Friday, October 17, 2008

Smallbany or Smalbany?

Barry Popik--amateur etymologist known as an expert on the origins of Big Apple, Windy City, and hot dog--posted on his blog about "Smallbany" (or "Smalbany"), a pejorative nickname for the capital city of New York.

The question remains: "Should it be 'Smallbany' to contain the word 'small', or should you simply add an 'sm-' to 'Albany' to make 'Smalbany', and keep the integrity of the original spelling of the city?"

According to City Dictionary Citizen, 'nycapital', it's "Smallbany". For now, we'll go with what our Citizens say. Of course, tomorrow someone could add the altnerate spelling, and we'd have to reconsider.

Bottom line: Both spellings are valid if you can find the locals spelling it both ways.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Madison's Got Flavor

A blogger for Forté Madison, a lifestyle magazine for Madison, Wisconsin recently wrote a blog post that refers to City Dictionary. Ben Wollin noticed that Madison has the greatest number of entries on the site and could very well be the "Semantic Capital of the World". While it's only natural for us to build up a large community in our native Madison, let's not lose sight of the fact that Madison truly does have local flavor. Perhaps we never would have thought of the idea for City Dictionary if local language and culture weren't oozing out of the city's pores. 

Among the characteristics that make Madison a prime area for local flavor are its...

  1. Medium size. Madison's not-too-big-but-not-too-small stature creates a large enough community to have a diverse mix of people, but isn't too big to have culture so disjointed among different parts of the city.
  2. Great college atmosphere. Anyone who goes to school here can attest to the intense Madison experience, whether it's the sports (see Grateful Red), the social events (see Mifflin Street Block Party), or the colorful downtown characters (see Scanner Dan). This unique experience is what draws a great mix of people to the UW, which then enhances even more so the local language and culture that makes for a great Madison city dictionary. 
  3. Strong state culture. Wisconsinites are a very unique, proud people who definitely bring a lot of local culture to the table in Madison. Being the capital city--and a college town--there's definitely more to it than what the yokels bring, but it's still a Wisconsin city at its core. Consequently, the friendly Wisconsin temperment and the brat-eating (see Bratfest), fish-frying, and beer-drinking culture (see Beerfest) truly make the city what it is. 
You put all of this together and you have both a wonderful place to live and the makings of an interesting city dictionary with rich local language and culture. 

With that said, there is a lot of local flavor that is not yet captured by other cities' dictionary on the website. Perhaps one problem is that language and culture comes so naturally and subconsciously to locals that it's hard to think of, much less articulate to an outsider. Rather than discourage us in our task to create the best city reference on the internet, it actually reinforces us in what we do. If not for City Dictionary, where else will you find out about the more obscure language and culture references? If you go to other city sites and encyclopedic references, you simply won't find them. And since we believe that these local subtleties provide the absolute best way to learn about a city, we are steadfast in our task of creating an online community that celebrates them.

So, Ben, you may very well be right about Madison. Maybe we do have the most local flavor. We'll have to see if other cities can rise to the challenge and prove you wrong.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

City Dictionary in the News

Last week the Capital Times picked up City Dictionary's Word of the Day, "People's Republic of Madison." (Click here to see the article.) This is a great term that is very seldom used, but points to a friendly, self-deprecating jab at Madison's left-leaning politics. Another fun one that is referenced in the Capital Times write-up is "X number of miles surrounded by reality." The Capital Times' own blog assures us that Madison is now officially 77 square miles, but I've heard people estimate anywhere from 25 miles to 80 miles for the sake of inserting the local expression into conversation.

Anyway, it's always nice to see City Dictionary stirring up dialog on local language. Many thanks to the Capital Times for spreading the Word of the Day!


Tom at City Dictionary

Saturday, August 23, 2008

What is City Dictionary?

If you'd like to dig deeper than our 'About Us' page and need to better understand what City Dictionary is all about, let's start with what we're not:

