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The Curiosity Desk | May 23, 2018

Why Are Some Boston Area Convenience Stores Called Spas?

Victoria Spa in Watertown
The Victoria Spa in Watertown, Massachusetts.
Edgar B. Herwick III
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The Curiosity Desk | May 23, 2018

Inside a corner store on Washington street in Brighton, there aren't many surprises. Everything from toiletries to candy, newspapers to bread, soda and juice to coffee and tea is available for purchase. You can buy tobacco. You can play the lottery. All in all, a typical corner store.

Outside, however, is another story. The name on the awning does not refer to this store as a "shop" or a "market," a "grocery" or a "mart." This is a local "spa."

I asked Jigar Patel, the owner since 2001, where he got the name.

"Oh, it was from the previous owner," he explained.

And had he ever wondered where the name, Palace Spa, came from?

"I don't know," he said. "I think it’s the old New England traditional. That’s what everybody said."

Patel is right. This kind of spa is unique to New England. As for it being an older tradition? That tracks with what Mary Logue told me. I met her at the Victoria Spa in Watertown. She's 80 years old. She's lived in Watertown all 80 of those years. She recalled her childhood years there:

Mary: Well there weren’t that many as there are now, but all them were spas. We came in for bread and milk and staples.
Me: So, like a little grocery store?
Mary: Like a little convenience store, like a neighborhood shop.
Me: And they were all called spas?
Mary: Yeah.
Me: And you never thought that was weird?
Mary: No.
Me: Because that’s just how it was?
Mary: Yeah.

But to anyone not from around here, it is a bit curious. It caught the eye of listener Vasant Marur, who's lived in Boston for a little over a decade, and he reached out to the Curiosity Desk to find out why convenience stores in Boston are called spas.

The word “spa” comes to the English language from Belgium, and the town of Spa — so-named for its bubbling natural mineral spring believed to have healing powers. Resorts built around mineral springs became known as spas, and started spiking in popularity in the 19th century throughout Europe and the U.S.

From there, it's easy to see why, today, the word spa is used to mean everything from a swanky resort, to a place for health and beauty treatments, to backyard whirlpools. But convenience stores?

"There, fortunately, exists the Dictionary of American Regional English," said Julie Roberts, director of the linguistics program at the University of Vermont.

It’s in this dictionary that Roberts uncovered the key to how the word "spa" got it’s distinct New England spin. And it’s thanks to a different kind of bubbling water.

"It probably originally applied to a soda fountain," she explained.

Roberts was even able to track down the earliest known usage of the word “spa” for a soda fountain. While it appeared in an 1895 article in a Pennsylvania newspaper, the story was about Boston. It read, "In Boston, Thompson’s Spa, the greatest soda resort at the Hub, easily clears for its owners 50 thousand dollars a year.”

For decades, soda fountains were staples at drug stores and five-and-dimes, themselves versions of the modern convenience store. And so, you can see how the particular etymological quirk came to pass.

And it is unique to this area. Peculiar word usage like this, along with distinct pronunciations, like, say dropping the "r" in words like "Harvard" and "yard" are crucial hallmarks of this area’s unique dialect, known in linguistic circles as Eastern New England English.

"Isolation is what encourages dialect retention," explained Roberts.

But, of course, thanks to highways, cell phones and the internet, we've never been less isolated than we are today. And as regional dialects across the country shift and disappear, scholars are working furiously to catalog and track them.

And less you think it all quite trivial, consider why Roberts says she is so fired up about what she does.

"When a dialect shifts, that usually means a whole way of life and an identity of a people is shifting," she explained. "It’s one [marker] of what happens as we enter more and more into modernity — what we’re essentially changing and what we’re losing."

Some studies have shown Eastern New England English is slowly losing things like its famed dropped "r." But, at least for now, you can still grab a Moxie and a scratch ticket at the local spa.

My thanks to Vasant Marur for his question that led to today's story. What’s yours? Emil me at curiositydesk@wgbh.org. Who knows? I might just look into it for you.

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