Chicago Slang: How to Talk Like a Local



Photo Credit.

Now before you get all huffy and puffy, we aren’t trying to make you lose your identity or anything… just trying to help you get to know the local lingo! If you want to sound like you’re a Chicago pro, here’s a brief description of some essentials.

The Chicago accent — Ok, so for many this doesn’t need explaining, but let’s clear the air on what exactly the Chicago accent is. The most important is the long “a”. We say Chic(aaaa)go, not Chic(ah)go. We say paj(aaaa)mas, not paj(ah)mas. It’s annoying, but we love it, and mostly can’t help it. We also like to hiss the “s” at the end of words and pronounce “th” like a “d.” (Though this tends to be a South Side staple.) Ever heard of Da bearsss? For a great example of a thick Chicago accent that could only belong to legendary coach Mike Ditka or my high school Drivers Ed teacher, check out this old SNL skit.

The city — Anyone from Chicago, city or suburbs, refers to Chicago as “the city,” not Chicago. Oh you are going to xyz? Is it in the city? Or say you have spent a relaxing weekend at your friends lake house (I guess this is another one, generally Chicagoans refer to their summer homes as their lake houses, instead of cottages or summer homes) in Lake Geneva. When it is time to leave you would say, ok I’m going to head back to the city. This also probably stems from the large amount of suburban influx the city gets on the weekend, as well as most people from Illinois claiming to be from Chicago, even if they are from Peoria or Crystal Lake. The distinction between city and everything else is important.

Pop — It’s pop, not soda. No explanation needed.

Grammar/grade school — Most people who grew up in the city went to one school for kindergarten to 8th grade, so therefore they refer to their pre-teenage education as either grammar or grade school. There is no middle school and junior high.

Gym shoes — Not sure where this one comes from, but we generally refer to tennis shoes or sneakers as gym shoes. I suppose because we use them in a gym? Just, please don’t say sneakers… it sounds so… dorky.

The L — The L is Chicago’s citywide subway system, though most of it is above ground. The train refers to the Metra commuter rail. Don’t confuse ’em.

Expressways — Highways and freeways are referred to as the expressway. The term tollway is used when referring to expressways with tolls. More often than not when discussing a specific route people will refer to what they are taking by its exact name, and not even a number, like I’m taking the Edens (instead of saying I-94 North). See Driving in Chicago for more information on that.

LSD — The abbreviation for Lake Shore Drive. Not the drug. Do not get this confused if someone asks you to take LSD to the party.

Cash Machine — We use this interchangeably with the acronym ATM.

Distances — while we are on the subject of getting places, Chicagoans generally refer to distances in terms of minutes, and will generally claim almost everything is 15 or 20 minutes away. No mile talk here.

So, there you have it. Pick up on a few of these and you’ll be speaking like a local in no time. That is, unless you’re from South Boston. Then we can’t help you.

Tessa McLean

About Tessa McLean

There is just something about that feeling when you have been away — maybe for a weekend, a month, 6 months — and you’re driving into Chicago and that first glimpse of the city skyline appears. It just always makes me smile.

10 Comments

  • KMH
    July 13, 2010 | Permalink | Reply

    Some other good ones.

    Brat = Bratwurst
    Lake = Lake Michigan
    Beef Sandwich = Italian Beef Sandwich
    Dog everything = dog dragged through the garden = hot dog chicago style
    loop = the downtown portion of Chicago were people mostly work

  • Brian
    March 19, 2011 | Permalink | Reply

    YES! This is so true! I love talking about Chicagoese, especially to people in other cities. They have no clue about it. And sometimes they have no clue what I’m saying! About Lake Shore Drive-when taking a trip on LSD you mean driving down the street, not drug tripping!

  • J
    May 15, 2011 | Permalink | Reply

    Gym shoes refers to the use of separate shoes for your school-day and gym-time. When I was a kid in grade school every kid got a pair of brown leather shoes with hard bottoms for use at school and a pair of what no one today would recognize as gym-shoes to use only during gym class on designated gym days. We loved June when we got to wear the ‘gym’ shoes all day and ditch the ugly brown heavy brown things. Around the time I was in fourth grade many kids had two sets of gym shoes, one for everyday wear and one for only gym- to save the expensive gym floors from damage and then eventually, the dual shoe practice died. Throughout high-school, in my area of Chicago-land, the word ‘sneakers’ only referred to the canvas, white-rubber soled shoes- alternatively called ‘tennis-shoes’ or ‘tennies’.

  • allison5168@comcast.net
    August 11, 2011 | Permalink | Reply

    You don’t say “mom” you say… “Ma”

  • Candice
    January 17, 2012 | Permalink | Reply

    In the south, we refer to distance in minutes too. My friends from California hate it.

  • C Braga
    February 29, 2012 | Permalink | Reply

    My boss just used these terms and they cracked me up —
    chachkeys and ge-gaws — they mean little items or trinkets! (sp. tchotchke?)
    and also
    doopek – meaning stupid jerk (and other translations…)

  • Xian Jong
    March 3, 2012 | Permalink | Reply

    I’m from Xhicaaago, but my breath smells like old Chinese buttocks. Big up to Cabrini Green!

  • Madeleine
    November 3, 2012 | Permalink | Reply

    Grimey- means like wrong. “thats grimy”
    sawbuck- ten dollars
    a fin- five dollars
    a dub- twenty dollars
    bogus or bogush- mean or wrong ” your bogus for saying that”
    shysty- means like nontrusting. “dude is shysty”
    pop- soda . I just learned that only chicagoans say that lol
    jo- idk exactly what this means but ive heard family n friends say ” what up jo” like a nick name for everyone.
    Decent- means like ok. “do you like my shirt? Yeah its decent”
    im a true chicagoan, born & raised! I cant think of anymore rite now bt i use these the most.

    • Jackie Berkery Jackie Berkery
      November 14, 2012 | Permalink | Reply

      Hah! Love the additions — thanks, Madeleine!

  • March 13, 2013 | Permalink | Reply

    Any place south of 63RD Street is considered “Down south”. The letter “A” is pronounced “uh”.

Leave a comment

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *