to store your backpack?
Of course, New England is part of the United States, and English is the native language. But there are some New England words and expressions that you won’t hear anywhere else in the country.
Take “cabinet,” for example. In Rhode Island, cabinet is the word for milkshake – ice cream, milk, and flavored syrup. People say it’s called a cabinet, because you make it in a blender from the kitchen cabinet. In the rest of New England, a milkshake is called a “frappe” (pronounced “frap”).
Rhode Islanders drink coffee milk, too. It’s not coffee with milk – it’s milk flavored with sweet coffee syrup. It’s so popular that in 1993, coffee milk became the official Rhode Island state drink.
If someone in New England offers you “steamers,” would you know that they’re a kind of clam? What about a “quahog” (pronounced “ko-hog”)? That’s a clam, too.
Have you heard the expression “happy as a clam?” That New England saying means you’re especially pleased. The full phrase is “happy as a clam at high tide,” since sand-dwelling clams are comfortably covered with water when the tide is high, hidden from people and other predators.
New England has other unique food words, too. Submarine sandwiches are often called “grinders.” Some people claim that’s because you need a strong set of “grinders” – teeth – to eat these big sandwiches. A “lobster roll” is another type of sandwich – chopped lobster meat mixed with mayonnaise, served on a hot dog bun.
Want to try some “johnnycakes?” They’re cornmeal pancakes. No one knows for sure where the name “johnnycakes” came from, but according to one theory, the word derived from “journey cakes” – what early settlers called the cornbread that they ate when they traveled.
Not all New England expressions have to do with food. If New England kids call something “wicked good,” it’s great. Instead of going “into the basement,” New Englanders go “down cellar.” And they drink water from a “bubbler,” not a water fountain.
So if a New Englander says, “I think a cabinet would be wicked good with these grinders,” just answer “So do I!”
Carolyn B. Heller is a travel and food writer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. She lived in New England for 25 years, and she still thinks it’s a wicked good place.