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American Regional English Words & Phrases

Grand Canyon, Arizona

Grand Canyon

Just north of the Mason-Dixon line, lightning bugs morph into fireflies.

Skillets transform into frying pans.

Seesaws become teeter-totters.

Stand at this charmed spot any night of the week and you’ll feel the tremors as American English fissures into regional variants.

What does this mean? Let’s go on a linguistic roadshow…

Regional English Variants Across America

In the US, there’s one English, but dozens of American Englishes.

Depending on where you are in the country, objects can have very different names. A water fountain, for example, is also a drinking fountain, and in Wisconsin and parts of Rhode Island, a bubbler too. In the  Midwest, a couch is a couch, while in New England it’s a sofa.

Some American houses are cleaned with vacuums, some with sweepers and some not at all. Buckets are pails, and can be filled by kitchen faucets (or spigots). But, really, why clean house when you can throw on a bathing suit (or swimsuit) and take a dip?

Speaking of houses, some have basements while others have cellars. All usually have toilets, but whether you’ll find them in the bathroom or the restroom depends on what part of the US you’re in. In New England, houses have dooryards; in the Midwest, they simply have yards.

In the north, dinner is common, while the south prefers supper. Ingredients (or fixings) are purchased at the grocery store (or supermarket) and kept in the refrigerator (or icebox, if you’re in the rural south). If you prepare a pie in say, Iowa, it’s something like blueberry or pecan; a pie in New York City, however, has pepperoni and cheese (i.e. pizza).

Pie may be pie in Iowa, but parking garages are ramps. Cars in those ramps have glove boxes (glove compartments elsewhere), and also turn signals (or blinkers). Of course, those without wheels stick to the sidewalk (or pavement in the east).

The variants of American regional English compound – and confound – quickly. Here’s a few more match-ups worth noting:

  • Shopping cart (Midwest & East) vs. shopping buggy (South)
  • Long johns (Midwest & South) vs. thermals (East & West)
  • Bag vs. sack
  • Sucker vs. lollipop
  • Billfold (South) vs. wallet

Linguistic Constructions & American Regional English

Aside from single words and phrases, American regional English exhibits other distinctive tics.

In New York City, for example, blunders are committed “on accident,” while in the rest of the country they’re “by accident.” Likewise, New York takeout is either “to stay or to go,” while the rest of the country’s restaurants ask “for here or to go?”

Elevators can be “out of service” or “out of order.” Either way, if they’re in Wisconsin they’re “busted” (not broken). Taking the stairs might require you to “wait in line,” unless you’re in parts of the East, where you’ll “wait on line.”

Time is a bit rubbery in the South. Folks there are always “fixing” to do something, or will do it “directly” (meaning momentarily). Southerners are also a vaguely inclusive lot, affixing an “and them” to many possessives, e.g. “Yesterday I went to my brother’s and them.”

And let’s not forget the famous Southern “y’all.” Although fondly mocked by the rest of the country, Midwesterners, in particular, use constructions not far removed: “Who all did you see?” “What all did you do?”

“A rose is a rose is a rose,” Gertrude Stein wrote, but in American English, it’s also probably a half-dozen other things as well. Ours is a language flushed with idioms and social expressions, which makes speaking it a pleasurable but sometimes dizzying experience.

There’s always a different expression just “over yonder.”

25 Responses to “American Regional English Words & Phrases”

  1. mepole Says:

    so that means something you will call other than what other people call it

  2. treefence Says:

    I just would like comment that you missed “Pop” and “soda” I have heard soda more so on the coasts.

  3. jay98689 Says:

    Language goes even further than region. In Philly they got a number of words that you will never hear south of B-more like Jawn and drawlin’. Interesting article someone needs to write a book.

  4. Sue Cunningham Says:

    Have you heard “butter makers always it” ?

    From northern Wisconsin. Meaning; if you had the idea, it is your job to implement it.

  5. Ronen at University Language Says:

    Cool, I’ve never heard that one before! Thanks.

  6. MTD Says:

    No one from New York City uses the phrase “on accident” unless they are originally from the Midwest.

  7. Lily Ryanne Says:

    Well yes southern people like myself use slang and double negatives like “I ain’t gonna” and “y’all ain’t gonna make me” oh and the mighty you’uns meaning you _____. We typically say it talking to children or a group of adults. “you’uns go on down to the creek and play but be back for supper” we might be downgraded and or mocked but dont worry we make fun of y’all to. ;p so remember that when you wad up your britches and say y’all yee-haw and giterdone in a silly accent were down here talkin ’bout y’all Yankees so member that were not the only ones that sound funny

  8. DARE to be Different « Illusions of Grammar Says:

    […] to be filled by kitchen faucets (spigots) while you’re at it. Y’all understand? If not, American Regional English Words & Phrases (a blog) can help. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  9. Brock Says:

    I spent first 21 years in south west Ohio and then to Indianapolis. Some vernacular variations I have noticed along the way. When pay respects to a lost loved one, known to many as a “wake”, in Indiana it’s a showing, in Ohio it’s a viewing. When to the end of the road in Indiana you are at the “t”, in Ohio it’s a dead end. A dead end is also a dead end, lol. Ohio likes to end sentences with prepositions , ” where’s that at?”

