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.”

Jenna Schnuer

Freelancer Jenna Schnuer writes about travel, food, culture, books, and life's quirky bits (and bites) for publications including American Way, National Geographic Traveler, Southern Living, and many others. She also co-writes Flyover America, a site filled with quieter stories from around the U.S. Send Jenna an email or, if you're so inclined, follow her on Twitter.

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

Kathryn 02.16.09 | 9:03 PM ET

Great article! I’m going to try to listen to Car Talk for Language. In the meantime, you deserve a hoagie and pop!

Jenna Schnuer 02.16.09 | 9:14 PM ET

Oh my dear Michigan-born friend, one of these days, your longtime NY home will finally shake the hoagie and pop out of you.

Sophia Dembling 02.16.09 | 9:20 PM ET

I LOVE tump and use it all the time.

I also love “puny”—as in “I drank too much last night and I’m feeling kinda puny this morning.” And “tooty”—as in, “My son is acting a little tootie today—he needs a nap.” And “got a whang to it”—as in “I think the milk must be turning because my shake has a bit of a whang to it.” Thanks to my friend Jenny, a native Texan, for turning me on to the latter two.

Sophia Dembling 02.16.09 | 9:22 PM ET

BTW, it’s hero and soda.

Do you carry your groceries home in a bag or a sack?

Jenna Schnuer 02.16.09 | 9:26 PM ET

Bag. You?

And I think I’m going to start a movement to turn NY onto tump. Such a good word.

Sophia Dembling 02.16.09 | 9:27 PM ET

I used to use a bag until I moved down here. Now I say sack because otherwise checkers give me the fish eye.

Jenna Schnuer 02.16.09 | 9:39 PM ET

I would definitely collect a serious case of stinkeye if I said “sack” in Queens.

Jennifer 02.17.09 | 9:23 AM ET

In the midwest, southwest Ohio to be exact, we use both hoagie and sub, although they are generally considered to be two different things.  A sub is mostly a cold cut sandwich (i.e. Subway style - ick!) in a hoagie type bun (I guess they can be hot too depending on the type) but a hoagie would never be a cold sandwich.  Also, we usually use the term pop when refering to soft drinks (is “soft drink” a regional term?) although, no one would really look at you like you have two heads if you used soda.  If someone asked me if I wanted a Coke, I would assume they actually meant Coca Cola (Cola - another regionalism?) and not any old soft drink!

Jerry Haines 02.17.09 | 10:13 AM ET

I lived in Pittsburgh for 10 years, and enjoyed dozens of regionalisms that rarely make it outside of Western Pa.  Ya know what I mean?  (Roy Blount Jr. once did a scholarly analysis of that phrase’s rhythm and nuances.)  The baby needs bathed (the “bath” part rhymes with “path,” by the way).  The hahs needs redd up (the house needs to be straightened up).  (Pittsburghers never split inifinitives because THEY NEVER USE THEM.)  Yinz goin dahtahn (are you going downtown)?  It’s too slippy (slippery).

Just writing this makes me long for a Primanti Bros. sweet sausage with provolone and a cold Iron City.

(How ‘bout dem Stillers?)

Jenna Schnuer 02.17.09 | 10:21 AM ET

Jennifer—- You may enjoy this map—I sure know I did:

Jerry—I’ve never had a Primanti Bros. sweet sausage with provolone but, after reading what you posted, now there’s nothing I want more. It’s a slippy slope from reading about things to wanting them. So easily influenced. So so easily influence (well, when it comes to sandwiches).

Thanks to both of you for commenting.

Eva Holland 02.17.09 | 10:33 AM ET

I’ve always found it interesting that Canada seems to have far fewer regionalisms (and distinctive regional accents) than the US or (another great one for regionalism!) the UK. I don’t know, maybe we don’t tend as often to stay in one place for successive generations? With the notable exception of Newfoundland and parts of the Maritimes (and, duh, Quebec, where they speak another language) you won’t find a ton of this type of stuff.

Although, if you ever find yourself in Saskatchewan and you hear someone mention a “bunnyhug” - they’re talking about a hoodie!

Eva Holland 02.17.09 | 10:43 AM ET

Also: where does a “hero” fit into the whole hoagie/sub/etc framework?

Jenna Schnuer 02.17.09 | 10:56 AM ET

A hero ain’t nothing but a sandwich. It is a NY (and other area?) thing. While I still prefer sub, hero was also welcome in my house. Then again, sometimes we also just called them Blimpie’s cause we were sort of brand loyal on that front—and Blimpie’s had the best sweet peppers.

Bunnyhug. Hee. (But wrong—it’s a hoodie!)

