Lake Talk.

The New England Historical Society features “Nonantum, the New England Town With Its Own Special Language” (based on Erica Noonan’s 2001 Boston Globe story “In Newton, they still speak the language of the lake“):

No matter where Nonantum natives go, they can tell someone is from their village when they hear them speak Lake Talk. Lake Talk is the unique argot of Nonantum, one of the 13 villages of Newton, Mass. Unintelligible to outsiders, it binds tighter the already close-knit Italian-American community.

According to Lake Talk, a mush (pronounced moosh) is a man, a jival is a girl, and a quister jival (quis-tah jiv-il) is a pretty girl.
[. . .]

Author Brenda Spalding grew up in Nonantum, and explains where Lake Talk came from:

In the 1930’s and 40’s the traveling gypsy carnivals came through the area and the locals would work for them. One thing that remained is the language of the carnivals and it’s still in use today.

[. . .]

Lake Talk is a mix of Italian, Romany and English slang.

I always enjoy this sort of local jargon, and I can’t help but notice the similarity between mush ‘man’ and Russian муж [muzh] ‘man.


  1. “a quister jival (quis-tah jiv-il) is a pretty girl.”

    Is “jival” related to English “chav” and Spanish “chavalo” and “chavo”?

  2. ‘Mush’ meaning ‘man’ is definitely a part of Angloromani. The etymology from the OED: Probably < Angloromani mush man (1863 as moosh in B. C. Smart Dial. Eng. Gypsies; compare Welsh Romani mūrš ) < Romani murš , by metathesis and dissimilation (compare Greek nomadic Romani mruš ) < Sanskrit manuṣya human being, man.

  3. chabby in Lake Talk and English chav are usually supposed to be from Angloromani čhavo, which might in turn be related to words like Marathi छावा ‘cub’. These are male offspring.

    jival in turn is Angloromani džuvli, presumably related to Skt. युवति ‘young woman’.

  4. Back in the day I lived in Brighton, Mass with some friends from Newton who used “mush” a lot. Their explanation was that it meant somebody who had attended one of the high schools of south Newton, Mass. It was also used by some folks from East Somerville. Both neighborhoods were home to networks of Romanichals – English Gypsies – until the second World War. These were the horse stable and carriage house districts of Boston, a trade monopolized by Romanichal as long as horses were still a viable mode of transport.

  5. “Oy, mush!” as a rather abrupt way of getting someone’s attention is perfectly understandable to most BrE speakers.

  6. As Matthew says, ‘Mush’ is common in BrEn, but not so much as a noun, rather a form of address, a bit aggressive or diminishing maybe. “Look, mush, your

    The way you describe Lake Talk sounds a lot like Polari, gay London slang, also with its roots in a mix of Yiddish, Italian, and Roma/traveller.

  7. To add to what martinb and Will said, “mush” in British usage refers exclusively to men (in my recollection, anyway) and is associated with your East London banter, which would reinforce the Roma connection, I think. And I agree with Will that it’s a somewhat hostile term.

  8. Oh, and it rhymes with ‘push’ not ‘slush’

  9. The cry “Mush, you huskies,” as often heard on the 1950s TV show Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, comes from French “marche,” walk, go, akin to English march.

  10. To confirm (and extend) David L and at the risk of coming over all mushy…

    Both of my parents (born East End of London, 1930s) used the term “mush” with a certain frequency, and often with the hostile, or jokingly hostile, intent explained above. But Dad was also prone to using it in an intimate or affectionate way not reflected in the OED, e.g. during the late stages of Mum’s Alzheimer’s, he might give her a light tap on the arm and say “Come on mush, it’s time for bed”. It was also one of his many terms of address for children, a word he could use to console you after a sporting defeat (“Don’t worry mush, we’ll beat ’em next time”) or coax you in some way (waking me on a dark winter morning when I was a kid with something like “Let’s go mush, your breakfast’s ready”). I don’t think he ever used the word like this outside the home; I’m not sure about the representativeness of his usages.

