If you found yourself at a backyard birthday party in North Providence this past Saturday evening, you may have overheard a conversation about bicycling. A handful of Rhode Islanders were describing recent long rides, commiserating over the mistake of overindulgence at the halfway mark. One told of marking the turn with too many boozey beverages, making for a risky ride back. Another recalled pausing in a long pedal for a heavy lunch, after which her partner wanted to get a cabinet, too.
You’d have been forgiven for assuming that the conversation had just taken a strange turn towards office furniture. But, actually, you’d just been gifted with a regionalism. As one of the partiers explained, “cabinet” is Rhode Island speak for “milkshake.” None present had a notion as to why, nor did they really need one, standing in that yard, fenced by knee-high chain link, driveway full of old station wagons, and having just gotten a tour of a home frozen in time, with a completely stocked basement bar seemingly untouched since the ’70s, and a lushly green-carpeted hallway, decked with old garden sprinklers wall-mounted like hunting trophies. Rhode Island’s just weird, no explanation needed.
Just kidding, OF COURSE we want an explanation. That’s what the Dictionary of American Regional English is for:
cabinet n: A milkshake. Chiefly used in Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts.
The etymology is actually uncertain, but a woman from Fall River interviewed in 1968 claimed it originated in a drugstore there, named by the pharmacist who concocted it. “The ice cream was kept in those days in a cabinet that was part of the soda-fountain set-up,” reads the DARE entry.
The entry also cites a letter to the Today Show from 1971 that explains that a milk shake in Rhode Island is without ice cream, while a cabinet has ice cream. And a Smithsonian letter from a Rhode Islander in 1982:
In Rhode Island this term more likely refers to a milkshake (using milk, syrup, and ice cream) than a piece of furniture. I grew up five miles from the Massachusetts border. As a child I could order a cabinet in R.I., but had to remember to order a frappe just five minutes to the west.
Because “frappe” is totally normal. Carry on, America.