The language of my childhood

I grew up in Chicagoland, in the '90s.

Watching Seinfeld with my wife, during the COVID pandemic in 2020 made me realize how much of my childhood language I no longer use. I haven't yet sorted out how much is regional (Chicago vs Bay Area) vs. temporal (Seinfeld was written 25+ years ago)—but the Bay Area of 2020 definitely isn't Chicagoland of the '90s.

Christmas cookies: (n) the official sweet of the Christmas season. Often given as gifts, and featuring holiday-themed pictures or other graphic designs.

front room (n): room in one's house facing the street/public areas, often with windows. Often decorated and occupied only on special occasions. Put your shoes in the front room.

gym shoes: (n) sneakers. Shoes worn in the gym. Sometimes also called tennis shoes, but everybody knows you don't wear tennis shoes when playing tennis.

house (v, of food): to consume with great speed, often in large quantitiy. He housed that calzone (pizza). Also put away.

icicle lights: (n) household Christmas lights in short strings of 6-10 bulbs, hung vertically from gutters, intended to look like icicles. Icicle lights became popular in the late-90s; they look great, but are difficult to install properly.

interstate (n): a divided, multi-lane, high-speed highway. Often referred to by name, and never using an article: I-80, or simply 80 for the East-West highway running through much of the northern United States. Compare to California, where such roads are called freeways and often designated with an article: the 405, the 101, the 5.

Just for kicks, the locals have their own street names, which might as well be a code designed to confuse out-of-towners, as these names generally don't appear on signs, span portions of several interstates and are said quickly when giving directions, or on radio traffic reports:

  • Dan Ryan: ("The Ryan") portion of I-90/I-94 south of the Chicago loop.
  • Edens Expressway: ("The Edens") I-94 north (east, as I-94 is technically an east-west highway, despite running mostly north-south near Chicago) of Chicago
  • East-West Tollway: I-88 from the Chicago Loop to the western suburbs
  • The Eisenhower: ("The Ike"): I-290 running westward, out of the loop
  • The Kennedy: I-90 north of the Chicago Loop, running to O'Hare, and beyond.
  • The Stevensen: the portion of I-55 running through Cook County.
  • Tri-State Tollway: ("The Tri-State") portion of I-80, I-294, and then I-94 that runs through the south suburbs, around Chicago to the west and northwest suburbs.

Italian beef: (n) thin-sliced kitty corner: (adj) diagonally across a four-way intersection. The restaurant was kitty-corner to the gas station. Often mistaken for catty-corner, but this form is not used in Chicagoland.

Merc, The: (n) Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Major financial exchange in the Chicago loop, specializing in financial products including options and futures on interest rates, currencies, and other non-agricultural produts.

pop: (n) bubbly flavored water; called soda on the coasts. A pop bottle got stuck in the pipe.

rip-off: (v) to receive a bad deal; to not get goods or services commensurate with one's expenditure.

The Eastern United States has a rich taxonomy of dishonest business dealings, including:

  • bamboozle: (v) to engage in long-lasting, but relatively minor deception, often unnoticed for a long period. Often due to an honest error that went unnoticed. The phone company charged me $5/month too much for two years, those guys bamboozled me out of $120!
  • bilk: (v) to obtain goods (often money) dishonestly. That guy bilked me out of $100!
  • con: (n) an ongoing scheme of dishonesty. Comparatively vague, cons can be large or small, and involve many people, or only a few. That guy has been running that same con for 4 years.
  • grift: (n) a small trick, or con. Mostly used in Chicago by East Coast transplants.
  • pull a fast one: (v) small-potatoes deception, concealed by speed or sleight of hand. I ordered a large, don't try to pull a fast one and give me the medium. Fast ones are usually perpetrated by being pulled. syn: pull one over.
  • racket: (n) an ongoing, organized series of transactions, done without deception, but so lopsided as to be considered "unfair". Rackets are never illegal, and are sometimes only made possible by the help of laws, codes, or higher authority. Those rental car companies charge you $8/gallon for gas if you forget to fill the tank, what a racket! Or You know those airplane snacks cost $5? You can get the same thing on the ground for $1, what a racket!
  • scam: (n) a pattern of major, deliberate, premeditated dishonest dealing, often with organization and sophistication. Scams are often illegal, if not immoral, and can involve comparatively large sums (hundreds, or even thousands of dollars). Generally requires concealment. Did you hear about that Medicare billing scam? The doctor made 50 Medicare claims over 3 years, $45,000 for work he never did!
  • snow job: (n) deception through ongoing, elaborate, often humorous concealment, flattery, or puffery. Snow jobs are often performed (pulled) on boesses, superiors, or others in positions of power or authority, by groups with many people "in on the con". Called a snow job as, like snow, the lies keep piling up. As a verb, to snow someone.
  • switcheroo, the: (n) false dealing resulting from changing the terms of the agreement. You said you'd come over Saturday, don't pull the switcheroo on me and tell me Sunday!

stand pipe: (n, residential) a vertical pipe containing water, designed to harness the water's weight. During flooding, Chicago-area homeowners screw standpipes into their basement drains, ensuring floodwater cannot enter structures through their drains. Also used during firefighting, to provide water if pumping power is not available.

storm door: (n) the outer door of a set of two doors one passes through, entering a Chicagoland house. Often with interchangeable screens/glass, storm doors are left open to keep houses cool during summer, unless shut because the air conditioning is on.

Whitey's: (n) White Castle, famous for late-night sliders. Bring a Crave Case from Whitey's when you come.