  11. The OED has a separate entry for ‘mush’ [mʌʃ] as a 19th century slang term for a cabbie which it says is simply a short form of ‘mushroom’. Given the East London home of the cabbie and the later use of ‘mush’ [mʊʃ] as ‘bloke’ (for which it writes origin unknown) in roughly the same location, could there be some cross-fertilisation here or would the two different vowels rule this out ?

  12. “I can’t help but notice the similarity between mush ‘man’ and Russian муж [muzh] ‘man.” It’s surely even closer than that – wouldn’t Russian final devoicing make the two words practically identical?

  13. Right, but that’s kind of deceptive, since in the declined forms you hear the voiced zh.

  14. The linked lexicon seems to have a fair number of Romani-derived words besides those mentioned explicitly. There’s an online Angloromani dictionary and if you check it you repeatedly find the Lake Talk terms coming up. “Wonga” (money) and “minge” (vagina) are familiar Romani-origin BrE slang anyway. “Dikki” (see), “chor” (thief), “kori” (penis) and “suv” (have sex) are all there. “Yoggramangi” for gun is pretty close to “coramunga”. “Divia” is not there for crazy (though the translations given do all begin with “di-“) but the BrE slang term “divvy” was common in my youth in the Midlands and there are sites linking it to Romani.

  15. Cross-reference to DIVAN: as of September 2022, the OED accepts the Romani origin of British slang “divvy”.

  16. Mushes go to Newton North, not Newton South. They’re from Nonantum, which is definitely north a’ Beacon. So they go to North.

  17. Nice to get an informed correction after 7+ years!

  18. John Cowan says

    Angloromani mush man […] < Romani murš , by metathesis and dissimilation (compare Greek nomadic Romani mruš )

    A simpler explanation would be internal to English: the “early loss of /r/” that gives us arse/ass, curse/cuss, etc.

  19. Did you miss the rest of the OED’s sentence? The metathesis and dissimulation aren’t in the change to Angloromani mush from (European) Romani murš, they’re in the change to Romani murš from Sanskrit manuṣya. The mention of the Greek Romani form is presumably to show a parallel example of metathesis from the same source..

    And there’s no need for any internal-to-English change at all, since (in the part that you snipped) mush, or moosh, is already documented in Angloromani.

    (Is it accurate to say that Romani descends from Sanskrit? The OED does take a number of Angloromani borrowings back to Sanskrit sources.)

    Wiktionary has a slightly different origin for the Romani word: “Inherited from Sanskrit पुरुष (puruṣa), with influence from मनुष्य (manuṣya)”. It gives some recent references; is this more up to date than the OED’s etymology, which is from 2003?

  20. Is it accurate to say that Romani descends from Sanskrit?

    It’s not really accurate (as I understand it) to say that anything descends from Sanskrit, that language being an artificial (‘perfected’) one used for literary production; Romanes, like the modern Indic languages, is descended from an early dialect closely related to Sanskrit. But for ordinary purposes “from Sanskrit” is close enough.

  21. David Marjanović says

    Sanskrit in the narrow sense, i.e. Classical Sanskrit, is indeed artificially standardized (its name means “ordered” or suchlike) and never had native speakers (a few recent revivalist attempts perhaps excepted). Vedic, aka Vedic Sanskrit, was (the poetic register of) a series of naturally spoken dialects; it was almost Proto-Indic – the only difference I’ve seen explicitly identified anywhere is that Vedic (and Epic and Classical Sanskrit) has a merger of four consonant clusters that seem to be distinguished in all later-attested Indic languages, Romanes presumably included. The whole question is underresearched, though.

  22. ktschwarz says

    for ordinary purposes “from Sanskrit” is close enough.

    Thanks. Sounds like it’s analogous to deriving French words from Classical Latin.

    There was some discussion of Lake Talk on Language Log in 2009, based on the same story by Erica Noonan. One commenter there said, “I think every single word I recognize there is identifiable as Romany in origin (there are some that I can’t place) … and no undisputed Italian”. I wonder, why no Italian? Noonan’s story (archived) guesses:

    Such words as “jivial,” or young girl, bears a resemblance to “gioventa,” the Italian word for young person. “Divia,” Lake language for crazy, could come from the Italian word “divila,” meaning devilish.

    But see the above comments for Romani sources for both of those.

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