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Chicago Terms

Coming of Age     |     The Hollow Man Series, International Espionage

New York City, Jersey’s Union City, Boston, Atlanta, Los Angeles and many others have their own unique set of provincial colloquialisms (jargon and slang to us guys). If anyone is thinking about writing a novel that takes place in Chicago, you’re in luck. Having mostly grown up in and around the city, I have compiled a tiny dictionary of local terms and expressions to help your character dialogue become more authentic. Like most hometowns, you won’t find this slang anyplace else in the country. So, in no particular order, here goes.

CLOWNS – A group of people, usually with something in common, but not necessarily. “How do I get a hold of those clowns down the block?”

GOAT RODEO – An old-fashioned shit-show where kids are trying to act like grownups. The image of children riding goats instead of horses is an image you cannot un-see. “The company I’m working for is a real goat rodeo.”

SAMMICH – I bet you don’t believe this word really existed, but it does. “Gimme one of dem I-talian sammiches with peppers. Oh, and dip it in dat dere sauce.”

WASHROOM – We don’t go to the bathroom or the powder room in Chicago. We go to the washroom. “I gotta go to the washroom really bad. Which way is it?”

YOUS GUYS – Refers to the people to which you are speaking. “Hey what are yous guys doin’ tonight?”

FRUNCHROOM – In English, this translates to the front room, or what normal people call the living room. “You can’t eat supper in the frunchroom.”

POP – You will recognize popular brands like Coke and Pepsi. Most of the rest of the country calls this soda. I’ve always called it soda myself, though it’s probably because of my early travel itineraries that lead me out of Chi-Town. “Get me a case of pop while you’re at the store.”

SHOW – We don’t go to the movies, we go to the show. “There’s a good double feature at the show this weekend.”

16 INCH – Get your minds out of the gutter. 16 Inch is the original ball size in the traditional Chicago softball game. It’s a rock-hard ball that turns to mush by the second inning. The game is played without gloves and usually referred to simply as softball. “There’s a pickup game of 16 inch this afternoon at 3:00.”

THE “L” – The name of Chicago’s elevated train system running from downtown to the north, west, and south suburbs. The name was originally called the “EL” but that took too much time to say so it was eventually shortened to the “L”. Traveler’s note: The “L” is only elevated in the downtown area and for very short distances outward from there. “Let’s go shopping on State Street. We can take the “L” down there.”

DIBS – The right of fair ownership for calling what you want out loud first within your group of buds or buddettes. “I’ve got dibs on that pretty girl. You can have the plain one over there. Yours seems like a good dancer, anyway.”

TRO - To hurl, toss or pitch something. In other words, “throw.” “Tro me that football.”

JEET: Fast way of asking: “Did you eat?”

GRATCHKI: The small, notched metal item used to unlock a garage door. Alternatively, a house key kept in the garage in case someone is locked out. “You lost the grachki again? You know I can’t get in without it.”

15-20 MINUTES: The standard answer to any question about how far away something is in Chicago. The answer rarely takes into account complicating factors — say, traffic. Or that the person asking the question was actually wondering about distance, not time. “Sox Park is 15-20 minutes from Midway?”

BY: Replaces proper use of the prepositions “at” and “to.” “I grew up by Montrose and Western.” Or: “I gotta go by the store to pick up a half a gallon of milk.”

DECENT: Describing something that’s really good, while not getting overly excited. I still use this term a lot. “That’s a pretty decent diamond ring she’s wearing.”

GYM SHOES – It’s the great debate of “sneakers” versus “tennis shoes”. The East Coast tends to use the former and a swath of the rest of the nation, including most of the Midwest, uses the latter. The term Gym Shoes exists primarily in Chicago alone. “Put your gym shoes on. We’re gonna play some catch.”

A COUPLE, TWO, THREE - A couple most strictly means two, but it’s often used casually in Chicago to mean much the same thing as a few, which commonly means around two, three, or four. There aren’t many uses of slang that turn short words into much longer phrases, but Chicago manages it here. Few is a tough word to pronounce. “While at the store, get me a couple, two, three tomatoes.”

DESE, DEM, & DOSE - Stereotypical pronunciations of “these, them, and those,” associated with white ethnic Chicagoans. Probably originates from the fact that most immigrants from Europe spoke languages without a “th” sound and passed on this difficulty with the sound to their children. You all must remember these being satirized by Saturday Night Live’s Superfans, whose favorite team was “Da Bears.”

GANGWAY – The space between city buildings, usually covered with a sidewalk so residents could easily get to their back doors or from the alley to their front door. “Use the gangway to take your bike to the backyard.”

GAPER’S BLOCK – When traffic slows to a crawl so drivers can examine what kind of accident just occurred on the opposite side of the road. “I’m late for work again, cuz of a damned gaper’s block!”