August 25, 2013

It's a Rhode Island Thing-Steven Porter’s Rhode Island Thing

I think we have all experienced being far from home, perhaps enjoying a vacation away from it all, only to make a random acquaintance that just happens to hail from your own home state.  Within seconds, a volley of questions are exchanged to discover if you've ever visited each other's neighborhoods, or perhaps visited a familiar trendy restaurant or landmark.

But when two Rhode Islanders accidentally meet, the exchange is somewhat different. They don't want to know if they've been to the same restaurants, they want to know if they're related.

"You know Jerry? Hey, I know Jerry! He used to bowl with Tony at Lang's on Tuesday. Wasn't he goin' out with Jenna in Rumford? Jenna used to work with my cousin Bobby at the Dunkin Donuts on North Main Street."

It's a Rhode Island thing.

In a previous blog post (, I chronicled Rhode Island's rich literary past, it's world-class restaurants, it's breathtaking attractions, and even its unenviable inclination for sinister corruption -- all amplified to legendary proportions by its diminutive size like a well-worn, favorite Seventies subwoofer.  But what truly sets Rhode Island apart is a familiar, distinctive culture only true native sons will ever recognize. Even out-of-state transplants who have lived here a generation never feel truly like a Rho-dy-lander. Nor will  they hope to figure out what the heck the white-shoed, white-belted  old-timers are talking about.

 "Yo, nobody can't tell me I don't feel like no meatball grinder, me"


(Translation:  A "grinder" is a local term more commonly known as a "sub," "hoagie," or "hero" in less civilized parts. As far as the triple negative and the rest of the sentence, well, it's easier if you simply accept that the speaker wants to eat lunch.)

The flood of double-negatives and misplaced modifiers in the local tongue is the evolutionary result of the close-knit mingling dialects from Italian, Portuguese, rural Canadian-French, and Spanish immigrants, blended by a fine spray of influence from many other cultures. The end result is an exciting tapestry of customs, food, color, music and bewildering grammar understood only by those who have been raised within it.

"Yea, Jenna's working at the new restaurant across from where The Tent used to be. You know, next to where they used to have that Old Stone."

(Translation: "The Tent" was a local name given to the world-famous Warwick Musical Theater, closed in 1999. "Old Stone" refers to Old Stone Bank, a popular chain of local savings banks that failed infamously in the late Eighties. ) 

If you visit Rhode Island, avoid asking for directions. It's not because Rhodylanders  aren't helpful -- in fact, they are quite the opposite. Ask where the local supermarket is and you'll be hit with a well-meaning barrage of right and left turns at defunct landmarks that will keep you driving in circles for hours. Besides, you can't really get lost in Rhode Island anyway. Drive 30 minutes in any direction and you'll either find yourself entering Connecticut, Massachusetts or submerged in the Atlantic Ocean.

It has been said that the biggest critics of the State of Rhode Island are the residents themselves -- that everyone loves us, except us. In 2012, at a forum designed by business leaders to jump-start the state's stalled economy, ( discussion turned oddly to the state's "self-esteem problem." Could self-esteem really be at the root cause of high unemployment rates and economic struggles? I think not. I think the so-called pessimism is misdiagnosed, and is the same crabby strain you find in close-knit families, too honest, bold and blunt for their own good, a comfortable voice devoid of any politeness whatsoever, and frank to a fault.

"Them Sox ain't nothin' but a bunch of stinkin', over-paid bums and you know it ... Hey, can you get me tickets?"

So if you see someone wearing a Taylor Swift t-shirt (yup, she just moved here), dousing their French fries in vinegar, then searching aimlessly for a bubbler, don't ask questions. Just tell them you'd like to sit down and talk over a couple of hot weiners and a Del's under a Big Blue Bug some day. Although you won't understand what you just said, they'll appreciate it.  And you'll make a loyal friend, forever.

It's a Rhode Island thing.

Steven R. Porter is founder and president of the Association of Rhode Island Authors (ARIA) and is the author of two novels: Confessions of the Meek and the Valiant ( a crime novel set within a tight-knit South Boston family and Manisses ( an award-winning historical novel based on the history of Block island which is located just off the southern Rhode Island coast.
(Pictures provided by author)


  1. What fun! Somehow, I now have a totally different opinion of RI, even though I've visited the state before. What an enjoyable read.
    But I kinda wished you had translated that last bit. What a Del's anyway?

