Separated By a Common Language

by J.D. Rhoades

     As most of you know,  I live in a Southern state. Since my area is a big resort destination, though, we have  a  lot of transplants from various places, particularly the Northeast and, for some reason, Ohio. (Will the last person out of Akron please turn off the lights?)

    There are any number of  funny stories illustrating the linguistic  misunderstandings that occur between Americans and our British cousins (Hi  Zoe!) I  may have told the story here of the time I was working as a DJ in a hotel bar and played a song that’s popular in the Southeastern US  extolling the joys of “shagging” (it’s a dance). This led to much consternation on the part of a nice British couple at a nearby table.   The disconnect led George Bernard Shaw to famously observe that the British and the Americans are “two peoples separated by a common language.”

     You don’t have to cross the ocean, however,  to find locutions that puzzle, baffle, and confuse. We get plenty of that with folks from right here within our own national borders.  Most often, I see it in court, which is the place where worlds  collide.  Lately I’ve been hearing so many examples in the day job that I figured I might was well use them in a Murderati post, for you fans of using  regionalisms in your writing–and, frankly, because they amuse me.

“I want to say”: this is used by someone who’s really not sure of an answer, but who’s giving it their best guess. Such as:

 Q: “How long did the two of you live together?”
 A: “I want to say…two years?”

Clueless comeback: “Don’t tell me what you want to say, tell me the truth.”

A: “Huh?”

“Whenever”: this is used as a substitute for “when.” Example “Whenever I was in high school…”

Clueless comeback: “Wait, how many times did you go?”

A: “Huh?”

 “Kindly”: Its use is fading a bit, but you still hear older people from out in the country use this one  to mean “kind of.” I once heard an older lady, from the teeming metropolis of Black Ankle, North Carolina, admit on the stand that her son had, on occasion,  been “kindly violent.” A social worker from (of course)  Ohio, who’d been involved in the case, immediately got into a state of the highest dudgeon. When it was her turn on the witness stand she blasted the old woman: “That’s what’s wrong with this family! There’s no such thing as ‘kindly violent!” Embarassed silence. Finally the judge (who, as it happens, was born and raised in the same county as the old lady) leaned over and asked the social worker:  “you’re not from around here, are you?”

Talking“: This was common in the African American community a few years ago. It means, basically, having sex. I rermember talking to a  client who had cross warrants with an older man for assault with a deadly weapon. He informed me that it was all a result of a misunderstanding involving the older fellow’s daughter: “Me and her been talking for while and I guess her daddy got mad.” So, I naturally thought the older fellow had overreacted to someone merely striking up a conversation with his litte girl, and I was all ready to paint him as the unreasonably violent agressor. Fortunately, an older colleague set me straight before I made a colossal ass of myself. More than usual,  I mean.

So, wherever you’re from, tell me what regionalisms from your area tend to befuddle the average outsider.  Or tell me about a localism that befuddled you.

54 thoughts on “Separated By a Common Language

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    I’m from Montana. I’m sure we have such words but none are coming to mind. But what is interesting is that we don’t really have an accent here other than some would say the flat Western States accent …. except if one is from a town in the sticks where it is more rural/cowboy country. It’s weird. Like they THINK that is how one should sound if you’re from a small town in Montana.

  2. Eika

    In New England, things that are wicked are awesome. I don’t know how many people I’ve confused with that…

    Also, ‘you guys’ is gender-neutral. (it’s sad when that common word has to be misspelled three different ways before auto-correct wants it replaced with anything closer than ‘menstrual’.) I’ve heard stories that it’s gotten some people confused.

  3. TerriMolina

    In Texas it’s "fixin’ to" as in, I’m fivin’ to go yell at my kids to stop piddlin around and get ready for school. (btw, I live in Az now, but I’m a forever Texan) =)

  4. Karen in Ohiood

    When my daughter was at a tiny Southern college we heard a lot of this, referring to the fact that we look enough alike to be sisters: Y’all favor one another. Which does not necessarily mean that we gift or prefer one another.

    My first husband’s "people" were from Appalachia, and there were a lot of oddities, but I can’t remember most of them. (It’s been 35 years, after all.) But "kindly" was definitely one of the then new to me idioms.

  5. Vicky McAulay

    Here in Ottawa, Canada, we’re a bilingual city. There’s a lot of cross-over between the English and French languages. One example is expressing disgust or anger with the words, "Shit, la merde!". It may seem silly, but when you use it yourself, it’s oddly much more satisfying than just using one or the other.

  6. Dana King

    Having grown up in Western Pennsylvania, I’m not surprised at all to learn you have many Ohio transplants. 😉

    Aside from the Pittsburgh accent, there are several Western Pennsylvania-isms that come to mind:

    Redd up – to quickly tidy up

    Buying a pig in a poke – asked to buy or accept something sight unseen, or without reasonable verification. ( A poke is a paper bag.)

    Gum Band – Rubber band. (Elastic.)

    Jagoff – Hard to describe in polite company, but you all know one, and recognize others when you see them. (Also Jackoff. In NY, jerkoff.)

    Slippy – Slippery

    Many others are mostly unorthodox pronunciations (you’ns, dahntahn, etc.)

  7. Robert Gregory Browne

    I remember when I was younger I had a friend from the east coast who would iron her clothes using a "flat" and always wanted to go to the "creamery."

    I had come from Honolulu, so I was well aware that there were words used in Hawaii that nobody else in the U.S. would know about — "Howzit, blala?" "Easy, brah." But this was my first realization that there were also differences between the east and west coast.

    Okay, I admit it. I’m not too smart.

  8. Chris

    I moved from Montana to Ohio for a couple years, and prior to a work-sponsored summer party thing a guy asked if he should bring his "cornholing equipment." Now, in the Midwest, I guess, cornholing is a game where you throw beanbags through holes in a board to win prizes. Where I come from, though, and I don’t know if it is a Montana thing or not, cornholing has a much different, definitely-not-family-fun-summer-party-related meaning.

    Slightly related, this site has a list of "Manly Slang from the 19th Century" that is pretty fun:

  9. Boyd Morrison

    When I moved to Texas to go to college, I heard usage of "without" I’d never heard before. It was used instead of the word "unless." As in,

    "You’ll never get to college without you study harder."

  10. Steven T.

    Well, there’s also the differences between how Southerners and some Northerners see the phrase "Good Old Boy." As a native New Yorker, that phrase has only ever had negative connotations for me until I traveled a bit in the South for conferences.

    Then there’s the phrase "Bless his heart." What does that mean?

  11. Judy Wirzberger

    Conversation in Southern Illinois



    "Did you eat?"
    "Let’s go eat."

    And seemingly confined to one small location was the reference to one’s hair as in "I washed my hairs last night and I can’t do a thing with them." Really bad visual.

  12. anonymous

    In California we say that we want to ‘sleep in’ after a wild night. My New York friends tell me you have to say ‘sleep late’.

    They also used to say they were ‘going over Wilson’s’. Not going over TO the Wilson’s.

    My people are from Oklahoma, bless their little ol’ hearts Steven, and if you cooked a really great batch of chili or made some perfect barbeque, you were complimented with a ‘you got a good scald on it’.
    (Comes from scalding a pig before butchering to get the hairs off.)

    and, of course, when it rains hard ‘it’s a gully washer’.

    When the humid red dusty three digit temperature would hit, my grandmother (and I am sure she totally owned this expression) would say that it was hotter than ‘Old Billy’s ned’. Now you couldn’t say ‘hell’, so I knew how hot she really meant, but I never figured out what the fuck a ‘ned’ was. The most innocent answer was that she had corrupted ‘shed’. Old Billy’s shed. But I spent not a few moments trying to visualize Old Billy’s NED enough to make myself sick. Eeeeeuuuuuuwww.

  13. Mary Arrr

    Another New Englandism is "pisser" as high praise (pronounced "pissah"). "Wicked awesome pissah" is Patriots Superbowl/Red Sox World Series/Dennis Lehane level fantastic.

  14. JD Rhoades

    Terri, "fixin’ to" is often shortened to "Finta" in these parts. As in "I’m finta go to the store, you need anyhting?"

    Vicky ‘Shit la merde!’ has no entered my lexicon. It does work real good.

    Dana: love the W, Pennisms. Never heard "redd up" before.

    Rob: "Creamery" meaning "ice cream store?" there are some chains spreading that term around the country now.

    Steven: "Bless his heart" can mean many things. It’s sometimes used as an expression of sympathy: "Bless his heart, he’s had a rough year." But it’s also used to soften an insult: "He’s dumber’n a bag of hammers, bless his heart."

