After deciphering Philadelphia's unique accent, you'll need to learn the lingo to communicate with the locals. Failing to do so could spell disaster when ordering a cheesesteak or going to an Eagles game. If you've ever wondered when to say to hoagie instead of sub (always), or what qualifies as a jawn (everything), check out these essential Philly slang terms.
Philadelphia boasts one of the more unusual regional accents in the U.S. Due to the distinct way vowels are pronounced, water becomes wooder in the mouths of native speakers. The vowel in the first syllable sounds like put instead of law as other Americans might pronounce it. It’s one of the most famous examples of the Philly accent, but it’s in danger of going extinct. Though the unique vowel system is still used by older residents, it’s not common among local Millennials. So whether a Philadelphian refers to their city’s famous flavored Italian ice as wooder ice or water ice may depend on their age.
No word encapsulates Philly’s vocabulary quite like jawn. Depending on the context, jawn might refer to a project at work, Citizens Bank Park, a car, a birthday party, a package of Tastykakes, or your cousin Dave. In other words, jawn can be a person, place, or thing. Even more nebulous nouns like abstract concepts can be replaced with the versatile term.
Jawn is part of the fabric of Philadelphia today, but it may have originated in a different East Coast city. The word joint was a New York City slang term that was brought to national attention in the early 1980s by hip-hop songs like “That’s the Joint” by the Bronx group Funky 4 Plus 1. From there, the term migrated to Philadelphia, where Black speakers changed the way it sounded. The final consonant was replaced with a glottal stop, and the diphthong (a syllable with two vowel sounds) changed to a single-vowel syllable—both features of African American Vernacular English, or AAVE.
In Philadelphia, jawn underwent a process known as “semantic bleaching,” where the original meaning eroded to the point that it could be used in a broader sense. And broad may be an understatement; experts say it’s hard to find a word in any other language that matches jawn’s flexibility. Though versions of jawn are used by pretty much all Philadelphians, the word is used to its fullest extent in the Black community, according to linguists.
3. The Linc
Next to Independence Hall and the Rocky steps, Lincoln Financial Field is one of Philadelphia’s most sacred landmarks. Locals call it The Linc for short. The football stadium is the home of the Eagles (otherwise known as the Birds or the Iggles in Philly parlance).
4. Youse guys
Addressing a group of people is a recurrent problem in the English language. Philadelphia has found a rather inelegant solution in the phrase youse guys. This is just one common way to address multiple people at once in the region. While youse is associated with the city’s white working class, y’all remains more prevalent in Philadelphia’s Black communities—though the latter phrase is less specific to the area than the former.
If your Philly friend accuses you of drawlin’, it’s time to take a hard look at yourself in the mirror. This term is local slang for “acting out of character.” Flaking out on plans or acting differently around friends when your family is around are examples of behaviors that might qualify as drawlin’.
Try ordering a hero, grinder, or submarine sandwich in the Philadelphia area and prepare to get dirty looks. There's only one word for a sandwich served on a split Italian roll in this part of the country, and that's hoagie. Numerous theories purport to explain the term's origins; according to one story, the word can be traced to Hog Island in the Delaware River, which was used as a shipyard during the First and Second World Wars. The sandwiches Italian immigrant workers ate for lunch there were dubbed hoggies, and thanks to the Philly accent, the word hoagie was born.
Philadelphia is famous for its sandwiches. After stopping by Wawa for a hoagie, try a cheesesteak, which consists of thinly-sliced beef served on an Italian roll with cheese whiz or provolone. Griddled onions are an optional component, and getting them on your sandwich requires some insider knowledge. While purchasing a cheesesteak in Philadelphia, all orders should end with wit or witout—wit indicating you’d like it with onions, and witout meaning you don’t want the extra ingredient. If you don’t specify your preference in as few words as possible, you risk backing up the line, which is a major faux pas no matter which establishment you visit.
Before jawn gained national recognition, chumpy was Philly’s multipurpose noun of choice. It became a common part of the Black Philadelphian vernacular in the 1980s. As linguist Ben Zimmer told My City Paper, it was so popular at one point that a local potato chip brand named their product Chumpies.
Philadelphians use salty (or sawty) the way other English speakers use bitter or angry. If you’ve been tricked by someone or revealed to be wrong about something, your perturbed attitude could be described as salty.
10. MAC Machine
Calling an ATM a MAC Machine is a clear giveaway that you grew up in Philadelphia. MAC, which stands for “Money Access Center,” was a brand of automated teller machines in the Mid-Atlantic U.S. in the 1980s and ‘90s. MAC Machines were rebranded under the Star label in the early 2000s, but you can still hear Philadelphians (especially those who have lived in the city for decades) using the term.
Likely derived from boy, bol is used to refer to a person—usually a male person who's younger than the speaker. There are multiple ways to spell the slang term, with bol, boul, and bul being the most popular variations.
The meaning of this derogatory term is self-explanatory. A young person may refer to anyone who’s older than them as an oldhead—especially if they’ve been called a young bol by them one too many times.