As for the Canada regionalism issue, I’m going to nudge Grant and Martha to see if they’ll stop in and chat about it (and everything else that pops up).

Sophia Dembling 02.17.09 | 11:01 AM ET

Mmm, Blimpies. Those were the best.

I called them heroes until I moved to Texas, now they’re subs. How about grinders? That’s Philly, isn’t it?

I love Bunnyhug. That’s too damn cute.

I was mocked when I used the word “sneakers” down here. They’re tennis shoes. Oh, and they’re flip-flops, not thongs. Of course this was before “thong” took on a whole new meaning.

Eva Holland 02.17.09 | 11:11 AM ET

Yeah, I still think bunnyhug is adorable. I had to cleanse it from my vocab pretty quickly when I moved to Ontario, due to merciless schoolyard mockery. (People already thought it was funny enough that I was from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.)

Thank you for the hero info. Another fun one to think about is the different ways directional statements are defined in different places. In Ottawa, “up north” would generally mean the northern territories, north of the 60th latitude. In New Orleans, once, though, I told a bartender I had “family up north” and he said: “So when you say up north, what exactly do you mean? Because when I say up north, I mean somewhere slightly south of where you live.” Ha.

Sophia Dembling 02.17.09 | 11:22 AM ET

Yes, speaking of location being relative—some Texans consider people from Dallas to be Yankees.

Grant Barrett 02.17.09 | 11:59 AM ET

“Hero” is definitely a New York thing. The earliest use of it so far found is from worker’s jargon collected in the late 1930s in New York City.

I think that Canada does have a great number of regionalisms, it’s just that they’re, well, Canadian.  Perhaps it’s a stereotype (though my Canadian friends never deny it), I think the Canadians are more demure and less vocal about their distinct language features. Canadians seem to spend a great deal less time defining themselves and their community publicly, while Americans are fond of saying things like, “I’m like this and my community is like that and we speaking this certain way and say those kinds of things.” I call that “Chamber of Commerce” behavior. My wife, who has studied folk dictionaries (those made by people who aren’t professional lexicographers), has a large collection of such little American dictionaries and they almost always are filled with a lot of pride of place and price of people, even to the point of absurdity.

A good dictionary covering Canadian English is the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, of which a second edition is now being prepared.

Also, if you want to get a handle on the way Canadians sound (rather than on the word choices they make), look at some of the work by Charles Boberg.

Jennifer 02.17.09 | 12:45 PM ET

Jenna - thanks for the link to the map.  It’s interesting to try and figure out why certain areas use one term over another!

“Bunnyhug” - that’s the greatest thing I’ve heard in a long time.  I’m going to incorporate it into my daily vocabulary.  I never did like the term “hoodie” - it always sounded very juvenile to me (maybe that ages me a bit) and I still stubbornely stick with hooded sweatshirt.  “Bunnyhug” on the other hand is just too cute to ignore!

Here’s some more:  sneakers, gym shoes or tennis shoes?  Personally, I use gym shoes.

What about pants or trousers?  Is that regional within the US or is the term “trouser” more of a British thing?  Trousers sound to me like something old men would wear with a houndstooth pattern and suspenders!  I don’t wear those, I wear pants! :-)

Jenna Schnuer 02.17.09 | 12:53 PM ET

Thanks Grant. As for your wife’s work with folk dictionaries, is there any info about it out on the web (or elsewhere)? My ex had a great little dictionary of Kentucky sayings—I really wish I had moved it to my book shelf before I sent him away.

Do you think there’s any one spot in the U.S. that can claim top prize for absurd regional-speak pride?

And Jennifer—sneakers and pants.

But do you stand on line or in line?

Sophia Dembling 02.17.09 | 12:56 PM ET

I think of trousers as dress pants as opposed to jeans or other casual pants.

I stand in line and go online.

Grant Barrett 02.17.09 | 1:03 PM ET

Alas, no, her work is not online. It’s part of her incomplete dissertation.

I stand both on line and in line. I’m originally from Missouri but I’ve lived in New York since 1993, so I have both in my idiolect.

Jenna Schnuer 02.17.09 | 1:05 PM ET

Did you just start standing on line when you moved to TX Sophia?

Cause I’ve been standing on line my whole life and it’s not unusual here in the NYC area. Though the rest of the country stands in line, it still sounds odd to me.

Jenna Schnuer 02.17.09 | 1:08 PM ET

“Idiolect.” Great word. I thought it was just a funny little thing you’d made up but then I looked it up. For anybody else who was an idiot on idiolect until this very moment:

“the language or speech pattern of one individual at a particular period of life”

And, Grant, if your wife is ever up for turning her incomplete dissertation into fodder for me to interview her, please send her my way.

