Do We Talk Funny? 51 American Colloquialisms
Has American English become homogenized? Have our regional ways of saying particular things — sometimes in very particular ways — receded into the past? Or do we talk as funny as ever?
When I was researching an NPR History Dept. piece on lost American slang words recently, slanguist Tom Dalzell — author of a raft of books, including Vietnam War Slang and Flappers 2 Rappers: American Youth Slang — told me: "For 100 years, we have trended away from regional slangs to a national slang. Radio, then television, then MTV and then the social media have all served to homogenize the slang that we use."
There is, Dalzell said, "very little regional slang left. Hecka or hella in Northern California or wicked or pisser in New England are examples of the few that survive." (Hecka, hella and wicked mean "very" or "really"; pisser means "stroke of bad luck.")
But what about nonslang regionalisms and colloquialisms? "There is a huge overlap between slang and colloquial and regional," Dalzell says. "Some would argue that cool is no longer slang but is so commonly used as to have lost the identity value and so is merely colloquial."
Meanwhile, according to the website of the expansive Dictionary of American Regional English — DARE -- language researchers are "challenging the popular notion that our language has been 'homogenized' by the media and our mobile population." They proffer that "there are many thousands of differences that characterize the dialect regions of the U.S."
Centered at the University of Wisconsin, DARE is celebrating its 50th year of studying our country's regional words and expressions — through field interviews in the early years and more recently through written materials spanning the history of the U.S. The dictionary has produced a multivolume reference work and continues to report on regionalisms through its website. With support, DARE is hoping to conduct more personal interviews using online surveys.
"Some regionalisms from a half-century ago have gone out of use," says Joan Houston Hall, the chief editor of DARE. "Dropped egg, for instance, was a strongly New England term for a poached egg. But at that time, most of the speakers who used the term were over 60 years old, so I suspect that we would find very few instances if we were to ask the question again."
Why did folks drop the word dropped?
"No one knows for sure," Hall says. "Maybe it was a term associated with rural life; maybe with the popularity in the late '60s of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, it was more fashionable to switch to poached egg. Often the changes are generational, for no apparent reason."
But new words come into use, Hall says, "and if they serve a purpose in a limited area, they become new regionalisms. Take slug, for instance, in the D.C. area. Here's our definition: one who hitches a ride with a driver who needs passengers in order to use a high occupancy vehicle lane."
Other recent regionalisms, she says, include: squeaky cheese — fresh cheese curds, chiefly in Wisconsin; tiger meat — steak tartare, also called a "cannibal sandwich," chiefly in Wisconsin; spendy — expensive, chiefly in the North, especially the Pacific Northwest and Upper Midwest; and stuffie — a stuffed clam shell, chiefly in Rhode Island.
"Regionalisms change," Hall says, "some of them dying, some expanding or contracting and others coming into our vocabularies."
Which set me to thinking about some of the regionalisms from DARE's 50 years of research — and wondering if they still pop up in popular parlance.
Are the following 51 DARE-designated regionalisms from the past or from the present? Don't be laggy. Please take a look and let me know:
1. Alabama: flip — slingshot
2. Alaska: skijoring — being pulled on skis
3. Arizona: greasewood — creosote bush
4. Arkansas: renthouse — a house that is rented out
5. California: make the riffle — to succeed
6. Colorado: buck — a brace for cutting firewood
7. Connecticut: pigsticker — sled with pointed front
8. Delaware: sneak — tennis shoe
9. District of Columbia: slug — a hitchhiking commuter
10. Florida: scaper — rascal or critter
11. Georgia: burk — vomit
12. Hawaii: huhu — angry
13. Idaho: lucerne — alfalfa
14. Illinois: scramble dinner — potluck supper
15. Indiana: belling — loud celebration
16. Iowa: kittenball — softball
17. Kansas: doodinkus -- unspecified object
18. Kentucky: ridy-bob — seesaw
19. Louisiana: cowcumber — cucumber
20. Maine: putty around — be idle
21. Maryland: snoopy — finicky
22. Massachusetts: diddledees — pine needles
23. Michigan: sewing needle — dragonfly
24. Minnesota: ish — expression of disgust
25. Mississippi: squab — fat person
26. Missouri: hall tree — clothes rack
27. Montana: coulee — valley
28. Nebraska: on pump — on credit
29. Nevada: pogonip — thick, icy fog
30. New Hampshire: crawm — food waste
31. New Jersey: laggy — lethargic
32. New Mexico: colchon — mattress
33. New York: spiedie -- marinated meat sandwich
34. North Carolina: table tapper — amateur preacher
35. North Dakota: limpa — rye bread made with molasses
36. Ohio: dope — dessert topping
37. Oklahoma: larruping — delicious
38. Oregon: cho-cho — small boy
39. Pennsylvania: skimmelton — shivaree
40.Rhode Island: driftway — access road to the sea
41. South Carolina: cascade — vomit
42. South Dakota: soak — serious drinker
43. Tennessee: hunk — bumpkin
44. Texas: worrit — nag
45. Utah: sluff school — play hooky
46. Vermont: pestle around — putter about
47. Virginia: garlicky — bad flavor, said of milk
48. Washington: marblehead — winter squash
49. West Virginia: slicky slide — playground slide
50. Wisconsin: whoopensocker — something extraordinary
51. Wyoming: dout — extinguish
Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.