Words You Didn’t Know Came From NYC

Ah, New York—the city that gave the world the Trumps, the 2016 Broadway revival of Cats, and countless regional slang terms that made their way into the national lexicon.

We all know that terms like Wall Street and fuggedaboutit are classic five-borough speak, but check out the following Big Apple words that are used nationwide.

flea market

The Dutch were the first immigrants to New York City, so this is our first term. The dutch used the term vallie to describe a flea market (a staple of any city, but especially New York). Other immigrant populations couldn’t quite get the pronunciation, so they said vallie like “vlee;” vallie market eventually evolved to flea.

tony

Some Italian immigrants from the second wave of immigration (1890–1920) claim that the nickname Tony didn’t come from Antonio (and so didn’t come from Italy). Rather, it came from suitcases of recently arrived immigrants at Ellis Island, which were labeled TONY (“To” and “NY”).

cockamamie

This term originally described an old-timey temporary tattoo made of transfer paper that you had to wet to apply—a cockamamie that 1920s NYC children applied to their skin. Eventually, Lower East Side street children applied the phrase cockamamie to describe anything low-value, cheap, or worthless. Bonus: There’s a great episode of the language podcast Lexicon Valley about this term.


WATCH: The Loaded History Of “Shitfaced”


sidekick

The word sidekick comes from a classic New York (and generally urban) tradition: pickpocketing.

Since many parts of coats and pants were easy to steal from, side pockets (called sidekicks) were the most reliable place to keep a wallet and not have it be stolen. In the early 1900s, the term sidekick started to mean anyone or anything reliable—not just a pocket.

Reuben 

In the mid-1940s, the German-Jewish Arnold Reuben invented the recipe for the iconic Reuben sandwich at the—you guessed it—Reuben’s Delicatessen. A proper Reuben includes corned beef, Swiss, Russian dressing, sauerkraut, and rye bread. The sandwich’s geographic span (Switzerland! Russia! Germany!) is a testament to NYC’s diverse population.

dago, kike

Less pleasant than a delicious Reuben sandwich are the racially loaded expressions dago and kike. Dago is an expression that was used to refer to immigrants who worked as day laborers in 1800s NYC. It’s said to originate from the words day and go—the immigrants would go to work for the day.

Kike is a highly derogatory term for a Jewish person, and it comes directly from Ellis Island. Newly arrived European Jews, unable to read complex English-language paperwork, would sign with a circle on Ellis Island forms instead of their name. In Yiddish, the word for circle is kikel; eventually, Ellis Island employers referred to new Yiddish-speaking arrivals as kikels or kikes.

department store

Today, any mall in the States (or abroad) is anchored by a department store, be it Neiman Marcus or Dillard’s. But the concept—and term—originated in New York in the late 1800s; a giant store divided into discrete departments with everything you might need. (We highly recommend streaming Season 1 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for some excellent old-school Manhattan department store action.)

dude

The word duid was brought to NYC (and later, the whole country) by Irish-speakers in the 1700s and 1800s. In Ireland, it referred to tough Irish neighborhood men who ran around chasing girls who lived in the seedy Five Points neighborhood immortalized in The Gangs of New York. Yup: dude, which is essential to many modern-day vocabularies (even more essential than cockamamie), is another term from old-timey New York.

Sign up for our Newsletter!
Start your day with weird words, fun quizzes, and language stories.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

The Dictionary Is More Than The Word Of The Day

Enter your email for quizzes, quotes, and word facts in your inbox every day.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.