Martha Barnette 02.17.09 | 4:44 PM ET

“Bunnyhug” totally makes my day! I’d agree with Grant on the Canadian regionalisms issue. Clearly, further research is needed!

As for those groceries that you either carry or tote home in a bag or a sack, if there are lots of them, do y’all walk around the store putting them in a shopping wagon, a grocery cart, a buggy, or . . . ? Growing up in Kentucky, I said “shopping cart.” As so often happens with this stuff, it’s still jarring when I hear people use a different term for it.

Sophia Dembling 02.17.09 | 4:46 PM ET

A shopping cart, of course. Sheesh. In fact, the supermarket across the street from me in NYC when I was growing up (B’way and 88th Street) was called The Shopping Cart.

Jenna Schnuer 02.17.09 | 4:50 PM ET

Shopping cart. Or, if I remember to bring it, in a basket balanced on my granny cart—the car trunk of the car-free life.

Jennifer 02.18.09 | 8:57 AM ET

Definitely “in line”, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use the phrase “standing on line”.  Maybe I have and my brain just automatically converted it to what I wanted to hear so as to keep from confounding itself!  I’ve never travelled to New York though so that might be why I don’t think I’ve ever heard it!  We use “bag” instead of “sack” in southwest Ohio too!  “Sack” sounds a little dirty to me, but maybe that’s just my sheltered Midwestern upbringing speaking!?! :-)

Fun post Jenna!

Jenna Schnuer 02.18.09 | 11:48 AM ET

Thanks Jennifer. The “standing on line” thing really seems to annoy some people when they come to NY. I still remember one long drawn out discussion of it years ago—while standing on a really long bathroom line at a bar. (Geez, that may be the most boring memory I’ve ever had.)

Frankiie 02.18.09 | 12:33 PM ET

When talking money, “singles” or “ones?”

Sophia Dembling 02.18.09 | 12:40 PM ET

Good one, Frankiie. Singles for me.

Also, I once went into a pizzeria in Dallas and ordered a “pie” and the guy immediately pegged me as a New Yorker. A Dallasite would have ordered a pizza.

Jenna Schnuer 02.18.09 | 12:41 PM ET

Nothing but Benjamins.

OK, who am I kidding? Singles.

Frankiie—Where are you and which way do you swing on the dollar debate?

Frankiie 02.18.09 | 12:58 PM ET

I live in the middle of Montana.  It closely resembles the photo Sophie posted on her “big city small town blog.”  Living in NYC years ago I first heard the word “singles.”  After all these years I still hesitate at the teller window, but always go with “ones.”  Why confuse the person in front of you.  Language here, as with accents, tends to be so bland that it is difficult to regionalize.  I’ll always remember the NYC cabbie who couldn’t figure out where I was from by my speech.

Eva Holland 02.18.09 | 1:13 PM ET

Singles? Ones?

Both of those are new to me. But then, Canada got rid of its $1 bill when my allowance was still a quarter a week.

This is a fun game!

Re: on line / in line, the “standing on line” thing really weirds me out. I think I heard it on TV before coming to New York, but still. And re: bag vs. sack, definitely bag.

I remember when I moved out to Nova Scotia, learning that they had some funny (to me) ones. They said “bookbag” instead of “backpack” and “scribbler” instead of “notebook”—both seemed so old-fashioned to me.

Frankiie 02.18.09 | 1:21 PM ET

If I ordered a “pie” they would point me to the local coffee shop.  Most of the differences in words are understandable, but “bunnyhug?”  That would surely get my ass kicked.

Martha Barnette 02.18.09 | 1:37 PM ET

Heh. Apparently you’ll find “supermarket trolleys” on either coast, and “buggy” in the South.

I’m swooning over “scribbler” for “notebook.”

Patty Veranda 02.18.09 | 1:38 PM ET

Wow, “singles” instead of “ones”? Never thought about that. Who knew???

Frankiie 02.18.09 | 1:51 PM ET

“Glove compartment?”  “Jockey Box?”  “Cubby Hole?”

Sophia Dembling 02.18.09 | 1:55 PM ET

Glove compartment in NY. Glove box here. No gloves in either.

I’m loving “scribbler” too. Never heard it.

