Did you know that Walmart has packages of frog legs in their freezer case? At least, the one near my house does.

I now live on the line between the Midwest and the South, so there have been a few things that make me scratch my head. Like, frog legs in the grocery store (I didn’t try them; they weren’t cheap enough to entice me). But frog legs pale in comparison to trying to make myself understood.

It’s not an accent-related problem. Most of the time. And I can figure out a lot of the idioms through context. It’s that some words apparently change their meaning as I go from one state to the next. And this isn’t confined to the difference between me and native Missourians. To take an example from a couple of years ago, I, a New Englander, use ‘quarter to six,’ to indicate 5:45. The first time I used that one on my husband, a native Coloradan, he looked at me like I had two heads. To him, that meant 6:15. More recently, I’ve been horse-hunting, and my definition of a ‘broke’ horse is not at all the same as other people’s. Like that horse was trained to respond only to absurdly specific spur cues, and would not move for anything else. It’s not that the horse wasn’t broke to ride; it was just speaking a different language than I was.

I’ve come across weird definitions of dirt, vegetables- apparently zucchini is different from zucchini squash, all kinds of machinery- how many different names can there possibly be for what I know as a weedwhacker?- and all sorts of other new vocabulary. And I consider myself fairly well traveled and used to picking up non-standard variations of English.

What does this have to do with writing? Hell if I know. I guess the point here is, the English-speaking world is vast, and it’s easy to use the same word and mean something very different, depending on where you are.

You will be misunderstood. But if the book is engaging enough, the reader won’t care very much. Do your best, send the book to a variety of beta readers so they’re more likely to catch blatant regionalisms, and try not to worry about it.

You ladies and gents are a well travelled bunch, so tell me in the comments about your experiences with bizarre idioms and words that didn’t mean what you thought they meant. Go!

56 thoughts on “Regionalisms

  1. Here’s a fun one as an American-Australian. The terms flip-flop and thong have the opposite meaning in each country, which can make for a very embarrassing misunderstanding…

    1. “Thong” meant cheap sandal in the US until at least the 90s at some point, too– so I got to hear a really, really fun story of a very old rancher who coached girls’ volleyball, who regaled them with something or other he did while wearing a thong, and the little 14 year old girls didn’t figure it out until the end that he didn’t mean the wedgie underwear. The co-coach (his girlfriend, and grandmother or great aunt of about half the team) was too busy dying of giggles to say anything.

    2. I’ve also heard/read somewhere that the term “to root” as slang in Australian has a MUCH different meaning than the American slang version?

  2. Chris Nuttall (a Scotsman) often uses Britishisms in his stories that sometimes “jump out” especially when the “speaker/thinker” isn’t British. 😀

    One minor one has been using biscuits for what an American would call cookies. 😉

      1. The one that’s always been an issue for me is the idea of “pavement” meaning specifically “sidewalk” as opposed to “any paved surface.” That one is close enough that I spent years just slightly confused without being confused enough to realize I needed to look something up.

      2. I’ve finally come to understand–though I’m still not 100% sure I’m right–that “vest” in British English is undershirt/bra/something of an undergarment nature, hence the term waistcoat?

        Same as “pants” in British meaning underwear, whereas “pants” in American just means trousers or jeans or similar outside clothing that covers ones bits-and-legs.

        1. You use suspenders in the US to hold up your trousers, but in the UK they hold up stockings. Braces in the UK hold up trousers, but in the US they 1) straighten teeth, 2) turn a drill bit.

          1. Heh, ‘braces’ confused me greatly for a while–I first encountered the term in a Doctor Who novel of all places, and I was REALLY puzzled as to why the Eighth Doctor had gotten orthodontic work… (For one thing, Paul McGann has beautiful teeth…)

            1. Braces has been popular in the US skinhead community since the 80s, since it’s so closely related to (but apparently much more diverse than) the UK skinhead community.

    1. The sweaters that Mrs. Weasley made were jumpers in Great Britain. I’ve gotten some interesting reactions when I mention that.

      1. Yeah, my first encounter with that one was confusing too. To me, “jumpers” are some kind of dress thing with an overall-style top (bib + suspenders), usually but not always made out of denim.

