The first time I moved away and had more experience with people from different places was in my senior year of college. That’s when I started working as an intern at an environmental education center in Indiana. We taught kids (who had much thicker accents than mine) about trees, aquatic life, animal habitats and the like.
My fellow instructors were from all over the place. Some came from the Northwest, some from New England and others came from deeper in the Midwest. There were even a few stragglers hailing from the UK. We worked, lived and ate together so of course the topic of how we say things differently would come up around the dinner table.
It’s a given that the British say things in another way than we do in the US. We’re both speaking English, but that’s only a technicality. I could spend a whole day listing words we say that they use for something completely different (all I’ll say on that was that the guys from England would fall over laughing if you suggested they use a “fanny pack”).
What I want to discuss is how words vary so much across our country. The first I really noticed this was when a group of us instructors went to the grocery store together. I asked someone from Montana to get me a “buggy.” She just looked at me until I pointed to the grocery carts lined up at the front of the store.
In East Tennessee, we call all soda “Coke.” I’m sorry to you Pepsi fans out there, but where I’m from Coke is to soda as Kleenex is to tissue. I know other places they call it “pop” or even “dope.” In my hometown if you ask someone for a Coke they’ll ask you what kind (and I don’t mean diet).
Another example that comes to mind was when I was a school teacher here in the north. It was Valentine’s Day and I had a card with candy for each of my kids. As the bell rang to mark the end of the day I called out, “Make sure you get a sucker before you leave.” The kids thought that was the most hilarious thing because they all call the hard candy on the end of a rolled paper stick a lolly or lollipop.
I rarely run across instances of these regional word variations anymore. My last personal reference above was from more than ten years ago.
I bring this all up because the other day I finished reading Hourglass by Myra McEntire (2012). The story is set in the south, but I just know the author has to be from there. It’s not because the characters have an accent and no one says “y’all.” The one thing that made it so clear for me was when the girl in the story didn’t use the term “sneakers” to describe her athletic shoes. She called them “tennis shoes.” This is a definite tell. When I was a kid everyone I knew used this term. Even if the shoes were meant for playing basketball or running, they were still tennis shoes.
For a while I thought the little eccentricities of speech from different regions of the country had been ironed out. We’re all exposed to so much television, movies and videos where the people speaking have plain vanilla accents. I was afraid this suggested that our big melting pot of a country had finally melted into one big lump. I’m just glad to discover that this is not entirely true.
It’s good to know when I go into a grocery store here in the north and ask for a “buggy,” people will still look at me funny.
I would love to hear about regional words/terms that are still used where you live that are different from other places. If you care to share, please leave a comment.