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Jimmies, spendy, and shave ice: American regionalisms

ice cream sprinkles

It goes without saying: the United States is a huge country. And while this certainly has some drawbacks (the formidable amount of time it takes to get from one coast to the other, for instance), the United States’ significant landmass also yields significant diversity—particularly when it comes to language. I’m not only talking about the fact that America is home to everyone from Spanish-speakers to Hebrew-speakers to Tagalog-speakers; I’m also talking about the multifarious, possibly innumerable brands of American English, spoken across all fifty states.

Grinders and jimmies

When editors on Oxford Dictionaries assess new words and draft new entries for each update, it’s not uncommon for them to work on plenty of food- and drink-related terms. This is a section of vocabulary that seems to be constantly expanding and changing, and is simply enormous—which is reflected by the fact that food and drink words are not always the same as one traverses the United States.

A commonly cited example of regional difference is the word for a sweetened, carbonated beverage: soda, pop, or coke? Coke, of course, is a registered trademark of the Coca-Cola Company and most commonly refers to Coca-Cola in particular, but in certain areas in the South, it can also refer generally to any similar beverage. Soda is more common in the Northeast and on the West Coast—the word earlier meant a naturally-occurring alkaline substance— while usage of pop (an onomatopoeic name for the sound the cork made when traditional bottles of the beverage were opened) tends to be restricted to areas in and around the Midwest and farther west. Pop is also used in this sense in other varieties of English, including some varieties of British English.

Americans in different regions also tend to be picky about what they call a certain sandwich made of a long roll filled with meat, cheese, and vegetables: it’s a hoagie in the Mid-Atlantic region, a grinder in New England, and even a hero in the area around New York City. Everywhere else it is chiefly called a sub, short for submarine sandwich—so named, of course, because the shape of the sandwich resembles a submarine.

Equally interesting are the words that are used exclusively, or almost exclusively, in one place. For example: New England’s word for the ice cream topping of small, rainbow-colored pieces—known to most Americans as sprinkles—is jimmies. Regions in the South, especially in and around New Orleans, will use the word po’boy for a sub sandwich (more often made with seafood fillings—perhaps so named because it was a meal even poor children could afford). “Shave ice” is the Hawaiian name for snow cone, Minnesotans call casseroles “hotdishes”, and residents of Rhode Island will call a milkshake a “cabinet”. The list goes on and on.

Tennies and thermals

Clothing names also divide the United States into respective regions of use. For example, what do Americans call the shoes you would wear when doing sports or at the gym? Apparently, only the Northeast and southern parts of Florida call them sneakers—also occasionally known as “sneaks”, sneakers are so named due to their soft, rubber soles, which enable the wearer to sneak around (though anyone who’s been to a basketball game knows that they can squeak as much as they can help you to sneak!). Everywhere else, these shoes are generally known as tennis shoes—though of course, you don’t have to play tennis to wear them. Tennis shoes are also shortened to tennies in areas of the North and West Coast.

When it’s cold, people in the South and Midwest tend to wear long johns, which residents of the East and West Coasts would rather call thermals or thermal underwear (from the Greek thermē, meaning heat). Americans in the South and southern Midland areas may also don a knit cap they call a “toboggan”—a word that means “sled” to most other Americans, and comes from the Micmac word topaĝan (for sled). And some people in East Coast areas call blue jeans dungarees (the chiefly British word for overalls)—from the Hindi word duṅgrī.

Slang and phrases

I’d like to conclude with a simple list of my favorite regional slang terms and phrases; and who knows, you might find one so apt that you will end up adopting it into your own vocabulary!

- Hella (West Coast)/wicked (New England)/mad (Mid-Atlantic): slang for very. She is hella/wicked/mad good at skiing!

- To redd’ up: many Pennsylvanians will say this meaning “to clean up” or “to tidy up”. We won’t leave until you redd’ up your room.

- New Yorkers will say waiting on line, as opposed to the rest of the United States, which tends to use waiting in line. How long have you been waiting on line for tickets?

- On the fritz: “out of order” or “in disrepair”, for Americans in the northern United States. Don’t use the elevator—it’s on the fritz!

- Fit to be tied: “angry”, chiefly used in the northern United States but slowly becoming popular enough to spread throughout the country. My father was fit to be tied when I ran away from home.

- Spendy: slang for expensive in the Northwest. Those martinis we had were pretty spendy.

Is there a regionalism characteristic of your area that confounds your non-local friends? Please feel free to share in the comments section below!