  2. I really enjoyed this one. I enjoy all that I read, but never having been to Rhode Island the double negative and odd speech sounds endearing.

    Asking directions in the small town in Kansas I come from sounds a little bit like what you describe.

    Glenda K. Fralin

  3. I've visited Rhode Island and like Delaware it is a small state but a charming one--like your blog.

  4. Loved the blog...clever and funny. Been to and through RI many times, but I never heard double negatives, nor was I sent in circles. I guess they are kinder to tourists and traveler. Loved Newport.

  5. Never been to Rhode Island (unless I crossed, thinking it Mass. or Conn.) But I revel in colorful language and you've inspired thought of a road trip.

  6. I'd be happy to translate the last bit for you!

    "Del's" refers to a frozen lemonade drink insanely popular inside the state, that few outside RI even know about.

    A "bubbler" is what the rest of the planet might recognize as a drinking fountain.

    "The Big Blue Big" is a giant metal insect (the mascot of a pest control company) which greets visitors along I-95 as you enter the city of Providence. It had a cameo at the beginning of Bobby and Peter Farrelly's movie "Dumb and Dumber." (The Farrelly's are native Rhode Islanders, of course.)

    And "hot weiners" are small frankfurters smothered in a spicy hamburger-based sauce, topped with tons of melted onions and celery salt. The most endearing heartburn you'll ever have.


  7. Coming from the country's smallest state, Delaware, I really enjoyed your blog. I've visited RI several times and have a cousin who recently moved there. It's a beautiful state with terrific food. RI may be the smallest state but it still gets more respect than Delaware. At least people don't think RI is a city in Ohio and not a state.

  8. Am I wrong to think your books also have a comic tone to them? I love your self-depredation of your home state! And the dialect is very interesting to someone fascinated with how the English language changes to suit any population. Thanks for the chuckle.

  9. I really enjoyed reading your Rho-dy-lander thing today! Great fun. I've never visited RI, but you hit on a couple old home things for me. I'm originally from Michigan and in Flint, my home town, they love their Coney Island hotdogs...just like those in that picture! Yum...Angelo's is the only remaining original Coney Island now but years back, they were all over.

    Another thing you mentioned was The Tent. Made me remember that back in the '50s & '60s, there was 'The Musical Tent' every summer in the Flint area. It drew big name acts of the era and popular plays (direct from NYC)! I only attended a few of the concerts and plays before they closed near the end of the '60s. Times were changing in Flint and Michigan at that time but they were great old days!

    Thanks for bringing back some good memories!

  10. Thank you for all the kind comments!

    And though I am not qualified to say if Delaware is more disrespected than Rhode Island,I am fairly sure Delaware has never been compared to a failing iceberg. (And no, we are not an "island" somewhere off the coast of New York.)

    And thanks for asking about my novels. They both have their humorous moments I suppose, but are fairly serious in tone. "Confessions..." delves into themes of family, honor and legacy while "Manisses" is a bit more lighthearted, exploring the lesser known historical moments along the New England coast.

    My blog, "Along the Village Green," is my outlet for my dry, pithy attempts at humor. Feel free to check it out. All the links to my published ramblings are on the blog post above.

    Best wishes to all.


  11. A fun post!

    This is one of those states I haven't been to, but I really ought to see.

  12. Yes, it is strange but the two of us have written accounts that almost mirror each other. Soon an Op-Ed I wrote will appear, in state newspaper, regarding how a group designed to bolster Rho-Dylanders' attitude regarding their state can effect that change. I give concrete suggestions and hope some are put into play.

  13. It would seem from the jargon or language, and the food, and the way you give directions, that Rhode Island has a culture all it's own. Something like that is what makes a place unique. Yuh must have put a lot of htis in your stories.

  14. I come from Row-die-land too and ask Steve "Ja'eet yet?" He knows I'm asking "Did you eat yet" but knew to translate for others. Meet you on "da Hill" for cawfee cabinet (coffee milk shake.


Follow 50 Authors from 50 States blog for the latest