Slang City Mail

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December 4, 2008

Slang of the Week: Mistake on the Lake (noun phrase)
Cleveland, Ohio

Suzanne loved Bob, but when he told her he was being transferred to an office at the Mistake on the Lake, she decided to stay in Kissimmee.

Celebrity quote
“Now, all of a sudden, the same city that was once the poster child for urban blight has placed a surprising second in the Places Rated Almanac ranking of recreational options in 354 metropolitan areas. If Cleveland is the nation's second-best spot for recreation, its long-standing ‘Mistake on the Lake’ tag will be forced to follow the buffalo nickel, steam locomotive, and rotary telephone into the dustbin of history..”
-Travel Columnist Dan Schlossberg

There are the nicknames you give yourself, like Rocky, and then there are the ones that other people give you, like Stinky. Cleveland was christened “Mistake on the Lake” in the late 1960s, when the city was struggling with social and economic problems. While the derogatory term is a reference to Cleveland’s proximity to Lake Erie, another body of water was also a source of embarrassment for the city: In 1969, the Cuyahoga River, which flows through it, was so filthy with oil and debris that it caught fire from a spark and caused serious damage.

Cleveland has since improved its image through sports, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and perhaps its prominence in the Drew Carey show. However, "Mistake on the Lake" has become popular enough to be used about things other than Cleveland--like a scathing 2006 review of the film The Lake House in the Toronto Star.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that many cities suffer this fate. On a theme of uncleanliness, Philadelphia has often been dubbed Filthadelphia; Nashua, New Hampshire is sometimes called Trashua; and Sioux City, Iowa earned the moniker Sewer City when it was a major destination for livestock.

Even my own fair city of Somerville, Massachusetts (a.k.a. Taxachusetts), has been called Slummerville, though not as much since it has become increasingly fashionable--and expensive--to live in. (Note that "fashionable" is a relative term. None of our neighbors in swanky Cambridge think it's fashionable to live here.)

On the other hand, some of these insults are nothing compared to the nicknames cities give themselves, like “The Barbecued Mutton Capital of the World” (Owensboro, Kentucky),  “Home of the Black Squirrels” (Marysville, Kansas) or “The Clogging Capital of the World” (Maggie Valley, North Carolina). That last one sounds worse than it is, though. Having visited Maggie Valley (population: 607) I can tell you they're talking about folk dancing, not plumbing problems.

What’s New?
“I'm fixin' to do something dumber than hell.” Translated movie quotes from 27 Dresses and No Country for Old Men.

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week's pick: How to Talk American: A Guide to Our Native Tongues by James Marshall Crotty. From Bible Belt Banter to Vegas Vernacular, from Redneck Rhetoric to New England Niceties, Crotty's savvy and often hilarious region-by-region guide to the way we talk provides a dead-on (and sometimes too strange) indication of how we think, how we behave, and what we hold dear. It’s also a great place to pick up more city nicknames! I also would be remiss if I didn't plug my own book--that fabulous Christmas gift!--The Perfect Insult for Every Occasion.