Arts and Leisure

Nonantum, the New England Town With Its Own Special Language

No matter where Nonantum natives go, they can tell someone is from their village when they hear them speak Lake Talk. Lake Talk is the unique argot of Nonantum, one of the 13 villages of Newton, Mass. Unintelligible to outsiders, it binds tighter the already close-knit Italian-American community.


Skating on Silver Lake around 1900.

According to Lake Talk, a mush (pronounced moosh) is a man, a jival is a girl, and a quister jival (quis-tah jiv-il ) is a pretty girl.

One mush might point out to another a quister jival walking down the street. Or he might tell him ‘cuya moi,’’ – ‘shut up’ or ‘go to hell’

Joe DeNucci grew up in Nonantum. He parlayed a middleweight boxing career into a 24-year stint as Massachusetts state auditor. In 2001, he gave the Boston Globe an example of Lake Talk:  “Mush is the earie.” That means “The guy is listening.”


The lake in Lake Talk is Silver Lake, a water body mostly filled in and now more of a pond in the heart of Nonantum. Nonantum is an Indian word meaning ‘blessing’ or ‘prayer.’ The village was the home of Waban, one of the first Indians converted to Christianity by the Puritan minister John Eliot.

Nonantum has also been known as Tin Horn, after the large horn used to call workers to the mills; North Village; Silver Lake; and The Lake.

nonantum lake talk silver lake mills

Silver Lake Mill

Nonantum was little more than Yankee farms until the Bemis Mills (the first to use gaslight in America) were built along the Charles River in the late 18th century. For 150 years, the center of Nonantum was dominated by wool, cotton and rope mills owned by companies like Nonantum Worsted, Saxony and Silver Lake.

John Barleycorn

Waves of European immigrants came to Nonantum to work in the mills. They lived in crowded tenements and boarding houses right next to the tall smokestacks of the factories. Sometimes entire families lived in one room.

In 1889, Moses Foster Sweetser, in his King’s Handbook of Newton, Massachusetts, described the English, Irish and French-Canadian immigrants who were working the mills.

The devotion of many of these hardworking fellows to “John Barleycorn” results in many shrewd devices to evade the local liquor-laws.

Liquor, he wrote, was slyly peddled on Bottle Alley, the nickname for Adams Street. It was a raucous, rough-and-tumble district of speakeasies and numbers running shops.

Jewish immigrants moved to Nonantum from Russia in the 1890s, followed a decade later by a wave of Italian immigrants from San Donato Val di Comino, a city about 70 miles east of Rome.

Nonantum kept its Italian-American identity, which it celebrates during annual street festivals such as the St. Mary of Carmen Festival in July.

Lake Talk

Gypsy tent.

Gypsy tent.

Everyone knew everyone and the immigrant communities stuck together, from their difficult early arrivals through a strike at the mills in 1912, the decline of the textile industry in the 1920s, the shutdown of Saxony Worsted in 1930, the Great Depression and World War II.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Nonantum locals went to work for the traveling gypsy carnivals  that came through the village. The carnivals generated their own secret jargon, or carnival cant, so outsiders couldn’t understand them. The Nonantum locals mixed their own Italian and English slang with the Romany carnival cant to com e up with Lake Talk.

So, for example, Lake Talkers can refer to a non-Lake-Talking boss as divia — crazy, jerk – or a gash, which means girly man.

Or it might be useful to tell someone, “That mush has some overshay” (“He’s a liar”). Or “Mush has a coramunga in his cover!” (“That guy is carrying a gun”).

Wicked Pissah

A Gypsy girl around 1940. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

A Gypsy girl around 1940. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

The Massachusetts expression wicked pissah is considered Lake Talk. The word chabby, which means boy, sounds a lot like the Romany word for boy – chavvie.

According to Lake Talk lore, a Nonantum marine named Joseph Rousseau was wounded in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. Lying on a train taking him from the battlefield, he had given up the will to live. But then he heard an MP in the next car shout, “All you divias sit down!”

Here are a few more examples of Lake Talk:

  • chor’d— stolen
  • chuccuo— (chu-co, also pronounced as “chew-ch”) – donkey, horse’s ass
  • dikki ki dotti— unreal or unbelievable
  • geech— “go away”
  • inga— unattractive or bad-tempered person or junk or crap
  • jawl— steal or look at
  • minje— dirty or unattractive woman
  • oy— eat
  • pukka to the mush— “tell the guy
  • quister (also pronounced as “quish-ta”)– awesome, good, beautiful
  • shapdude(shup-dude)– “how’s it going?”
  • suv— to have sexual relations
  • wonga– money

For a more complete dictionary of Lake Talk, click here.

With thanks to Erica Noonan of the Boston Globe for her story, In  Newton, they still speak the language of the lake. This story last updated in 2021. 


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