  • We're not an encyclopedia. An encyclopedia will give you the "official" rundown of a city with the bulk of the information in a single entry. This is certainly not us. We think that a city is best digested in small chunks of text, each of which tells its own story as a stand-alone cultural artifact. An encyclopedia can also bore you to sleep by sticking to the sterile facts about a city, whereas our Citizens at City Dictionary let visitors know about the subtleties that make a city unique and exciting.
  • We're not a database of city stats. Do you want to know the historical average rainfall for Philadelphia in April? There are plenty of places to find odd factoids like that, but that's not here.
  • We're not a restaurant review site. Don't get me wrong--we love review sites and certainly encourage our Citizens to define restaurants in their cities, but we're much more than a restaurant resource. We're a complete insider's reference to U.S. cities. If it's important to the city linguistically, culturally, politically, historically, economically, et al, it deserves an entry on City Dictionary.
  • We're not an American slang dictionary. We are a slang dictionary, but one that breaks a word's or expression's importance down to its city of origin or common use. There are plenty of websites that are dedicated to all different sorts of slang, but we're all about the regional differences in slang. So, if you want to know about the hottest text message acronym or that one word all the kids are using these days, there are plenty of outlets. However, if you want city-specific slang, come to City Dictionary.
It's important to make these distinctions to know exactly what City Dictionary is, because when something new comes along it's sometimes difficult to place it into a category. In this case, City Dictionary creates a new category altogether: the local dictionary. The local dictionary (or city dictionary) can be as useful as electronic yellow pages, but ridden with tons of flavor from real locals that makes it fun to browse. Also, the types of entries that are valid in any city's dictionary are only limited by the culture of a city and its people. So, a yellow pages is just a business directory, but a city dictionary is an all-inclusive cultural snapshot of a city.

So, I hope this clarifies some things and gets you excited about providing local flavor for your own city's dictionary.


Tom @ City Dictionary

Monday, August 11, 2008

Proper? Slang? It's all good

If you're entering a restaurant or a neighborhood to your city's dictionary, try to think of a common nickname for that local cultural staple. If there is a nickname for it, that is the epitome of the local flavor that defines City Dictionary. So, go ahead with the proper name for the entry, but also consider creating another entry for the nickname. Then, by creating reciprocal links between the two entries with our "Related Words" feature, you can teach some local novices an important bit of local language.


Tom, City Dictionary

Friday, August 8, 2008

Double-dipping is okay...sometimes

Our Citizens often ask me if a word is valid if it's used in multiple cities. My answer is usually "probably." Of course, though, it depends what you have in mind. For example, there are many regional words like "bubbler," which is sometimes used in Wisconsin instead of "drinking fountain," that can be valid for multiple cities. Keep this in mind:

Every city should have a dictionary that is a complete city guide as a stand-alone reference.

So, this means that a word used all over Wisconsin could be important enough to a number cities to be included in their dictionaries. We'll leave that up to our Citizens.

However, there are certain words that are probably too widespread to really be called a word that helps create a city's local flavor. Nonetheless, if you can make the case that the word has a special place in the local culture, tell that compelling story in your definition and share your view with other visitors to the website.

For example, the word "once" is certainly ubiquitous in the English language, but in Milwaukee, Wisconsin it's used as a seemingly useless end to a request. For example, Badgerinmaine offers us the following example: "Let me see that once."

I hope this clears things up. If not, leave a comment and I'll be happy to clarify.


Tom at City Dictionary

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What's an appropriate entry?

This is something that people often ask us: "So, what is a valid entry?" They get caught up with the pressure of being an author and they don't realize that anyone, by virtue of living in a US city, is qualified to create an entry (if not a large number of them) for their city's dictionary. That's why we tell people to create entries for whatever defines their cities. We give our Citizens 20 different categories to give some guidance, but we really want their creativity to run wild.

Here are a few examples of some more subtle entries that do a great job of capturing local flavor:

I'm walkin' here: New York, New York
- This was a movie line uttered by Dustin Hoffman in the movie Midnight Cowboy. The saying is apparently valid whenever a vehicle almost runs you over while you're crossing the street.

Mock Chicken Leg: Milwaukee, Wisconsin - This is a "hot lunch" classic in the Milwaukee Public School System. Pork shaped into a flat drumstick-like concoction, which is then breaded and fried.
That reminds me--"hot lunch" in Wisconsin always meant the school lunch, versus the "cold lunch" that kids brought from home. I wonder if this terminology is used in other parts of the country.
So, there you have a few examples of the local flavor that separates City Dictionary from other city sites. Sure, we want people to put their own definitions for the more conventional entries, like restaurants and neighborhoods, but let's not stop there. These fun little subtleties are great to write about and are most useful to people trying to get acquainted with a new place.

Please keep the questions coming and I'll try to clarify things as much as possible.


Tom at City Dictionary

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Welcome to the Official City Dictionary Blog. Here we will write posts on topics relevant to our Citizens. Whether it's a new feature on the site, discussion of the Word of the Day, or answering a common question about the site, you'll find it here. Also, if City Dictionary appears in the news somewhere, we'll post it here once we find out.

Feel free to send post comments to any of our blog posts if you have something to say, or a question to help clarify something.

Also, feel free to send any questions or comments to our e-mail, city at citydictionary dot com.


Tom at City Dictionary