Regional Terms and Sayings: How expressions for everyday things vary in America
I never realized the regional terms and sayings that I took for granted as normal until I moved to another state. After living the first 26 years of my life in New York, we moved to Michigan.
There, I learned that how I described certain footwear or refreshments was very different from my new Midwest neighbors. For example, when I referred to the sneakers on my feet, my neighbors replied, “Oh, tennis shoes?” Well, I don’t play tennis but okay.
Then, when I ordered some soda with my pizza at a local restaurant, the waiter looked at me quizzically? So, I got brand specific. “Diet Coke, please?” I asked. “Oh, you mean pop,” he replied. I see–soda pop is just pop here in Michigan.
Also, I can always tell someone from California. There, every multilane road is a freeway.
However, in other parts of the country, there are big differences between a parkway, highway, thruway, expressway, interstate or turnpike. And, as a native New Yorker, I never use the term freeway, even when referring to a non-toll, free highway road.
Overview of Regional Slang and Sayings
Regional slang and sayings refer to the unique words, phrases, terms and expressions that people in a particular region or locality use. History, culture and geography shape these linguistic features. They can vary significantly from one place to another.
Regional slang and sayings can include colloquialisms, idioms and dialects that are specific to a particular area. For example, saying “y’all” in the south versus “you guys” in the Northeast versus “yinz” in Pittsburgh.
History of regional terms and slang
The history of regional slang and sayings can be traced back to the early days of American settlement. As people migrated from different parts of the world to various regions of the United States, they brought with them their own languages, customs and traditions.
Over time, these diverse linguistic and cultural influences blended together to create unique regional dialects and linguistic features. It’s the same with regional accents.
Most common regional terms and sayings and their counterparts
Turns out sneakers vs tennis shoes and soda vs pop aren’t the only regional words, sayings and expressions that vary depending on where in the United States you happen to be. Like me you probably take it for granted that everyone calls gym shoes sneakers or the thing you sit on in the living room a couch or sofa.
Check out this roundup on the best sneakers (or tennis shoes) for working out.
However, as you’ll discover in this article, there are many regional terms, sayings and colloquialisms (fancy word for expressions and words) that are unique to a certain part of the United States. In some instances these are unique to a certain part of a specific state even.
Finally, there are some regional terms words and sayings that you may find synonymous like I do. For example, I use lightning bugs and fireflies interchangeably. However, people living elsewhere in the United States may not.
Regional terms for food and drink
According to Thrillist, when you want a certain topping on ice cream, you’d better ask for “jimmies” in parts of New England whereas in other parts of the country, you’ll just ask for sprinkles. And if you want a specific kind of jimmies or sprinkles, then you should add the qualifier “chocolate” or “rainbow” to your order.
Again, soda is the fizzy drink you get in the Northeast and Midatlantic. However, in Maine, you might have to say tonic. Then, you’ll have to ask for pop in the Midwest.
In the south, everything is referred to as “Coke.” So if you wanted orange crush to drink, you would ask for orange crush coke.
Additionally, if you want to order a milkshake aka a drink made with ice cream, you’d better ask for a frappe (pronounced frap) in Massachusetts and other places in New England.
There, a milkshake is just milk with syrup. It does not include ice cream.
On the other hand, in Rhode Island, you would call a milkshake a cabinet.
Additionally, there are lots of different ways that Americans refer to a sandwich on a long, skinny roll. I mean, we’re all familiar with the sandwich shop chain Subway, but not everyone refers to those sandwiches as subs.
So, what are the most common words to describe them?
Grinder: New Englanders refer to a hot version of a sub sandwich, such as a meatball grinder.
Hero: Northeast, except for New England
Italian sandwiches: Specific pockets of Northern New England
Hoagie: Philadelphia area including parts of New Jersey where Wawa convenience stores are popular
Po Boy: Southern states
Besides learning about tennis shoes and pop, there are other slang phrases of sayings that are unique to the Midwest. Here are a few:
Davenport: couch or sofa
Bubbler: water fountain or drinking fountain. Interestingly, this seems to be unique to Wisconsin in the Midwest and Rhode Island in New England.
