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Baltimore words summed up

It has been a busy week down at the plant for some reason, and that has delayed further postings. Since there have been a number of responses to the posts on Baltimorean vocabulary, I thought it would be useful to sum it all up. Though surely not exhaustive, here is the list to date.

arabber, a-rabber, Araber (n). An itinerant street vendor of produce, typically using a decorated wagon drawn by a pony. The term derives from the 19th-century term street arab and has no connection with Arabs.* The remaining arabbers in Baltimore are all African-American.

chicken box (n). A carryout order consisting of three or more fried chicken wings and a serving of french fries.

coddie (n.). A fishcake of cod, onions and mashed potato, fried.

crabcake (n.). The signature Maryland dish, a patty of crabmeat and breading, either fried or broiled.

down the ocean (idiomatic). To the seaside.

espantoon (n.). A police officer’s nightstick or baton, wooden, with a leather strap that permits twirling. According to the Federal Writers’ Project’s Maryland: A Guide to the Old Line State, the word “apparently originated during the Revolutionary period when officers of the British infantry carried spontoons (Fr. Sponton, esponson)—short pikes."

half and half (n.). A beverage of equal parts of iced tea and lemonade. Also called an Arnold Palmer.

lake trout (n). Neither trout nor the freshwater fish of that name.** In Baltimore, lake trout, typically Atlantic whiting, is breaded and fried and served in take-out sandwich shops.

snoball (n.). Shaved or crushed ice flavored with syrup and served in a paper cone. Known elsewhere as a snowcone or snowball.

yoking (v. part.). A form of mugging in which the assailant approaches the victim from behind and wraps his arm tightly around the victim’s neck. Also yoker (n.), the perpetrator of such an assault.

In Supplement Two to The American Language (1948), H. L. Mencken writes this:

I have long had it in mind to attempt a vocabulary of Baltimore speech in the 80s and 90s, for a number of terms that were in common use there and then do not seem to have been noted elsewhere, e.g., Araber, a street huckster; to arab, to go huckstering; front steps, the steps before a dwelling-house, usually in those days of marble; and Yankee jumper, a sled for girls, with the platform raised 9 or 10 inches above the runners, and the runners curved upward in front. Leapfrog was always called par, and the word garden was almost unknown: it was always either the backyard or frontyard, or simply the yard. The outdoor privies that still survived in most backyards were called postoffices, and the men who cleaned them at intervals operated an O.E.A. (i.e., odorless excavating apparatus). The grades in school were designated first reader, second reader, etc. The best public room of a house was always the parlor. The street before it, at least for purposes of play, was out front. (pp.162-63) ***

Baltimore, to my knowledge, no longer has postoffices out back, but it still has front steps of marble. Lifelong Baltimoreans always spot a journalist imported from out of town, because an auslander will write about people sitting on the stoop. They have stoops in front of houses in New York; houses in Baltimore have front steps.


* One responder disputed that arabber has no connection with Arab. I should have made the point clearer that the only connection is etymological and that, in Baltimore, arabber does not suggest Arab to anyone. The responder mentioned in this connection the word gypsy, which I think also illustrates my point. The etymological origin of gypsy is Egyptian, though I doubt that anyone now makes such an association. Further, anyone referring to a gypsy cab is unlikely to be expecting a Romani driver.

** See John Woestendiek’s article on lake trout.

 *** Another responder pointed out that backyard and parlor are common usages in other places, of which Mencken was surely aware. The distinction here is that particular usages can be distinctive in a place without being unique to it. Mencken was describing customary usages in Baltimore. Think of a parallel case. Soda and pop are distinctive usages in regions without being unique to those areas. As to stoop, a responder has pointed out that the word can be encountered in wide use among Baltimore’s African-American community, and no doubt it has come into use since Mencken’s time. And yet, there is a sturdy remnant of Baltimoreans who object to it, one of them being an older African-American lady who objects to me every time it turns up in the paper. Perhaps we see a generational division over the words.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:34 AM | | Comments (4)



I would take issue with saying that snowballs are anything like sno-cones.

The Baltimore summer treat is fresh, handmade... shaved iced, loosely poured into a cup, and doused in syrup.

"Sno-cones" are tightly packed, almost frozen together, pieces of ice.

My time at University of Maryland taught me that more than 4 miles outside the city limits, the notion of a "snowball" is nonexistent. Slushee... italian ice... sno-cones... all similar, but by no means the same.

... I'm done being a prick now.

Real coddies (which are made by just a handful of Baltimore and Pikesville delis) consist mainly of cracker meal, with the other ingredients mentioned present in small quantities. They're Depression-era sandwiches, designed to stretch limited supplies of fresh food; not coincidentally, they're traditionally served with saltines.

Thanks for the clarification on "stoop." I didn't consider that it could be a generational divide.

Ah, this brings back sweet memories of my Baltimore childhood. I loved coddies so much that one day I got foundered on them - the mere thought of them made me sick as a dog. And I agree with Dan: you can't get a true snowball outside of Baltimore. My favorite was absolutely saturated with chocolate....haven't had one since I was a kid in the '70s....

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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