Spukies, Subs, and Grinders: Sandwich Names of New EnglandPhoto Credit : Pixabay
In Pennsylvania they’ve got hoagies; in New York they’ve got heroes; in Louisiana, po’ boys; and pretty much everywhere else, subs. But in New England? Well, it turns out that we have a few special names for those long sandwiches. Are they grinders? Subs? Spuckies? Let’s review.
Historically, New Englanders have called these sandwiches a number of different things: grinders, spukies, Italian sandwiches, subs… All of these terms are traditionally found in the New England lexicon. Today, despite the fact that “sub” dominates across the nation by a wide margin, our unique Yankee names still live on here in the northeast.
In 2003, linguists Bert Vaux and Scott Golder released the results of their Harvard Dialect Survey, a massive study launched to help solve the mysteries of regional American dialects. Several years later, Vaux and researcher Marius L. Jøhndal began a similar study called the Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes. One of the questions asked in both these studies aimed to determine what Americans call a “long sandwich that contains cold cuts, lettuce, and so on.” The results, which the researchers used to create dialect maps of the whole Unites States, show that New England is divided by the names we give to our subs.
Based on those maps, here’s an overview of New England’s “sub divisions”:
Looking at New England’s southern shores, it’s clear that Connecticut and Rhode Island say “grinder” more than anything else. The origin of grinder is not well known, though it’s said that the name initially came from the tough Italian bread used to make the sandwich, which you would have to “grind” your teeth through. According to the data, grinder is a term that’s also found quite often throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, and western and central Massachusetts. Elsewhere, folks might use “grinder” to distinguish a hot sub from a cold one — the former being the grinder and the latter the sub — though this distinction seems to have largely disappeared over the years.
Eastern Massachusetts is another story. The Greater Boston area, as well as Cape Cod and the Islands, seem to be largely grinder-less, instead preferring either the classic “sub” or a smattering of different names from other regions, such as hero or hoagie. Within Boston, however, there is even greater diversity. The term “spukie” (or “spuckie”) is unique to the Boston area and comes from the Italian word spucadella, meaning “long roll.” What’s interesting about this term is that spucadella isn’t found in most Italian dictionaries, which suggests that it could come from a regional Italian dialect, or even be a Boston Italian innovation. Spukie is typically heard in South Boston, though you can also find bakeries in the North End with homemade spucadellas for sale.
In Maine, however, they don’t want anything to do with spukies or grinders. Instead, the term of choice is Italian sandwich. Beware, though, as an Italian sandwich in Maine is not just any old sub. The Italian sandwich is a special concoction of ingredients, including things like olive oil, onions, and tomatoes. In the Yankee Classic articleItalian Sandwiches | Portland Maine’s Unsung Contribution to the World, the author describes the Italian sandwich formula at one particularly famous restaurant in Portland. Due to its proximity to Maine, you may also find some Italian sandwiches in eastern New Hampshire.
Nowadays, the majority of Americans — even New Englanders — tend to stick to saying “sub.” Even that name, though, has its origins in New England. “Sub,” short for “submarine sandwich,” is said to come from Connecticut, where what was originally called a grinder became a sub because of the sandwich’s uncanny resemblance to the submarines in a nearby naval shipyard. (See Submarine Sandwiches | What’s in a Name for more on the submarine sandwich’s origin story.)
Of course, as with most things involving dialects and language, these patterns aren’t set in stone. Occasionally, you may encounter grinders in Boston, heroes in Connecticut, or Italian sandwiches in Vermont, but throughout New England and the rest of America, you can count on finding subs.
Hopefully this guide helps you to better understand some of the quirks of New England speech. And remember: when you hear someone shout “spukie” on the streets of Boston, they’re not calling you a name — they’re just hungry.
What are these sandwiches called where you live?
This post was first published in 2016 and has been updated.