A Londoner’s Guide to Living in New York: Part 1.1: Language

I’ve lived in the Big Apple* for about fifteen months now, long enough to get into the swing of living here, and to have acquired and internalised some of the important skills and knowledge required to live in the most charmingly obnoxious city in the world, the USA, the state of New York.

I originally started planning a series of posts that was “the Britisher’s Guide to Living in the States,” then I realised I knew nothing about living in 49 of those States – even though I could probably bullshit Massachusetts, come to think about – and then I realised that the biggest piece of advice I could give a Briton coming to live in New York City would be “live in London or another big metropolis first. It’s a great way of acquiring important skills like underground transit usage and sleeping through traffic noises, without having to also deal with monochromatic money or not having easy access to Branston Pickle. I also have very little experience of being an adult living anywhere other than London, so that’s why my advice has to be limited.

But even with those specifications, I believe I have learned enough in my time living here that I can help out any one who might be interested in leaving one city for the other.

1. Learn the language

Ahahaha, you’re thinking, she’s going to make a joke about how the US and the UK speak different dialects. How funny and original, you’re thinking. Certainly nothing like I’ve ever read before in attempts to be satirical

To which I say: shut up, you sarcastic arsehole.

It’s remarkable. You have no idea the size of the barriers set up by dialectic differences are until you move out of your comfort zone and go somewhere where you don’t speak the standard dialect. It’s an object lesson in itself.

I speak standard British English (Queen’s English – sounds posh, dunnit?) and I spent 29 years of my life living in London and the environs, where the native accent was in line with ‘typical’ English accent, and where the local dialect was, as well, the Queen’s English – give or take an ‘innit’ or a leading ‘H’ respectively.

So it was a serious culture shock to be transplanted into a place where everyone around me considers themselves to speak “without an accent” (no such thing), and where I have to acquire an internal language monitor. Where I continually run the risk of not being understood, and where my normal method of making myself better understood to go slower, yes, but also to plum up and Lumley-fy my accent, actually makes me harder to follow.

This is, of course, nothing like what is experienced by English Language Learners, or people whose accent deviates more strongly from ‘standard’, but it’s incredibly illustrative, to suddenly have to watch what I say, because people do not understand the way I tell time. Nothing like having my privilege poked at slightly to show quite how steeped in it I am.

I can’t help with accent correction, because I don’t have an ear for accents myself, but I have learned a whole new vocabulary, which I share for your benefit


Word You might think… What it means in New York
Hero Mark Cavendish A sandwich
Superhero Marvelman A big sandwich
Sub A boat designed to go underwater A sandwich
Torpedo A weapon often employed by a sub A sandwich
Panini Where all your pocket money went A sandwich
Reuben Freddy Krueger A sandwich
Monte Cristo A classic French adventure novel A sandwich
Grinder A device for serving pepper A sandwich
Subway A sandwich The tube.

There, I hope that is informative.

For other words, I’ve found the following two rules of thumb to be useful:

– If it sounds Italian, it is probably a meat.

– If it sounds Yiddish, it is probably delicious.

If you’re wondering about words that New Yorkers might use for things other than food, don’t worry, so am I.

*No, no one calls it that. I remained saddened by that fact.

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4 Responses to A Londoner’s Guide to Living in New York: Part 1.1: Language

  1. Pingback: Linkblogging For 03/12/11 « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

  2. Laurel says:

    Whoa, I hope you haven’t told any New Yorkers that you think NYC is anything like Massachusetts (and by that I assume you mean Boston) because Yankees/Red Sox hatred runs deep…Another thing, NYC and the rest of NY State are like 2 different worlds, Massachusetts has the same problem with Boston. The rural areas are made up of woods or dairy farms that the city folks always seem to forget about. There are also several other large cities. Grinder is a New England term for a sandwich, not one used really in NY and a few of the others you mentioned are more midwest and it seems you’ve missed Hoagie. Paninis, Reubens and Monte Cristos are actually specific kinds of sandwiches as opposed to the generic sub/grinder/hero which is typically long and can be filled with anything you want. I moved from NY to Mass and I had to learn what a grinder was, and that in New England they have “package” stores for what we would call a “liquor” store. I highly recommend you check out other cities like Boston or DC and see how different cities just on the east coast can be from each other. When I need a culture shock though, I just head to the deep south. I felt more at home visiting the UK than I do down there.

  3. Gwendolyn says:

    I live in New York and I don’t say any of that, most of those I haven’t even heard of! A sandwich is a sandwich to me and the Tube is the Metro to me, so most of us who live in New York don’t talk like that. Just to say…

  4. al says:

    gwendolyn, where do you live? because i’m confused by ‘the metro’. who ever says that? that’s crazy to me. i’ve heard “irt” and whatever the other one is, but never metro.

    subs and heros are sizes of sandwiches, more or less. new yorkers don’t say grinder very often, but some people in the bronx (and yonkers/lower westchester, it’s a super local term, and i love that about it) will use the word ‘wedge’ to mean the same as sub or hero. so you can have a meatball sub, or an italian sub, or a turkey sub.

    reubens are specific sandwiches, with specific ingredients.

    paninis are pressed sandwiches with a variety or ingredients.

    i don’t know about torpedos.

    i like your general rules! i’m a vegetarian so a lot of the time when i see italian words i have to ask someone, is that meat or cheese?

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