Garage sale: when you’re selling stuff on your lawn or driveway or in your garage. Interestingly, a small portion of Wisconsin calls these a rummage sale.
Hot dish: casserole or something you might bring to a potluck.
Front room: the parlor or formal living room in a home
Ope: midwestern version of “oops” or “excuse me.”
Check out these cute midwestern sayings on shirts and home accessories on Etsy.
Massachusetts and New England slang words
Yard sale: garage sale. However, the Connecticut River valley of Massachusetts and Connecticut tend to call these outdoor sales a tag sale.
Jimmies: sprinkles to go on ice cream
Creamee: soft serve ice cream, often used in Vermont
Hoodsie: ice cream cup from Hood with chocolate on one side and vanilla on the other that you eat with a wooden stick spoon.
Wicked: most commonly associated with New England and means “very” or “extremely.” For example, “That snowstorm was wicked bad.”
Rotary: traffic circle or roundabout elsewhere in the country or world. Basically, a circle at a traffic intersection in place of traffic lights.
Ottoman: footstool or, in the New York City area, called a hassock. Basically, a place to put your feet up when you’re sitting in a chair or on the couch or sofa.
New Jersey slang
While I’ve spent most of my adult life in New York and Pennsylvania, I did live for a few years in New Jersey. Plus, where I lived in Pennsylvania was in the Philadelphia area on the border of New Jersey so I’ve picked up some New Jersey slang in that time.
Here are some uniquely New Jersey phrases and sayings.
Down the shore: going to the beach. That is, growing up on New York’s Long Island, we would go to the beach. However, if you go to the beach in New Jersey, you’re going down the shore aka the going to the Jersey Shore.
Taylor ham/Pork roll: Canadian bacon, like what McDonald’s puts on Egg McMuffins. FYI, fights break out when people call this meat product Taylor ham versus pork roll in certain parts of New Jersey. Just so you know, it’s Taylor ham in North Jersey and pork roll in Southern Jersey and at the Jersey Shore.
Philadelphia and New Jersey slang
In addition, there is some New Jersey slang that is specific to the New York area (since North Jersey is a New York City suburb) and Philadelphia (since some parts of South Jersey are considered to be part of the Philly metro area.
For example, if there is an accident on the road and traffic is going slowly because people are looking at the accident, well, people in these two parts of New Jersey call this something very different. In the New York area, it is rubberneckers or rubbernecking, same as in New York.
However, farther south near Philadelphia, rubbernecking is called a gaper delay. As in people are gaping at the accident on the side of the road.
Also with driving, you may see a sign for a jug handle or traffic circle. The jug handle is unique to New Jersey, in that you turn right to make a left. I know, what?
The traffic circle is the same as the rotary in New England or a roundabout–a big circle in the middle of an intersection that keeps traffic moving, without using traffic lights.
Similarly, soft serve ice cream may be called that or Mister Softee or custard a la Rita’s Italian Ice. They refer to their soft serve ice cream as custard.
Find out how you can get free Rita’s custard on your birthday.
West Coast slang
Much of the West Coast is known for its laid-back attitude and love of the outdoors. Many of the slang words and terms reflect this approach to everyday life.
Here are some of the most common expressions you might hear on the West Coast, specifically in California, and what they mean:
Hella: Means “very” or “a lot.” For example, “That concert was hella fun.”
Sluff: In Utah, to skip school or work is called “sluffing.” Other places in America might call it ditching or cutting
Gnarly: Cool or impressive. “The dude caught a gnarly wave.”
Freeway: Any high-speed roadway.
Final thoughts on regional terms and words
Overall, regional terms, words and sayings can be a fun way to learn about different parts of the country and the unique cultures that exist within them.
I’ve done my best to roundup the most common expressions in the regions where I have the most familiarity. Of course, if I’ve missed something or gotten something wrong, please let me know.
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