    Chris: there was a story on some show on TV recently about "cornholing" meaning the game you describe. Much hilarity ensued in our living room.

    Judy: "Jeet yet?" is used in the South a lot as well. I think Jeff Foxworthy did a bit about it:

    "Jeet yet?"




    anon, you remind me of a couple of expressions used by transplanted Midwesterners that sort of startled me at first. One was "Come with" to me "Come with me." As in: "I’m going to the store, you want to come with?"

    Another is "Please?" to mean "What did you say?" As in: "I’m going to the *garblemumble*"


    Mary; "wicked awesome pissah" is one of my favorite New Englandisms.

  15. Rae

    Love this post, love anything to do with the joy of the English language, thanks!

    I don’t know if it was a personal thing or came from her youth in Oregon, but my grandmother used to say "Well, I swan" rather than "Well, I never" as an exclamation of surprised disbelief, as in:

    "And then he jumped off the roof"

    "Well, I swan" (Implied is, I’ve never heard of such a thing before in my life)

  16. kit

    In the central and western part of our state…there are alot families of German- Russian descent, in school they would speak their own laguage, and at school…English.
    As would most Norwegians, Polish, and families of Swedich descent.
    On …is at times used for IN…ex: Put this on the car…..meaning "Put this in the car.
    Or my favorite "Throw the cow over some hay."…meaning "feed the cow" or " put some hay in the stall" and not "Pick up that cow and ptich him over the hay bales."

    My son tells this story about breakfast, dinner and supper…..and lunch in the afternoon.
    He was in the Marines and getting corrected alot …it being breakfast, lunch and dinner…till the day, he looked at them all and said…."Have any of you people EVER heard of the LAST DINNER? I thought not, now, how many of you have heard of the LAST SUPPER? I figure if it’s good enough for Jesus Christ, it should be good enough for me."

  17. anonymous

    Oh yeah! I swan. My grandmother always added ‘to goodness’ . I swan to goodness.

    I swan comes from not being able to ‘swear’. You can’t say ‘I swear to God’. That would be blasphemous. Hence, I swan to goodness.

    My daddy, Bless his heart, brought our family out of Oklahoma and into the promised land in 1956. We were ‘two mattress Okies’ .

    We had money.

  18. pari noskin taichert

    I’m trying to think of specific words and am having a difficult time.

    In NM we spell "chili" with an "e" — chile. Don’t you dare spell it any other way.

    And if you want both red and green chile on your plate of enchiladas or other food, order "Christmas."

    The whole "people of color" thing isn’t used here either. Hispanics don’t consider themselves "non-white." Everyone else is just an "Anglo."

    We also have a lot of crossover with Spanish/Mexican (two languages for sure) and they create Spanglish: "Donde esta el car?" "What are you doing manana?" Even non-native Spanish speakers combine or use Spanish here: No problemo . . . Manana (see you later) and so forth.

  19. kit

    Anon…love the *two mattress Okies*

    this is truely a great, informative topic.having fun reading it, thank you.

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    I say, chaps, this stuff sounds awfully complicated. How’s a poor Brit to make oneself understood, what?

    Actually, I find it’s usually me who fails to make myself understood, mainly down to the speed at which the Brits tend to talk, and the fact that we don’t use rising inflection to indicate a question.

    A friend once said that when she’s tired and not tuned in to our accents, we sound like the Peanuts parents. "Blah, blah, blah-blah, blah."

    But then, she did have a ‘come poke sticks at the Brits’ party at her house when we went to stay there …;-]

    God I miss those days

  21. Sandy

    My father used to say, "Makes me no never mind," for "It doesn’t make any difference to me." We think it had to do with his German descent.

  22. JD Rhoades

    Kit, my wife tells me that her grandparents (of German descent) used to have something called "second Supper" about nine-ish. Cold meats, maybe some sausages, etc. Sounds like a heck of a idea to me.

    Pari: Spanglish always reminds me of Albert Bester’s sci-fi novel THE COMPUTER CONNECTION, which takes place in a future America where the prevailing language is called "Black Spanglish" –is a mishmash of African American street slang, Spanish and English. "Ah gonna splain any pregunta you ax" means "I’ll answer your questions."

