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Boston driving: So bad it needs its own lingo?

Terrible road maneuvers, from the Boston left to the California roll

Traffic at an intersection near Suffolk Downs in East Boston.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2012

Traffic at an intersection near Suffolk Downs in East Boston.

Boston traffic can tax the patience of even a practicing Buddhist. In the spring issue of the magazine Buddhadharma, book editor Brian Arundel describes how he thought he was making spiritual progress—until he moved to Boston, where city residents’ “seeming disregard for the welfare of strangers” include famously reckless driving habits.

“There’s this thing that drivers do here when the light turns green: shoot out and turn left in front of you, before you can make it through the intersection,” Arundel writes. “My fellow transplants call it the ‘Boston left,’ and it’s so engrained in local culture that it’s actually more common than not.” Arundel says he eventually made peace with Bostonian ways, with one exception: “I still react irrationally to the Boston left.”

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I can commiserate. For the past decade I’ve lived in Jersey City, where the exact same maneuver is commonplace. But guess what it’s called here? The “Jersey left.” And if you’re from western Pennsylvania, you’ll know it as the “Pittsburgh left.” On Urban Dictionary, contributors bestow other regional labels: “Massachusetts left,” “Rhode Island left,” “New York left.”

When it comes to insulting other people’s driving, it turns out, the lingo we use can be intensely local. But the fact that Boston’s regional driving sins show up under different names elsewhere suggests that the city hardly has a monopoly on sketchy driving practices. In fact, paradoxically, what these geographically specific names suggest is that we may be a nation more united in terrible driving than we know.

Consider the “rolling stop,” in which the driver treats a stop sign as a yield. The region most identified with this casual technique is California, and, like many such traffic insults, it’s especially favored by those in the immediate vicinity, in this case neighboring states such as Arizona and Oregon. I found a reference to the “California stop” all the way back in 1964, when an Arizona state commissioner named John P. Clark was arrested in Tucson on charges of driving drunk and failing to heed a stop sign. Clark admitted to newspaper reporters that he had made a “California rolling stop” but denied being intoxicated. In the late ’70s and ’80s, “California roll” developed as an alternate term, no doubt helped along by the popularity of the sushi roll.

Many other locales, however, have taken the blame for this not-quite-stop as well. In their book “Car and Motorcycle Slang,” Lewis and Jim Poteet mention the “Michigan stop,” “New York stop,” and “Quebec stop.” Canadians, when they’re not pinning the driving tactic on Quebec, also call it the “American stop.” And if you’re from Rhode Island, you might call it the “Boston stop,” naturally enough.

Do all of these “stops” refer to exactly the same thing? In 1995, a reader informed Washington Post columnist Bob Levey of some regional distinctions. A “California stop” is “the classic rolling ‘stop’ at a stop sign.” A “Florida stop” is “stopping completely—then running a red light.” And a “New York stop” is “stopping completely—halfway through an intersection.” Despite the ambiguity, it’s clear that improper stopping is a widespread phenomenon.

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The semantic ambiguity can also run the other way—as when one term comes to stand for multiple state driving peculiarities. Earlier this year, a New Jersey legislator proposed banning the “jughandle,” the state’s distinctive method of routing left-turning traffic around a right-hand loop. The New York Times reported that the jughandle is “so intertwined with the Garden State that it is also called a ‘Jersey left.’” That was news to me, since the only “Jersey left” I knew of was the equivalent to the “Boston left.”

The “Boston left,” meanwhile, has variable meanings of its own. In 2006, fellow Globe writer Peter DeMarco pointed out in his “Who Taught YOU to Drive?” column that there were battling interpretations for the term. While many use it in the quick-turn-on-green sense, “The Boston Driver’s Handbook: Wild in the Streets” says the “Boston left” refers to a different kind of shady turn at an intersection with no light: “You pull out into the right-bound side, thereby blocking traffic, while waiting for an opening in the traffic on the left-bound side.” Others call that the “Boston crawl.”

It’s not surprising that Boston has more than its fair share of city-specific traffic expressions. In some cases this is simply due to its helter-skelter urban planning: Where other cities experience gridlock, Boston doesn’t even have much of a grid to lock. Instead, it delivers the “Boston block,” where cars jam an intersection with many streets converging.

Other terms stem from Bostonians’ notorious lack of patience. One of Bob Levey’s correspondents refers to the “Boston bump,” which occurs “at a red light that has suddenly turned green—only you don’t realize it because you’re daydreaming, or hunting in the glove compartment, or yelling at the kids. So the car behind yours gives you a tap (or on a bad day, a sharp rap) on your rear bumper.”

Because there may yet be no nickname for your favorite local traffic outrage, the regionalisms are likely to keep on coming. DeMarco proposes a variant of the “Boston left” called the “Boston back door left,” for those situations where the light turns green and the first car in line doesn’t make a left but the car behind it takes the initiative instead. Sounds like another opportunity to destroy the tranquility of any Buddhists on the road.

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and
Vocabulary.com. He can be reached
at benzimmer.com/contact.

Is there a regional driving shenanigan, Boston or otherwise, that drives you nuts? Leave the name and definition in the comments.

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