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10 Words, Phrases And Expressions Only Upstate New Yorkers Use

'saratoga living' explores our local patois—everything that makes us distinctly 'Upstate New York.'

Upstate New York
(Sophia Donnelly/Flickr)

The first time I heard somebody use this grammatical construction in New York City I scrunched up my nose. It didn’t sound right. In fact, it was totally wrong, I thought. The offending sentence? I was waiting to get into a rock concert, and the doorman shouted, “If you’re here for the show, please get on the line.” In the Big Apple, someone doesn’t get “in a line,” they get on one, which to me sounds like firing up my modem and going out on a web surfing expedition. I remember thinking, “How can all these people have been saying it wrong for so long?”

It quickly dawned on me, after hearing hundreds more people say it, that these harmless cityfolk were just using a regional patois. Sort of like how my friend from Michigan says “pop” and I say “soda” for the same thing. Only within the last few years have I realized just how many Upstate New York-isms my family, friends and I use. You just don’t hear them anywhere else in the world, including large swaths of New York State itself. That’s because we’ve come up with our own way of communicating with one another. It’s our own secret language that transplants or outsiders have to decipher before they truly understand. And the tough part? There’s no Upstate New York Rosetta Stone or Babel Fish. Luckily, I was able to draw from my own experience—and poll the many Upstaters on my Facebook page for this piece (pat yourself on the back if your words made the cut). Below, I’ve come up with ten pieces of local patois, unique speech patterns and sayings that are distinctly Upstate New York. Did I miss any big ones? Leave them in the comments when we post this puppy on Facebook.

‘I Says This And I Says That’ – One of my favorite things, as a grammar nerd, is to hear my wife’s extended family from the Utica area tell stories in the past tense. That’s when things get interesting. For example, someone will say: “I saw this great movie last night, and there was this woman talking in the seat in front of mine, so I says, ‘Shut your mouth!’ And then the woman turned around and shot me an angry look. And I says, ‘Shhh, hag!'” Obviously, in normal, grammatically correct English, “says” only pairs up with “he, she or it.” But in some parts of Upstate New York, it’s OK to group it with the first-person, when telling a tale. So says I.

Stag Party – I’ve only heard this term used in the Utica area, but that doesn’t mean variations on the theme aren’t being used elsewhere. Not to be confused with a Bachelor Party—the weekend-long bacchanalia that features a good, heaping portion of debauchery—a Stag Party, according to my Utica source on the inside, is usually a single-day affair, held at one location, such as a bar or restaurant, that can be attended by anyone who vaguely knows (or is related to) the groom-to-be. The event takes place in the town where the groom-to-be’s from, and in order to get in, you have to purchase a ticket. The money paid for the ticket goes into a fund for the groom, and there’s usually some sort of fundraiser or raffle component, too. At the one I went to, it was a raffle, and I think I won two bottles of booze. It was some sort of Stag Party record. Sometimes there’s a golf outing or dinner involved, too, and while copious amounts of alcohol are consumed, it’s nothing close to what one might experience at a Bachelor Party. (With the exception of that one uncle that always parties a little too hard.)

‘A Couple’ Time Construction – I first heard this phrase at the doctor’s office in Troy: “Come back and see me in a couple three months.” It’s sort of an amalgam of “I’ll see you in a couple months” and “I’ll see you in three months.” I thought the doctor had misspoken the first time I heard him say it, but when he said it at the follow-up visit, I knew it was another delicious morsel of Upstate patois.

Fish Fry – If you see a sign on a local fire station that says, “Fish Fry Benefit This Weekend,” it will not feature men flipping flopping fish into frying pans. Rather, “fish fry,” usually used as a singular noun referring to the dish itself (as in “This is some tasty fish fry!”), is Upstate New York’s version of the British favorite, fish and chips—basically, a substantial portion of haddock (or another white fish) breaded, fried and served with french fries. I first discovered the regional delicacy in Utica, where it’s eaten the Friday before Easter, as part of the observance of Lent. But when I moved to Troy, I found a different, less religious (and more commercial) version of it there. There’s a Capital Region chain called Ted’s Fish Fry, which serves it up in a hotdog bun with hotdog-like toppings (the portions are much less monstrous than the ones I’ve gotten in Utica).