  3. My family traveled cross-country multiple times, usually job related. We formulated our theory of the Grit Line from these trips. North of the Grit Line, you will be offered hash browns with your breakfast. South of the line, grits. There is a demilitarized zone where one or the other will be offered as a side dish, but that’s rare.

    1. “Why, I’ll bet you’d like some grits.”
      “Yes ma’am, shor’ would. If it’s not too much trouble, could you drop a bald aigg in the middle?”

      — from Project UFO (TV series)

  4. Write to the “standard” English. Research the idiomatic usages. Quarter to six is correctly 5:45. Only to the improperly educated would it ever be conceived as 6:15. (Which is quarter after six.) This sort of discussion could easily digress into the failure of the entire American education system; which is what was intended by the progressive elite. Because when nobody can agree on standard vocabulary, half the battle is already won.

    1. With all due respect to the lesser-known RAH, this native Coloradan has always used “quarter-to-six” to mean 5:45.

        1. Yeah, that. My brother lives in Ireland and uses half-eight to mean 8:30, but that’s the only oddity I can think of (at least as far as telling time goes).

    2. In his defense, it’s possible he didn’t hear me correctly. But it led to an interesting conversation about telling time and the difference between digital and analog clocks.

    3. I learned to tell time that way. When I was in grade school we had a quiz with clock-faces on it. All of my “quarter to” and “half past” answers were marked wrong. My mother found it very funny.

  5. The walmart here in Rawlins, Wyoming (where I work) carries…escargot. No really. So does the one in Laramie. Every time I see it–it comes in little cans, with clean, shiny little shells in a package to serve them in–my response is a baffled “WTF?!?!”

    And I worked at the Walmart in Laramie for quite a while and NO ONE ever bought them. So…WTF?

    Also…Quarter to six means 5:35. Quarter AFTER six means 6:15…so…::shrugs::

    1. (Not that it matters, but I don’t work at Walmart here, I work in Rawlins, heh. I’m not sure any amount of enticement could get me to work for walmart again…)

      1. Preach it.

        I got a job at Wal-Mart when I was 16, in Idaho. They got 8 years of my life. I try not to even shop there anymore…

    2. I don’t know if the Walmarts in Colorado carry escargot, but then again, I’ve never looked. What aisle is it in?

      1. I *think* it’s on the same aisle as the soy sauce/salsa/other “international” foods. But it’s been awhile (I don’t like any of the salsas they sell at walmart, so I buy it at the actual grocery store) so not 100% sure I remember right.

        1. Ooh, have you tried the newish stuff with avacadoes in it?

          From Herdez– I’d put their normal stuff solidly in the “leave it” pile, take it or leave it, but they came up with a guacamole salsa in a can that is rather good.

          Do not eat it expecting, say, the Costco fresh guac with salsa, but depending on your taste…..

    3. Oh! There’s a story possibility there where the cans of escargot are a means of passing something important between people, or supernatural beings, or aliens who simply go in and actually buy a can or two.

      And then some teenagers buy some as a joke/hazing ritual.

      But it has to be Wal-Mart. Because ethnic markets have some really really weird stuff. I wasn’t curious enough to buy any but a local store here had silk-worm pupae in a can.

    4. Mine carries some odd things too, especially for Montana. Specialty ramen, and flavored vinegars galore. But I haven’t seen escargot there. Nor any matzoh crackers. Retail buyers must be weird people. Or more likely aliens.

        1. Yep! I loved the Wally World near [redacted] military base because I could load up on German stuff. And the really good kosher mac-n-cheese that I like.

          1. Works for immigrant population, too– the Walmart down near the Zoo in Des Moines is pretty generic other than some Mexican high demand stuff, but the one by Jordan Creek Mall has a much wider selection where I can’t even tell half of the cultures involved for the weird food isle. (Cup’o’noodle’s attempt to do Japanese ramen for Americans is NASTY levels of sweet, BTW.)

    1. “Tavern” meaning Sloppy Joe. That threw me. Fortunately, I already knew “a Jello” and “hot dish.”

        1. In Minnesota we called them barbecues. I don’t know how local that was but sloppy joe was also used. But a BBQ was ground beef and onions in sauce on a bun. I mean, mumble-mumble years ago when I was a kid. I could ask to see if it’s still used that way.

        2. Oh yes indeed. I was rather non-plussed when I was invited to go to church “because we’re having taverns.” I mean, down here we make jokes about Lutheran communion featuring beer, but what? Loose-meat sandwich = tavern = Sloppy Joe. Dutch-speaking parts of IA, MN, MI and neighboring.

          1. Never heard that one. Admittedly, I’m seeing several regional slang terms in this thread that I’ve never encountered, so I’m rather delighted.

            See, I’ve always heard of sloppy joes being specifically ground beef + (some kind of dreadful tomato sauce)–I don’t like sloppy joes, I admit. Meanwhile, if it’s pulled pork with barbecue sauce, it might be a Boss Hogg (especially if it’s got coleslaw on it).

            Regional slang is so interesting…

            1. Hm, I don’t know if it was a family thing or what, but the family in Kansas (near Kansas City) called pulled BBQ pork sandwiches just “Pork Sandwiches.”

            2. While we lived in New England, my spouse had a job at the MIT/Harvard Press shipping warehouse. We got to buy damaged books at a significant discount, One that we got was Volume I (we left the area before vols. II and III came out) of the Dictionary of American Regional English. It was just chock-full of odd words with geographically-limited meanings.

  6. For the horse thing– you might try “blanket trained” or similar?

    Although dear lord, the many many messes of crazy subcultures inside of horses, and I don’t even LIKE horses.


    The only one I can think of right now is “head.”
    Had my blog headnoises– which mentions that I was a sailor– for at least a decade before someone pointed out that the “nonsense” meaning I meant could also be interpreted as “bathroom noises.”

    I still grin. 😀

  7. Living in Philly and friends with a woman who was born and raised in “soufilly” I heard “shriv” for the first time ever a couple years ago. Took me a few times, but I realized it meant old people “shriveled”…

  8. I don’t know whether it is from north-central Kansas, or mid-state Arizona – but I have always used “quarter TILL” and “quarter PAST.” (When I’m not tired and channeling my developer days, when it could be “nineteen forty-five” or “twenty fifteen.” At least I got rid of adding “plus” once I stopped working on an international shipping app. That really caused blank looks.)

  9. I have read (somewhere, no idea of the source) that the dark green summer squash is not “true zucchini”, but that the striped one sold locally as “grey squash” is.

    My wife and I were discussing the names of spoons. I called the largest spoon in our set the table spoon (two words), which is apparently both American in spots and late UK 19th century. She referred to a smaller spoon as the table spoon, following the Canadian custom. Wiki has a mildly confusing article on such…

    1. I experienced that one as a security guard. Be on the lookout for… and the physical description included “wearing a black toboggan”.
      It took several back-and-forths to establish that I was correctly hearing things, and that the guy did not have a runnerless sled as a garment.

  10. This also reminds me of a class I took my Freshman year of college. It was on the English language–not an English class, but a class about the *actual* language, origins, dialects, etc. I was somewhat fascinated when the professor commented that if you wanted to hear what a British accent between the late 1600s through the 1700s likely sounded like, go talk to someone from Massachusets with a strong Massachusets accent. Also that eastern area of Canada. Apparently, it’s still got not only the pronunciation of how British people spoke then hanging on, but a lot of the only surviving examples of British slang from that period still around.

    (I mean, I’m not a language scientist, so I don’t know how accurate he was, but…kinda neat.)

  11. When I moved to Massachusetts from Texas, I was confused by the use of the word “tonic” to refer to all soft drinks. It refers only to tonic water where I come from, and I was confused by a co-worker offering to bring a case of the stuff to a party.

  12. In portions of the Mid-West, they do not believe in specifying the subject of sentences. If you want to find out what the heck the “that” or who the “she” is that they started the conversation with, you have to wait and piece it together retrospectively.
    There are evidently accompanying gestures that make things clear to other members of the dialect, but it drives me fricking nuts

  13. Down the Eastern seaboard, from “Charles’ Towne” (Boston) to Charleston …

    A grinder, a hoagie, a hero, a sub sandwich, and a po-boy are all the same thing.

    Tonic, pop, soda, soft drink, and co’cola are all the same thing (and that last does not refer solely to a brown fizzy drink with a red-and-white brand).

    And if you want a milkshake in Boston, you need to order a “frappe” (rhymes with zap).

    1. Oh, yeah, I forgot about that one. If you order a milkshake, that’s what you’ll get – milk shaken with flavorings, but no ice cream.

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