Regional American Words: Is That a Pork Steak in Your Pocket or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

Travel Blog  •  Jenna Schnuer  •  02.16.09 | 7:24 PM ET

Photo by procsilas via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Pop? Soda? Coke?

Hoagie? Grinder? Sub?

These questions are about as basic as it gets when it comes to American regionalisms—yet who doesn’t want to duke it out in defense of their hometown heroes (or grinders)? Just watch what happens in the comments sections (hopefully it happens) when I declare the answers to be soda and sub. (Please, if you disagree, just don’t hurl your hoagie at me.) If you’ve ever discussed either one of those, then you’re going to want to meet Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, hosts of A Way With Words. The public radio show is “Car Talk for language,” says Barrett. “People call us about their questions and peeves and just observations about language, things they’ve always wanted to know or things they heard on television last night, and we help them get to the bottom of it.” Adds Barnette: “We talk just about everything having to do with language. That means grammar, punctuation, slang, regionalisms, word origins and usage. A lot of times we’ll get couples who have had an ongoing [word] fight for years ... or there’s a dispute in somebody’s office. They call us and we make our pronouncements.”

One topic that totally tickles the dandy duo (who are probably gagging over that icky alliteration) is American regionalisms. “What I love about regionalisms is that language is a reflection of culture, and, in terms of regionalisms, it’s not just the poetry of language, it also reflects migration patterns,” says Barnette.

“When people come up with new words, they’re almost never new words completely sprung out of the earth fully formed. They’re almost always derived from something that already existed or modified or they indifferently applied grammar rules,” says Barrett.

It’s also a very personal topic for both Bs. MB grew up in Kentucky and GB is “half-Southern.”

Says Barrett: “One of the features of my dialect—southern Ozark Mountain—is that the past tense of ‘to steal’ is ‘stoled.’ People shudder when they hear me say it. If you look at the surveys that have been done of this, it’s very consistent in my part of the country. The only way I would know that it’s out of the ordinary is that people say it’s supposed to be ‘stolen.’ I take a little bit of personal pride in my dialect. I’m not going to speak Harvard English just because somebody else wants me to.”

As for the all-time oh I love it so regionalism for each?

Pork steaks—“a cut of meat almost unknown out of Missouri”—are top of mind for Barrett. “Don’t you just want to get you some?” Barrett says. “They’re usually cooked in red sauce, either as shown in a large container, or better, you might marinate them for a while first, throw them on the grill and then as they’re cooking, you keep slathering the sauce, so that it kind of accretes like wax does on a wick when you’re making candles, or like the layers of paint that get added on an old house over the decades. The key, in any case, is not to do any of that half-assed barbecue where the meat is cooked separately from the sauce and then added at the end! That’s just wrong, and anybody with any sense knows it.”

And for Barnette? She’s not letting go of “tump,” which means “to accidentally knock over,” any time soon. Use it in a sentence please, Martha: “Don’t tump over the canoe! or OMG, he just tumped a whole cooler of beer into the lake. It’s found throughout much of the South, and I suppose I cling to it with pride because I’ll never forget using this word in upstate New York, only to find people actually laughed at me because they’d never heard such a thing. Now any time I hear a Southerner say it, it feels like home, and I want to give them a big ol’ high five in solidarity.”