Wildwood Boardwalk, Memorial Day 2021

Memorial Day weekend is upon us, and it’s time for Philadelphians to head down the shore to catch some sun. Not “down to the shore.” Not “the beach” or “the sea.” Not “down the ocean” (that’s Baltimore’s thing). Just, down the shore.

You won’t hear the phrase much outside the Philly region, and it’s been confusing outsiders for decades.

The movie “Beach House,” which was filmed in 1979 in Ocean City, once had “Down the Shore” as a working title. “I come from New York and I never heard the expression,” assistant director Randy Ostrow told The Inquirer at the time. “It must be a Philadelphia-ism.”

The Jersey Shore has been a popular hunting and fishing destination for centuries, according to Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce CEO Lori Pepenella. But it was the 20th century development of train lines and cars that “ushered in the … tourism that are most familiar with,” she noted.

These days, upwards of 100 million people flock to Jersey beaches each summer. That includes a lot of Philadelphians going down the shore.

So how did this regional term come about?

Short answer: it’s not totally clear. The origins of the term aren’t widely known, and different folks have differing ideas about the reasons for its phrasing, or who even will use the term. Even the New Jersey tourism orgs aren’t quite sure where it came from.

Direction vs. elevation

In a 1999 Philadelphia Inquirer blurb, journalist Edgar Williams asked, “Which way’s the Shore?”

“With the vacation season drawing nigh, more and more people will be speaking of going ‘down the Shore,’” Williams wrote. “But how come nobody talks about going up the Shore? It’s a puzzlement.”

There seem to be two schools of thought in answering that question.

One set of people will tell you it has to do with cardinal direction — “down” meaning south, as opposed to “up,” which would mean north.

“‘Down’ is almost certainly a reference to direction,” said RC Staab, a playwright and author of “100 Things to Do at the Jersey Shore Before You Die” who walked the entire length of the shore last year. “‘Down south’ and ‘up north’ are terms that speak for themselves. A simple deduction is that going down to the shore means going south to a shore.”

Sandra Galster, a Billy Penn reader, had the same thought. “Most of us, in the region,  travel south to go to our favorite beaches,” Galster wrote. “We would never travel north to go to a beach.”

But another set of folks argue that “down” refers to elevation, or traveling somewhere that’s at sea level or near the coast.

In 2010, New York Times language columnist Ben Zimmer wrote that the phrase “doesn’t necessarily imply a southward journey.” Rather, some East Coast dialects use “down” to denote movement from the inland toward the shoreline, Zimmer wrote.

“You go ‘up the mountains’ and ‘down the shore’!” said BP reader Ralph Tedesco. “It’s the elevation, and where you are at in relation to sea level.”

Nathan Badenoch, another Billy Penn reader, said going up the mountains or down the shore were the two main family vacation options during childhood — and it’s one Badenoch sees as symbolic.

“I always felt that the up/down opposition was an interesting way that oriented us, in a way that didn’t involve neighbor cities to the north and south,” Badenoch said. “I think Philly is a very in-between place, and we like knowing that we are not this or that which is maybe better known, but our own weird place.”

A Philadelphia Inquirer ad using the phrase Credit: Newspaper Archives

Going ‘to the beach’ and ‘down the shore’ aren’t necessarily the same

So is “down the shore” different from going “to the beach”?

Some say the terms are interchangeable, but there’s also an argument that “going to the beach” is a more specific term.

Going down the shore means traveling to the Jersey Shore more generally, which could involve more than just swimming or lying in the sand. Going to the beach — which means “I have my beach chair and towel and I’m going to [sunbathe] or swim at the beach,” said author Staab — is one of several specific activities you might do when you’re already there.

“My husband, a Philadelphia native, said it has been the term they referred to since he was old enough to remember,” said Diane Wieland, executive director of Cape May County Tourism. “That would be almost 69 years. They were heading south or down the shore. Interestingly, when they get down the shore they go to the beach!”

Ads in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Tribune Credit: Newspaper Archives

How long have people been using it?

For some Philadelphians, it kind of just seems like “down the shore” has been around forever.

Billy Penn reader Carol Kiefer’s father’s family used the phrase. Their father’s mother was born in Philadelphia in 1904, and their great-great-great-great grandmother was born in Philly in 1802.

“Somewhere along the way the phrase stuck,” Kiefer said. “I grew up saying down the shore. ‘To the beach’ is irritating!”

It showed up in The Philadelphia Inquirer as early as 1951, in an ad from Shady Lawn Nursery in Hammonton, New Jersey, encouraging Philadelphians to “STOP IN ON THE WAY DOWN THE SHORE.”

The idiom also appeared in the Philadelphia Tribune as early as 1961, when one child told the paper in an opinion poll that he planned to “probably go down the shore” after school let out for the summer — though another child surveyed used different phraseology, noting that she’d be going “to the seashore for a week.”

As the decades progressed, use of the idiom increased in print, and “down the shore” also permeated pop culture. Tom Waits assured listeners that “down the shore, everything’s alright” in his 1980 song “Jersey Girl,” and Bruce Springsteen made the line famous a few years later when he covered the tune. In 1992, the phrase became the title of a short-lived sitcom series, and in 2011, an indie film.

Local jargon or tourist lingo?

Some New Jerseyans are hesitant to claim “down the shore,” while others stake it out as a New Jersey-ism. Other folks point to it as lingo mainly used by vacationers from Philadelphia and its suburbs.

Staab, the “100 things” author, believes the term is used mostly in Eastern Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia metro area, and North Jersey. The four counties that make up the Jersey Shore — Monmouth, Ocean, Atlantic, and Cape May — aren’t very likely to use the idiom, because they’re already there. People who live slightly inland from the Jersey Shore are more likely to name their specific destination, he said.

South Jersey weathercaster “NorEasterNick” Pittman — who said he himself doesn’t say “down the shore” — started a conversation over the term on his Facebook page a few weeks ago.

“‘Down the shore’ if you live 45 minutes-ish away or more,” one commenter responded. “‘To the beach’ if you’re closer. ‘Down the shore’ is one of those geographical idiosyncrasies that makes the Delaware Valley special!”

A passionate Urban Dictionary contributor, who goes by the username “Jersey Kid,” issued their own call for unity over the term in November 2007:

[“Down the shore” is] what everyone from Jersey and Pennsylvania calls going to the beach. Don’t tell me people from Jersey don’t say this cause I lived here all my life and trust me 97% of the people call it the shore. The other 3% being transplants from other states. There is nothing wrong with calling it the beach. Honestly I like the term beach better but it doesn’t matter. La playa, shore, beach — whatever you call it it is fucking awesome.

Well said, Jersey Kid.

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...