  23. Dana King

    Something just occurred to me from a writers perspective. While some of these terms are unknown outside their specific geographic areas, using them with car can be a nice way to set the place in the story, or characterize through speech. Much better than trying to phonetically spell accents. No point in using a bunch of apostrophes and misspellings when you can just say, "We’re fixing to leave," or "It’s wicked hot out there." Assuming the groundwork has been established first.

  24. Robert Gregory Browne

    Dana, it’s a perfect example of what a writer can do to inject local color into dialogue. But do me a favor — if you set a piece in New Orleans, don’t use "cher" every other sentence. It gets a little ridiculous after a while.

  25. anonymous

    For great vernacular surfing read the Foxfire books. Hell. You all should have read ’em anyway.

    Oklies don’t say yall or y’all………….it’s YOU all……. emphasis on YOU

    YOU-all gonna go down to the HO-tel for the Fourth of JU-ly?

  26. toni mcgee causey

    Dana, exactly.

    Terri, we do the "fixin to" ’round here all the time.

    Course, there’s the standard y’all (singular) and all y’all (plural). Lagniappe for a little something extra. Gon’ go make groceries (going to the grocery store). There are a ton of Cajun influences… but my favorite one that my dad said recently was that someone had so much money, they had "enough to burn a dead mule." (Apparently, used as fuel, a dead mule takes quite a lot.)

  27. TerriMolina

    bein’ that we’re neighbors Toni, I know y’all say fixin to also. 😉 (Texans tend to drop the "g" in ‘ing’ words too) We also like to end a question with AT. As in, where you at?

  28. anonymous

    toni………I have heard your dad’s expression before, but it was ‘enough money to burn up a wet mule"….

  29. anonymous

    Sandy. I used to hear………’I might could do that.’ ‘Don’t you pay no never mind.’

    When was the last time anyone heard someone say ‘picture show’ instead of movie or film? It’s like icebox or grocery store. No one says that anymore. Didn’t you guys post about this not too long ago?

  30. Jake Nantz

    Man, you’re speaking my wife’s language now…pure Harnett County (and of course, it’s HAR-nit, not har-NETT). The one that drives me absolutely bonkers is "lookin". As in looking, but without following it with "for".

    "What you lookin’?" (what are you searching for?)

    "M’lookin’ sumpta eat." (I’m trying to find something to eat.)

    "Taters inna fridge." (There are some potatoes in the refrigerator.)

    "Uh’bliged." (Thank you.)

    I gotta say, though, the one that screwed me up worse than anything came from a guy I played lacrosse with who was from South Boston (Southie, to him). They have an expression which means "Oh, I do to" that is as counterintuitive as it gets. To wit:

    "Dood, I got that new Madden game."

    "Yeah, so-dun-I." (pronounced as one word, like sodunnaye)

    Seriously…’so don’t I’. I’m not making this shit up. And it still sounds off to me, even after listening to this guy all summer…WTF is wrong with those damn Yanks?

  31. Jake Nantz

    Oh, and one I forgot to mention (probably for the same reason you did Dusty, we’re just so used to the "right" way to use the word we forget about everyone that’s wrong)…..

    Most everywhere else in the world, "Barbecue" is a VERB.

    In the South, it is a NOUN. It’s Pork that has been smoked/roasted/firegrilled for at least 6-8 hours, sometimes all night and into the next day, and then pulled or chopped and mixed over with some degree of mild or spicy or hell-hath-no-fury-like-it BBQ sauce.
    And in North Carolina especially, there is a HUGE neverending debate (not Hatfields-and-McCoys, but damn near) as to WHAT KIND of ‘Cue you eat. There is "Eastern Style", which uses a vinegar-based BBQ sauce, and there is "Lexington Style", which uses a ketchup-based sauce. Depending on what company you are in, don’t ask for the wrong kind or you will be openly mocked, ostracized, and told how much of an "ijit" you are.

    Me, I like ’em both, but don’t let my wife or her kin from down east know I tend to go for the Lexington when it’s available. And hopefully you haven’t lost any respect for me by my admitting it either, Dusty…

  32. Stacy McKitrick

    I got my first taste of the south when I attended college and asked someone where the soda machine was located. I got funny looks and the comment: "You’re not from around here are you?" They called them pop machines. Never did call it pop. It’s always been soda (born & raised in So. Cal – now an Ohioan!).

  33. toni mcgee causey

    Now, see, Stacy, we’d just call you a Yankee for calling it a pop, because here in the deep south, everything is a coke. As in, "You wanna coke?" "Yeah." "What kind you want?" "Dr. Pepper."