‘Hamburgs’ Or ‘Steamed Hams’ (a.k.a. Hamburgers) – While we’re on the topic of food, if you live in Western New York and you go to the supermarket to buy raw, shredded beef, it’s referred to as “hamburg.” (Sometimes, “hamburg meat.”) If you were to shape them into those circular delicacies consumed mostly at barbecues, those would be called “hamburgs.” But wait! There’s more! An old friend dialed this one in via Facebook: Residents of Albany refer to grilled beef patties as “steamed hams.” And there was even an entire (hilarious) skit done on The Simpsons about it (see above). Then again, to paraphrase Billy Joel, “It’ll always be a hamburger to me.” (Note: “Steamed hams” are not to be confused with “Albany beef,” the questionably delicious seafood dish you’ve already learned about elsewhere.)

Camp – If you’re not from Upstate New York, when you think of “camp,” your mind will likely wander back to that place you were sent by your parents in the summer months to learn archery, how to sail and do arts and crafts (at least that was the makeup of the one I got sent to; I hated it). But up here in our neck of the woods, “going to camp” means traveling to your family’s lake house or summer rental. The house itself might even be referred to as “camp,” as in “It’ll be nice to enjoy camp again this coming spring.”

Cabbage Night – When I was a teenager, I became obsessed with this “horror punk” band called The Misfits. When that band dissolved in the early 1980s, lead singer Glenn Danzig launched a follow-up act called Samhain (which fans pronounced “Sam-hayne”). I did a bit of digging at the time, and it turned out that Samhain (actually pronounced “sah-wayne”) was a Gaelic festival, which usually ran concurrently with Halloween (a few nights longer, actually) and marked the end of the harvest. It’s also about an 11 on the Creep-o-Meter. However, in Saratoga Springs when I was growing up, we also had Cabbage Night, which fell on the night before Halloween, and usually involved the local ne’er-do-wells bologna-ing cars (the processed meat supposedly strips off paint if left on painted metal for too long), egging houses (chucking uncooked eggs at the sides of unsuspecting domiciles; the next-morning smell is to die for) and toilet papering front bushes and trees (you get the idea). How do I know so much about Cabbage Night? I plead the Fifth.

Duanesburg Style – Without question, this is my favorite localism on this list. My mom dusted it off a few years ago when my wife was sitting in the front seat, and my dad and me in the backseat, on a ride to the Saratoga National Historical Park. Can you guess what it means? When my mom was growing up in Schenectady, if you were driving “Duanesburg Style,” that meant it was either all women in the front, men in the back; or the opposite. (Duanesburg is a small town in Schenectady County, by the way, pronounced “Dwaynez-berg.”) I have no idea what it’s all about, and why they dragged poor Duanesburg into it. But it’s the best punk band name that hasn’t been claimed in Upstate New York history!

The Northway/The Arterial – The first of the two descriptors seems to be a Capital Region-specific term, referring to Interstate (or “I”) 87. Oddly, as one Facebook friend noted, it’s known as the Northway whether you’re traveling north and southbound. The Arterial, on the other hand, seems to be Saratoga area specific, and refers to the stretch of roadway between Broadway in Downtown Saratoga Springs and the exit onto The Northway (Route 50). In 1994, The Arterial also became known as the C.V. Whitney Memorial Highway (i.e. named for Marylou Whitney‘s late husband, Cornelius “Sonny” Vanderbilt Whitney). What’s in a name?

Saying ‘Upstate New York’ – This is a good one to end on. When some of my friends in NYC used to say they originally hailed from “Upstate New York,” that meant they grew up in Westchester County. That’s when I’d butt in and say, “No, no, no. Westchester’s not really Upstate New York. I’m from way the F up there.” (I’d usually point northward or jump up and down for emphasis.) The whole “What is Upstate New York?” quandary has come up in saratoga living editorial meetings aplenty, as has how far the Capital Region stretches, north, south, east and west. Which also opens up the nagging cyst of “What constitutes Downstate?” Look, all I know is that I grew up in Saratoga Springs, which is in the Capital Region—sometimes referred to as “Capital-land”—and that I would consider myself from Upstate New York.

Honorable Mention: Wicked – Up until a few days ago, I assumed “wicked” was only something drunk New England Patriots fans used to modify just about everything: wicked awesome! Wicked bummah, bro! Tom Brady’s so wicked! But two reliable Upstate New York sources are claiming it as a legit Upstate-ism.

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Will Levith

Will Levith is the Director of Content for saratogaliving.com and the Executive Editor for saratoga living magazine. He's a native Saratogian and graduate of Saratoga Springs High School. His work has been published by Esquire, Playboy, Condé Nast Traveler, Men's Health, RealClearLife and many others.

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