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What you say depends on where you say it

Updated: February 14, 2014 6:16AM

WASHINGTON — I often joke that when I come back home to Chicago, I am returning to brush up on my accent. The way I say it, it may sound more like “axcent” to you.

I lapse at times here and call the D.C. Metro the “El,” the Beltway the “expressway” and of course soda is always “pop.”

American English has enormous regional and local variations; the words people use to describe the same thing vary as well as how they say them.

There is a political angle to dialects. In Illinois, the giveaway of rookie statewide candidates is how they pronounce Cairo, the city at the southern tip of Illinois. Just as there are political differences in the state, there are also linguistic divides within Illinois and even between the North and South Sides of Chicago.

Last month, the New York Times posted a linguistics quiz and dialects map headlined aptly, “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk.” The questions were based on the Harvard Dialect Survey.

I took the test and was pegged as being from either Chicago, Rockford or Milwaukee, with three answers in particular tagging my regional roots: I gave a distinctly Chicago answer to the question of what do you call the rubber-soled shoes worn in gym class or for athletic activities. They are gym shoes, of course. I also pronounce cot and caught differently and use “kitty-corner” to describe crossing an intersection diagonally.

The sandwich with cold cuts is a sub. I say Mary, merry and marry the same way — and aunt as in ant.

I was on a fun segment on regionalisms recently on MSNBC’s “Up with Steve Kornacki” with, among others, Ben Zimmer, the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.

And that led me to the Dictionary of American Regional English, now online with its 50 years of field surveys at The chief editor, Joan Houston Hall, is at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Any given state participates in a whole lot of regional patterns,” Hall said.

Take, for example, the words for a police vehicle. It could be a squad car or a squadrol, the term I used growing up on the North Side but have never heard used in Washington.

Squadol is a hybrid word, defined as a “blend of squad car plus patrol.”

“Chicago is a good example of a local experience. Squad car is very Illinois and Wisconsin. But squadrol is Chicago,” Hall said.

Looking at the maps at reveals the linquistic fault lines in Illinois.

I never heard a potluck meal referred to as a “carry-in,” but the mapping of the word on shows it is used in southern Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. “So probably Chicago is not part of that,” Hall said.

Using “hard road” to refer to a paved road is not part of northern Illinois lingo, but it is in other parts of the state.

“Pully bone” is synonymous with wishbone in southern and central Illinois.

Now “sport pepper” has eluded my experience, though it is a chiefly Chicago expression referring to a “small moderately hot chili pepper” served especially on Chicago-style hot dogs. It is “becoming more widely known.”

When I was growing up, chalking in hopscotch games on city sidewalks, every kid called the area at the top “sky blue.” Turns out that is a phrase used chiefly in Chicago.

Word of the year

Zimmer’s American Dialect Society proclaimed its word of the year on Jan. 3 with the runaway winner . . .this will surprise you, I bet: “because,” with 127 votes.

Because beat out Obamacare with 39 votes; slash with 21; selfie with 20 and twerk claiming only 7. Why did the oldie win?


Zimmer said “because” was breaking new grammatical ground — and being used in new ways with nouns and adjectives. One example, “Because awesome.”

Politically, Obamacare got its start as sneering shorthand, used by President Barack Obama’s critics instead of the official Affordable Care Act.

For a long time, the Obama team wouldn’t go near Obamacare, but once the key component of the ACA was upheld by the Supreme Court, Obamacare was embraced by Democrats, putting it on the road to rehabilitation.

The term, according to the dialect society “has moved from pejorative to matter-of-fact shorthand.”

There was really no contest when it came to the word least likely to succeed. By a commanding margin, it was “Thanksgivukkah.” The word was coined to mark the historic 2013 timing of Thanksgiving occurring on the first day of Hanukkah.

The word will not be missed. The next confluence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah will not occur for 70,000 years.


Twitter: @lynnsweet

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