    There are four categories of drinks with supper: water, cokes, tea, beer.

    Also, if you’re from the country, you have breakfast, dinner and supper. If you’re from the city, you have breakfast, lunch and dinner.

    Took me years to understand what the hell my husband wanted when he kept asking me what was for dinner when he wasn’t even going to be home that time of day. (Of course, my general answer is, "Whatever you’re gonna cook.")

  34. Jake Nantz

    Stacy, where in the hell were you in the South that they called it Pop? I’ve always heard that from my lax buddies up north, and in the midwest. Most folks down here just call it a Coke. And no,it doesn’t matter what brand or flavor, it’s still a coke, and I’ve lived or spent a good deal of time in NC, SC, GA, VA, FL, and WV. Maybe I just missed the area you’re talkin about.

  35. kit

    Oh and directions are really fun….".it’s the next place on the left from Arbuckle’s Slough." HUH??

    or" Hook a left, hook a left, hook a left, and you’ll be right in Doc’s yard." Which was shorthand for "keep on hiway 32 to the Silver Lake road sign, turn left, follow the road, turn left on the first through road, and turn left in the first driveway."

    and the ever popular ‘ well you stay on this road here, and you’ll come to a crossroads, there should be a heard of cows in the corner, ya turn there, go a little ways and turn right by the big power lines."

    or giving directions by the roads you DON’T take."You go under the bridge, you know where the River Road is*nod*…well skip it, an’ go straight."

  36. anonymous

    Now now now. Okies called it ‘pop’. My mother always asked us ‘You kids want some pop?’ ‘Yeah! We can we have a Coke!’

    But the recently revealed Cajun and Murderatian term du jour is Vitamin Butt In Chair. (toni)

    Now pull an M.D. (Dr.Pepper) and chase your Vitamin B in C with a shot out of the blue bottle (maalox) and gitchyer writer butts, bless their little hearts, back in the shed and get a good scald on it……..

  37. Cornelia Read

    I am still trying to find the origin of a word that is phonetically "BUXgifter." Something my ex’s family used mostly to describe cranky uppity children. "Don’t get all buxgifter." It might be some sort of regional German thing that got brought over to Syracuse by the great-grandfather from around Lake Constanz. Have never seen it spelled, and never heard anyone else use it. But it’s a great one, kind of onomatopoeic.

  38. kit

    my dad used to use this phrase, usually when he wanted to express dibelief, frustration…and call someone on something.."well, that’s just shit for the birds."…tried to look up the origin , don’t have a clue.

  39. kit

    out in the boonies, you are a do-it-yourself-er out of neccessity, mainly. There is one tool, that the less handy come to depend on …a BFH. Big Flippin’ Hammer..if you can’ t fix it, you can always beat it…"your car still not working?" ‘ yeah, nothin’ a BFH wouldn’t fix."

  40. anonymous

    Cornelia. This is a tough one. Bucks gifter? What would that have to do with cranky uppities……..?

    I am working on it.

  41. Jake Nantz

    Kit – I’m betting the ‘F’ in BFH isn’t really for ‘Flippin’ in most folks’ minds…

    Kinda like the destinations around here, BFE and EBF (Bumfuck Egypt and East Bumblefuck), two places meant to show you have found the exact middle of nowhere.

  42. Allison Davis

    was in depositions all day and missed this…LOVE it.

    In New Orleans, there’s an entirely different — well, everything. We "make" groceries for one. Sidewalks are banquettes, the "netural ground" is the median (but wider), you get "laignapped" when someone gives you a little bit more for free, "Crib" is your house, but taken from the Storyville "cribs" where the ladies of the evening did their business…

    lots of food for thought. thanks!

  43. Nancy Siversen

    I grew up in Arkansas and my mother used to threaten to give me "old Billy Ned" quite frequently and it was never when she was happy with me. I thought of it today and ended up here on this great blog. I think it might mean hell!

  44. Michael Reilly

    An excellent post. I will be bookmarking it for future use. In my last novel "Misisipi" I had to formulate phrases for my West Virginia cops and my Louisiana Cajun gangster and I had no experts to call on. As I live in Ireland it was an exercise in linguistic imagining. I hope I didn't disgrace myself (and my subjects) too much.

    Mike Reilly
    Author "Misisipi"


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *