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Home » ARTS AND CULTURE in RI » RHODE ISLAND (all topics) » Say What?
A Coffee Cabinet. Right?
Say What?

By Nicholas H. Kondon | October 25, 2010

Using different words for everyday objects is not confined to the English. Nick Kondon uncovers some language differences here in New England.

A Soda Jerk

Ambiguation means using a word or words that may create uncertainty or doubtfulness on the part of the listener, or reader.   For example, if in conversation, we used the word mercury, you might think we meant the element.   You could not “see” that our Mercury began with a capital M.   Knowing that it did might make things clearer for you.   With a capital M you’d realize we are referring to the Roman god.   Of course, we could also be talking about the planet, or the old record label, or the now defunct automobile.

In New England, special cautions must be observed to guard against ambiguation because Yankees are determined to confound, in speech, or on the page.   Moreover, when they do leave us in the dark, they return our quizzical stares with blank ones of their own.   Say, for example, a visiting Floridian asks where she might quench her thirst.   A Bostonian might point down a hall (in other parts of America known as a corridor) and say, “There’s a bubbler right there.” No, bubblers don’t bubble; they provide a small, arching stream of water available to the thirsty who bend at the waist to partake.   Oh! A water fountain. That’s what he said, a bubbler.

But if the Ms from Miami wasn’t hankering for water, she might press for a different beverage.   In Salem, Massachusetts, she might be asked if she wanted a tonic.   Not at all.   She’s not ailing; she’s simply parched.   But in the Witch City, tonic means soda.   Not soda as in soda ash, or soda cookie.   Soda…as in pop.   Pop - not as in father, but as in the sound made when the cap is pried off a bottle of tonic.   Mind if I ask where you’re from?

New Yorkers have their egg cream, a beverage - confusing in that it contains neither eggs nor cream.   Louisianans think a tip is advice for the stock market, or the right pick in a horse race.   In Baton Rouge, the gratuity you leave on a restaurant table is a lagniappe, pronounced LAN-yap.   Some say from the Spanish la nãpa, “the gift” while others say from the Quechua yapay, “to give more.” But, let’s go to Rhode Island, where they have some real beauties.   Good looking women, yes, but we mean strange ways of saying things.

Awful Awful

Picture yourself at a Providence lunch counter asking the soda jerk (he’s neither) for a drink suggestion. “Try a coffee cabinet”, he says.   You look around for furniture.   There must be an old armoire filled with java beans.   Nope.   That’s because a coffee cabinet is a concoction of coffee ice cream, milk, and coffee syrup violently agitated into a drink that, in other parts of the state, might be known by its synonyms: frappe, or Awful-Awful.   In fact, excepting calories, there is nothing even half awful about an Awful-Awful.   Coffee cabinet, frappe, Awful-Awful, they’re all the same to a Rhode Islander.

As an aside apropos of nothing, Rhode Islanders season their French fries by sprinkling them with vinegar.   Don’t ask.   Just accept the information as another category of cautions for the tourist, and be prepared.   “Vinegar on your fries?” “No, thank you.   Tart guava gelato, if you have it.”

In every other metropolis in American, when you head for the center, you are said to be “going downtown.” Not in Providence.   In Providence, there’s an affectation that could only arise in the country’s smallest state.   If you are headed toward the capital city’s urban center, you are said to be going “down city.” We think this phrase was born of envy.   You see Rhode Island is a mere 40 miles North to South, and a paltry 30 miles East to West.   Consequently, there is neither an upstate nor a downstate, hence, down city. Pity Providence; it does not have an up city.   That’s Awful.   Awful.

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