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Some Baltimore words

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.

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.

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.

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.

Readers, do you have more?



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:59 AM | | Comments (24)


There is always the forever use of the word "avenue." Anyone who knows anything, knows "going up the avenue," of course, means Eastern Ave. in Highlandtown.

the county=anything outside of the city

If you google "front steps," "backyard," and "frontyard" (with or without a space) you get a lot of citations that aren't Baltimore-based. Backyard Magazine seems to originate in Wisconsin, for just one example. The word Parlor as defined was also used generally. So I wonder about the aptness of that quotation -- I don't think those expressions spread from Baltimore to the rest of the country.

I don't buy that they're always "steps" in Baltimore. I've heard more than one lifelong Baltimorean refer to "stoops." I wonder if it's a black/white thing? And on "The Wire," they referred to "stoop boys and corner boys," not "step boys."

Erin is correct. Think of the song "Christmas on the Stoop" by the same guy who did "Crabs for Christmas"

The word comes from the Dutch word "stupe". which means the sidewalk.

I grew up in Philadelphia and people there also used the term. My mother's parents, old time South Philadelphia natives, used the word all the time, especially in the context of sitting outside on a hot summer evening.

Half and Half!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Half Lemonade...half Iced Tea...
Ask for it anywhere else... they'll look at you like you're crazy...ask for it in South Baltimore... they call it an "Arnold Palmer" :)

Also.... "The Avenue" could also refer to Pennsylvania Ave...Edmondson Ave or even North Ave... depending on what side you're from...

What fun to read this. I certainly got hung up by the term "Arabbers" when I first moved to Bawlmer, until someone explained that it was a local expression without malice intended. "Snoball" certainly stands out, otherwise known as sno-cones or shaved ice elsewhere in the land. And where there are snoballs, "pit beef" can't be far away. Haven't found the sandwich (or its preparation) called that anywhere else (or should I say "anywurrrs else").

Lightning bugs (fireflies)

The Avenue- W.36th St. in Hampden



Downdeoshunhon ... that's one fast syllable!

You forgot a chicken box. That's three wings and fries. My son and a group of friends went out of town one day and went into a fast food place and ask if they could get a chicken box and the owner said their chickens come in crates and if they wanted a crate of chickens, they would need to wait until tomorrow. They had to drag my son out of the store from laughing. He had no idea that expression was a B-more one.

I grew up in Wisconsin, where we sat on the front steps on summer evenings. The first time I ever heard "stoop" used with that meaning was on the Jackie Gleason Show, ca. 1960, when he was reminiscing about growing up in Brooklyn.

The only two good things to come out of Wisconsin are...oh, never mind.

Regarding "Araber": I learned about this term from Homicide: Life on the Street, the great 1993-99 TV series set and filmed in Fells Point, Baltimore. An Araber was a suspect in the Adena Watson case, which took up much of the first several episodes in spring 1993.

Then there's "Poe lease," which refers not, as one might think, to borrowing books by the great Baltimore-associated 19th-century poet, but to law enforcement.

Would they be cheese and the Packers?

Did you know that Senator Joseph McCarthy came out of Wisconsin?

Rob & Laura, I won't do it again.

(Yes, I did know that, LL.)

I grew up in Tennessee, where we chased lightning bugs around the front and back yards. Those terms seem more like the "soda" or "pop" debate (though in the South the generic term is, of course, "coke") than Baltimore-specific.

Another regional (or maybe class-based?) question I always find fascinating. What time of day do you eat "dinner"?

In our house, the evening meal was called "supper," and the lighter meal in the afternoon was "lunch," but the exception was Sunday, when the main meal of the day was served soon after we returned from church and invariably called "dinner." But I suspect that this reflects Virginia usage, since my mother was from that great commonwealth.

Same pattern in that other great commonwealth, Kentucky.

Same pattern way away in upstate New York.

There are "front steps" and "lightning bugs" in Chicago-speak as well. (And we use "soda" and "pop.")

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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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