You might know everything there is to know about New York City slang, but the moment you leave the city, fuhgeddaboudit. Upstate New York has its own set of regional colloquialisms, often depending on which area of the state you’re in. “Upstate” is generally defined as everywhere north of New York City (though even that is complicated—more below), which is a wide region to cover—so slang can differ significantly from one region of New York to another. Here’s a list of terms you should know when you want to learn what else New York has to offer outside the Big Apple.
You can get by calling flavored, carbonated drinks “soda“ throughout most of New York, but once you get near Rochester and points west, you’ll find that pop is the term of choice for fizzy liquid refreshment. Of course, if you’re uncertain what the preferred term is in a particular area, you can just order by the drink’s brand name and avoid the dilemma altogether.
2. Tuque (or Touque / Toque)
You can thank our neighbors in the north for this particular term, which is popular in the regions of New York that share a border with Canada. The word tuque (rhymes with “duke”) refers to the familiar, knitted, beanie-style hat worn during cold weather, occasionally with a fuzzy pom-pom at the top. The French-Canadian term tuque comes from the French toque, and is commonly believed to be a variation on toca, the Spanish term for a close-fitting headdress. The term may have found its way into popular use thanks to the caps traditionally worn by French-Canadian fur traders.
3. The City
Travel just about anywhere in upstate New York and you’ll likely find one constant in the regional slang: Whether you’re just a few miles outside Buffalo, Albany, or one of the state’s other major cities doesn’t matter—if someone references “The City” without a proper name, you can be fairly certain they mean New York City. It makes sense, too: As the biggest city in the U.S. by population, New York has earned that level of simplified nomenclature.
4. and 5. Coney and Michigan
Foodies should take note of this particular set of upstate New York terms. Throughout much of northern New York, a Michigan is a traditional hot dog served with meat sauce. Things get a little confusing from there, though, because the term Michigan is a reference to a particular style of hot dog popular in Detroit—where it’s referred to as a “Coney” because it mimics the topping-heavy hot dogs served around Brooklyn’s Coney Island.
If you ask for a “Coney” in upstate New York, though, you’re more likely to get a grilled white sausage on a bun—often served without any sauce, but with a generous helping of onions or other toppings. These types of sausages were also popularized on Coney Island before they made their way upstate.
6. and 7. Upstate and Downstate
For many New York residents, the very definition of upstate is a contentious subject. While New York City residents tend to consider anything north of the Bronx but within the state’s borders “upstate,” those who live in the counties between Albany and New York City don’t tend to think of themselves as “upstate” New Yorkers. For them, upstate encompasses the counties north of their own—particularly Albany and anywhere north or west of the state’s capital city. However, downstate generally refers to anywhere south of Albany to anyone who grew up in the state’s capital city or northern regions.
Marinated cubes of chicken, pork, lamb, veal, venison, or beef grilled on spits over a charcoal pit, then served on a bun—or eaten directly off skewers—is the basic recipe for these culinary staples of Central New York. The name is said to come from spiedino, Italian for “skewer.” You’ll find “spiedie shacks” (as they’re often called locally) as widespread around Binghamton and surrounding regions of New York as shawarma carts and other ubiquitous street foods are in New York City.
9. The North Country
If you live in or around New York’s Capital Region (which encompasses Albany and nearby counties such as Schenectady, Troy, and Saratoga), the real upstate lies a bit farther north, and is generally referred to as “The North Country.” Author Irving Bacheller first introduced the term in 1900 via his novel Eben Holden: A Tale of the North Country, which chronicles the life of an orphan who grew up in the region. Beginning just north of Saratoga and covering a wide swath on both sides of the Adirondack Mountain range up to the Canadian border, this region of New York has its own woodsy aesthetic that couldn’t be more different from the suburban sprawl or crowded cities elsewhere around the state. Exactly which regions fall under the North Country banner tends to depend on where you call home, but rustic cabins, dense forests, scenic hikes, and secluded campgrounds are traditionally what define New York’s North Country.
If you want to be easily identified as a visitor in most northern New York towns, walk into a bar and order a Labatt Blue. Just about anywhere north of Albany, the popular Canadian import is simply called “Blue”—and the simplified moniker gets even more common the closer you get to the border. Like Madonna and Prince, Labatt’s most popular beer goes by just one name in upstate New York, and it remains as commonplace as Budweiser (and maybe more so) throughout the region.
11., 12., and 13. Bombers, Heroes, and Wedges
What most of the country calls a “submarine sandwich” (or simply a “sub”) is called something entirely different in various parts of New York, depending on the region. Just north of New York City, the sandwich served on a portion of a long, cylindrical roll is called a “wedge” or “torpedo,” while anyone hailing from Buffalo, Rochester, and western New York is likely to call it a “bomber.” Strangely, you’ll also find it referred to as a “hero” in both NYC and in some towns in the far north of the state. These sandwiches also have regional monikers in Philadelphia (they’re called “hoagies”) and Rhode Island (where they’re known as grinders, which is pronounced “grindah”).
14. The Snow Belt
Head west of Albany and you’ll eventually enter a region of New York informally known as the “Snow Belt.” Spend any time there in the winter, and you’ll understand why it gets that name. A combination of environmental factors ensures that whatever amount of snow the rest of New York gets hit with, anyone living in and around this region stretching from Buffalo to Oswego probably gets a lot more of it.
Another gift from New York’s neighbors to the north, poutine (pronounced “poo-teen”) is the term used for a Canadian comfort food that’s become a staple on menus all across the state’s northern border. A mixture of french fries and cheese curds topped with a thick, brown gravy, poutine originated in Quebec in the 1950s and eventually made its way south to New York, where every town along the border seems to have its own, unique spin on the recipe.