Lora 02.23.09 | 1:12 AM ET

ha i love this! i’m from new orleans, and for hoagie we say “po’ boy.” it’s slang for poor boy. and martha, i’ve lived and traveled in the south all my life, but i’ve never heard anybody say “buggy” in reference to a shopping cart. my favorite thing is when tourists come here and they order the 4-pound platter of crawfish. it’s always really funny to walk up to them and say, “Don’t eat the dead ones!” because they all look at me like i’m nuts. but it’s the truth!! about the dead ones, not about me being nuts. :]

Abby 02.24.09 | 4:36 PM ET

I grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin along Lake Michigan south of Milwaukee.  We drank water out of a ‘bubbler’ rather than a water fountain.  A lollipop was a ‘sucker’.  I moved to Pittsburgh and taught a class to high school English teachers.  I had a paper turned in to me which used the past perfect as:  ‘The war had needed fought’  (i.e. the war had to be fought because…).  As was mentioned, Pittsburgh has some unique examples.

wandringi 02.27.09 | 11:49 AM ET

Grinder is New England….I was one of the few Long Islanders that went to my college in Connecticut and it was the never-ending battle between the grinder and my “hero”. Accents were my favorite though, because our dining hall was called Harris and everyone said “Hair-iss” and I said “Haaaaaaa-ris”  which amused pretty much everyone.

I had no idea about the “pie” thing until I was out with a professor of mine and suggested we order a pizza pie and he laughed and said I obviously had to be from NY. I had NO clue that that was a regionalism until then- and i was 21 at the time.

Also: “packy” for for a beer distributor/liquor store ( comes from “package store”). Big New Englandism.  It’s my favorite and I miss saying it all the time!

wandringi 02.27.09 | 11:53 AM ET

oh, and obviously shopping cart, singles and standing “on” line!

Valerie Conners 03.03.09 | 11:10 AM ET

oooh - I just spoke to a friend last night in Long Island who referred to what I (and the rest of what I thought was the known world) call ground beef as “chopped meat.” Is that Long Island-ese?

Jenna Schnuer 03.03.09 | 11:14 AM ET

So funny—I didn’t realize chopped meat was a regional thing. Growing up in NJ in the 70s, chopped meat was definitely part of lots of meals.

Wandringi—The “packy” thing just ripped me right back to college. One of my closest friends was from Worcester, MA and she always bought her beer at the packy.

ivona 03.03.09 | 12:49 PM ET

How can a simple traveler contribute to a positive change in a world that we live in?
Can we all enhance our consciousness and stop the prejudice towards people that we consider different?
What should be a new face of entrepreneurship concerning small businesses?

Kami 03.04.09 | 11:04 AM ET

A few years ago my mother-in-law (who doesn’t drink) moved to the Boston area from California. There was a place near her that was called “The Package Store”. Imagine her surprise when she walked in with a box she wanted to ship!
Having grown up in New England, I got a good laugh out of that one.

P.S. I’m singles, on line, sub (now, grinder as a kid), soda, bubbler, shopping cart and bag. And my parents were from the midwest, so I pronounce “aunt” to rhyme with “pant”.

Thanks for the fun column!

Sophia Dembling 03.04.09 | 11:09 AM ET

That’s a great story! I always thought “package store” was funny. It’s like, the product that shall not speak its name. So clandestine.

Jenna Schnuer 03.04.09 | 11:12 AM ET

Ditto on Sophia’s “great story!” I wonder if package stores sell a lot of boxed wine? (Ba dump bump. I’ll be here all week!)

Thanks for stopping in Kami. We (cause I feel comfy saying this on behalf of Sophia, too) hope to see you around Flyover America a lot.

JackieB 03.04.09 | 1:28 PM ET

Valerie- as a Long Islander I can say that it’s definitely “chopped meat”....but you spoke to a friend “on” Long Island…NEVER “in” Long Island! Haha…it’s a common mistake that us islanders have to correct a lot :)

Jim Franklin 03.08.09 | 8:59 PM ET

Drink pop, bake with soda. I especially like my canadian friend who refers to her k-12 years -grade 4 or grade 10. I enjoy hearing the different dialects of english.

Sarah 03.10.09 | 10:44 AM ET

I am born and raised in Connecticut (and married a Long Islander) and the following applies here:

Grocery Carriage
Packy - Liquor store (they only sell beer in grocery stores in CT - you have to go to a packy for wine and liquor)
Stand in line
Glove compartment

Also, in CT we pronounce our R’s unlike our neighbors in NY, RI and MA

One thing that I haven’t seen in any comments is the New England (specifically CT and MA) use of the work ‘wicked’, as in -  “this pizza is wicked good” or “I got wicked wasted last night”.  I thought it was a kid thing when I was growing up, but even adults use it in this region.  My use of the word wasted refers to drunk.

Sophia Dembling 03.10.09 | 10:50 AM ET

Huh, I’ve never heard grocery carriage. Or packy, which is very funny.

I learned that use of “wicked” when I went to summer camp in Maine with a lot of girls from Boston. I love it, and I think I take on a slight Bawston accent any time I use it.

I use wasted the same way.

Jen 03.16.09 | 6:00 PM ET

It is tonic, what we always called soda growing up in Boston.

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