Educate Yourself! Find Out Where 7 NYC's Most Famous Slang Words Came From | spoiled NYC

Educate Yourself: Find Out Where 7 NYC's Most Famous Slang Words Came From

Sometimes, New Yorkers talk differently than the rest of the world.

For instance, no one anywhere else eats heroes from bodegas. No one else lives in Gotham or schleps to and from work every day.

No one else in any other city aspires to have a schmear of cream cheese on their bagel. 

If you're listening closely, you'll probably be able to tell that someone's from NYC based on the words they use.

Curious about where New York City's slang words originated? We were too, so, we found out.

Read on to find out where NYC's most famous, lovable, and specific-to-New-York slang words came from below.

1. Hero

hulahernandez The struggle is real! 😆 #lunch #HappyFriday #fatgirlproblems 🐷 #getyourmindoutthegutter #herosandwich 😁

Okay, so sandwiches began in the 18th-century when an Earl named John asked his staff to serve him meat between bread for quick meals.

However, everyone knows there's a huge distinction between "sandwich," and "hero." What is it? Well, heroes are huge, and include fresh rolls stuffed with meat of any sort.

Where'd the word come from? Well, there was a time when every American city had their own name for a loaf of bread willed with meat.


According to Bon Appetit, the name hero probably came about when Clementine Paddleworth coined it in a food column for the New York Herlad Tribune in 1936.

What'd Paddleworth write? That the sandwich was so large, "you had to be a hero to eat it." Yes, Paddleworth, we are all heroes for eating heroes indeed.

2. Bodega

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If you trace the inception of NYC bodegas, it seems like they've been along just as long as the city has. #BodegaLife is a huge aspect of NYC living.

Whether other cities have stores like bodegas or not, they're certainly not called bodegas.

The word comes from the Spanish la bodega which means grocery store. According to Time, the term used to be primarily used to refer to the bodegas found in Spanish speaking neighborhoods in NYC.

Of course, the term is used with frequency in Spanish-speaking populations to describe grocery stores, but in NYC they describe something else entirely. They're a place where you can buy a quart of milk for $1.50, a sandwich, beer, and toothpaste, all in the same place.

More than that, they're a place for New Yorkers to frequent and feel a sense of community.

3. Schlep

knitchedg Sure could use wheels like these this week for #vklive #schlep

According to The New York Times, the word was initially derived from the German word sleppen, which was eventually transferred to the Yiddish word schlepn or schlep, meaning to "drag, haul, lug."

The word has been more or less introduced into common English language vernacular, and was even introduced into the 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.


It's definitely a specific-to-NYC term, brought here by the Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants at the beginning of the 20th Century.

It's a standard term in Yiddish, but it still carries a touch of New York humor when used in United States' English.

4. Schmear

kumuakamai Can't fight my Jewish roots #baegals #shmear #koasher

In NYC, the word schmear means you have the perfect amount cream cheese on your bagel.

It's an obvious fact of life that NYC has the world's best bagels, and that NYC's bagel retailers serve their doughy bagels with way more cream cheese than any other bagel retailer anywhere.

Schmear entered the English language from Yiddish, brought over by the Jewish immigrants of the 1900's, though in Yiddish the word means to spread, and carries none of the perfect-amount-of-cream-cheese NYC connotation.

Business development director of Davidovich Bakery in Queens Marc Fintz spoke out against too much cream cheese in Slate.

"A cream cheese portion should be a schmear. It should be enough to bring out the delicious taste of a traditionally cured bagel. It is a complement to the taste - NOT THE TASTE," Fintz wrote.

NYC coffee cart operators, you hear that? You're putting too much cream cheese on your bagel, and you should cut it out. Your bagels should have a schmear of cream cheese, and that's it.


5. Gotham

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This is a nickname for NYC. We've got a lot of nicknames, but perhaps this one is the most poignant.

A lot of people associate it with the Batman comics, but according to The New York Public Library, Batman's author was inspired by a telephone book entry for Gotham Jewelers.

In the Steranko History of Comics Finger explained that changing the location of Batman from NYC to Gotham City made the setting more ambiguous.


When was the city first referred to as Gotham City in the Batman comics? Well, that happened in a 1940 issue of Batman.

However, the term stretches back much further than that. In 1807, author Washington Irving nicknamed the city in his short stories.

6. Mezzanine 

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If you're not from NYC and you come here, and you're told something is located on the "mezzanine," you might be confused.

Why? Well, the term isn't used with nearly as much frequency anywhere else.

It's a small floor that's located between the main levels of a building, and is usually a balcony. The term probably entered the English vernacular due to Broadway. 

When used to describe a place in a theater, it means the lowest balcony in a theater, or the first few rows of the balcony. 

The term started as the Latin "medianus," meaning median, and eventually became the Italian "mezzano" for middle.

7. Juicers and gaffers

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These are also terms that can trace their origins in the English language Broadway.

According to The New York Times, a juicer is an electrician who, you know, turns on the lights.

The term gaffer, however, has been around much longer. For centuries, it meant the foreman of a stage crew. Later, it came to mean the head electrician in film and television.


It originated in the 16th century, when it meant godfather or grandfather. In the 19th Century in Britain, a gaffer was a master glassblower.

Are we surprised that the term for "grandfather" in the 16th century became NYC slang for "head of the electric team in film and television"? No, we're not that surprised.

Check out 13 Crucial NYC Slang Words Every New Yorker Should Know

[Feature Image Courtesy City-Data] 

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