The words of New York City
The City that Never Sleeps! Gotham! The Big Apple! The Capital of the World! The Five Boroughs! The City So Nice They Named It Twice!
New York City is a city of not just many nicknames, but also of words and phrases. As not only one of the world’s major financial centers, but also a city brimming with culture, from Broadway to Madison Avenue, New York City has been the progenitor of several terms and phrases. Let’s have a look at some of the best-known New York City words!
1. Big Apple
Probably the best-known nickname of New York City – and one that (as New Yorkers are quick to observe) is only used by tourists and newspaper editors – the term actually has a long, convoluted history. The Big Apple actually began as a way to refer to the horse-racing circuit of New York City; big apple, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), was used in the early 20th century to refer to ‘something regarded as the most significant of its kind’. Soon, the term was being used with reference to the city itself. In 1970, the popularity of the term exploded, though, when it was part of a campaign led by Charles Gillett of the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau. The long history of this term was uncovered by researcher Barry Popik.
Ah, the Great White Way… Broadway, which figures into the dreams of every high school theater buff, refers specifically to the cluster of theaters on or close to Broadway in midtown Manhattan near Times Square, but more allusively to show biz at large. It’s sometimes known as the ‘Great White Way’ due to the brilliant street illuminations and signage.
3. Empire City (and State)
References to the empire city and the empire state – referring to New York and New York City’s prominent reputations – date back to the first half of the 19th century. In recent years, the term Empire State has seen some lift thanks in part to Jay-Z, whose song with Alicia Keys, ‘Empire State of Mind’, was a #1 Billboard hit in 2009.
4. murderers’ row
New York City, it turns out, has played host to both a literal and a figurative murderers’ row. The first instance of murderers’ row refers to the row of cells in a prison, originally in NYC’s Tombs Prison, in which condemned murderers or other violent criminals are held. The figurative use of murderers’ row comes from baseball slang, meaning a ‘group of powerful hitters batting in succession for a particular team’, notably the New York Yankees of the 1920s, which included Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
5. Tin Pan Alley
Not actually referring to an alley or a street, Tin Pan Alley was the name given to a district in New York City, around Broadway and 28th Street, where many songwriters, arrangers, and music publishers were based. Some of the most noted composers of popular music during the first half of the 20th century worked here, including Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers. The term tin pan comes from slang referring to a cheap, ‘tinny’ piano, with reference to the constant piano-playing heard in the area.
In no US state does the word upstate carry so much of a connotation as in New York. In the state of New York, everything that is not New York City is sometimes referred to as upstate. In fact, quips about the Bronx being ‘upstate’ are heard so frequently as to count as a clichéd joke. The OED notes that the term is frequently used with reference to the New York state.
7. Wall Street
Though there is an actual ‘Wall Street’ in the downtown financial district of New York City, Wall Street is generally used today as a metonym (‘a word, name, or expression used as a substitute for something else with which it is closely associated’) for the wider world of American finance. In American politics, the term is sometimes used as the metaphorical counterpart of ‘Main Street’, referring both to small towns and small business interests.
8. Madison Avenue
Another famous street in New York City, Madison Avenue became well known as the center of the advertising business in the US, and has since been used, like Wall Street, as a metonym for the US advertising business at large. The term ‘mad men’, a punning blend of ‘Madison Avenue’ and ‘ad men’, was popularized by the AMC television show Mad Men.
9. Ground Zero
Although the term ground zero existed beforehand – referring to the ‘point on the earth’s surface directly above or below an exploding nuclear bomb’ – it quickly came into use to refer to the site of the former World Trade Center following the terrorist attacks on September, 11 2001. In extended use, the term has been used to refer to any site of devastation, disaster, or attack.
Can you think of any other notable New York City words?