  10. Martha Says:

    My father was from Arkansas and my mother from Oklahoma. I have never heard “and them” affixed to a possessive, as in your example “Yesterday I went to my brother’s and them.” However, I often heard a similar usage in, for example, “Edith and them are coming up here for Christmas.” The “them” would be the nuclear family with possible hangers-on.

    My Kansas/Nebraska in-laws often used a name with an added “S” to signify a family member’s nuclear family in a similar event, such as “Jerrys are coming for Christmas this year, but Dorothys can’t come.” It was always used in such a way that I thought it implied a plural, rather than a possessive, but I don’t think I ever saw it in writing.

  11. Martha Says:

    Me again. I live in Oregon and reared my children here. My son, who is now 30 or so, says “on accident” instead of “by accident” or “accidentally.” I don’t know where he got it. ‘Course, he says “soda” now, too.

  12. Sarah Says:

    I grew up in the South and iced tea v. sweet tea is not a regional variation of English. Iced tea and sweet tea are two different things. Iced tea is simply cold tea and may or may not be sweetened. You can easily order unsweetened iced tea in the south. Sweet tea is heavily sweetened iced tea.

  13. Donna Says:

    In LA you avoid the freeway by taking surface streets. In the midwest, you avoid the highways or interstates by taking the side streets.

  14. Gary Says:

    In the south one “mashes” on a button (i.e. doorbell) while in other locales a button is “pushed” or “pressed”.

  15. Robin Says:

    I lived in southern California from age 12 – 38 yrs. There, we said “I’m going to the beach.” Now I live in central Pennsylvania, where people say “I’m going to the shore.” (usually the Jersey Shore.) Though when one is going to Rehoboth Beach, one says Rehoboth Beach.

    My parents came from Mississippi and Oklahoma. One day I heard myself using the word “walago,” which I hadn’t heard in years. Huh? What did I mean by that non-word? I meant “very recently.” The word was used in my family and perhaps in the South regionally. I realized it must be a condensed version of “a while ago.”

    Oh, and I say soda pop. Maybe because I’ve lived in TN, IL, GA, CA, ND and PA. Also Germany, France, and Singapore.

    Just one more:

    A ND waitperson: “Can I get you something to drink then?”
    A central PA waitperson: “Can I get you something to drink a while?”

    The unnecessary words “then” and “a while” are often added to questions or statements in ND (and MN) and in PA, respectively. Why? Perhaps to soften the brusque-sounding question? And are these unique regional usages founded in the linguistic patterns of the settlers’ languages? That would be Norwegian (ND & MN) and German (central PA). Just so interesting!

  16. katelyn Says:

    in the mid west you would say couch but in New England u would say sofa. i say couch not sofa. in some states they say soda but i say pop. some people say iced tea but i say sweet tea.

  17. tyler Says:

    We use sofas vacumes and water fountains here to.

  18. shaelynn Says:

    That’s interesting i knew that. Where i live we say something others might not say such as people in the city say things more rudely and come off very stuborn but we come off very kind and brakes things to people without sugar coating things and in the end just makes things better . Them city people are all about money and fortune and country people are about being kind and plantin crops

  19. darrin Says:

    were i live we dont call them sofas we call them couches also i did not even know some people called refrigerators ice boxes

  20. joseph Says:

    sweet tea long jhons shopin cart sack sucker is what i say

  21. Carley Says:

    I say drinking fountain not bubbler or water fountain.
    Do people actually say shopping buggy?? I say bucket not pail. I call it a couch not a sofa. Iced tea is tea without sweetener It doesn’t depend on where you live. It depends on if you like sweet or iced tea.

  22. Elijah martin Says:

    I knew some areas use other words for the same thing like soda and pop.

  23. Paige Says:

    In LA you should avoid the freeway

  24. Nancy C Lea Says:

    you missed New Orleans, where “I’ll stay by my mama’s” (“at” my mama’s) when she gets back from “makin’ da groceries” (i”m sure this was inherited from the French “faire les courses”)
    In Alabama, we come close when we say “I’ll stop by your house this afternoon”
    And I am still puzzling over a comment from some folks out in the country (and haven’t heard it in YEARS since) when seeing a newborn baby “Law, she gon’ be stout!” I don’t THINK they meant “fat.”

  25. Margaret Says:

    Growing up in the North Country region of New York State, we filled the pail from the tap, not the faucet or spigot. I now live in New York City, where I stand on line, but have never heard anyone say “on accident.” By the way, in NYC the shopping cart is not the cart supplied by the supermarket for use in the store, it’s the folding cart (now often called a granny cart) used to bring groceries home in. Supermarket carts have a pair of s-hooks to hang the folded shopping cart on.

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