The Idiom Exchange

I wrote a review last month for the Portal, and one of the stories had slang that really bothered me.  It wasn't because the language was foul.  It bothered me because the author had an American Southerner calling a television a "telly."  Much of the slang and nicknames he used just didn't ring true, and it almost ruined the story for me.

Most of my stories are through the eyes of a Montana rancher, and all of the slang I use is derived from my family.  I really like dialogue to sound authentic.  Below, I've written examples of idioms and slang that my family uses, especially the older members.  In the comments below, please offer up slang, accents, and idioms from the places you've been, but be sure to tell where you've heard them.

Grandma's Idioms

"I feel like I've been rode hard and put up wet."  (People always gave me funny looks when I said this at college, for some reason.)

"I burnt the hair right off my tongue."  (Coffee was usually the culprit.)

"Bless her pea-pickin' little heart."  (I usually heard this when I was in trouble, usually for pounding nails into Mom's coffee table.)

"It's slicker 'n snot on a doorknob."  

Mom's Idioms

"Jeez, you woulda thought I said, 'Let's get naked and get out the Crisco.'"  (She said this in church, mind you.)

Dad's Idioms

"I gotta go see a man about a horse."  (I didn't realize until it was too late that it meant he had to pee and that I shouldn't follow him.)

"They'll be all over you like ugly on an ape."

"Funnier 'n a rubber crutch."


Pop-soda pop.

Creek-pronounce it "crick."

Roof-pronounce it like it rhymes with "slough."

Hoof-same as roof.

Polish Accents

The tiny town I grew up in has tons of people of German and Polish descent.  The older folks tend to end sentences with "there," but it's pronounced "der."  "The" is "da."  "Thinking" is "tinking."

Example:  Boat choo goin' wid jer Gramma, der?

Translation:  Both you going with your Gramma, there?

I should mention that this accent is starting to die out.  I can only think of one man who still sounds like this, and he's in his 80's.  You can still here hints of it, but it's not as thick.

Do you have slang, accents, or idioms common to your area?


  1. The Michigan Accent <-- This is a great guide to the Michigan accent. When I moved out to Oregon, I was stunned to discover I had an accent, so I Googled it, and apparently Michiganders do have a particular accent. It's different in the UP, and the Thumb area has a bit of their own thing, too. That guide's a good one to get you started, though. :D
    -- Marci

  2. One of the great things about living in a multicultural city is that there are a lot of accents! Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, East Indian, Tagalog, African, French, German, various Slavic ones, to name a few. And of course, there's Standard Canadian too, which isn't as strong on the 'oot and aboot' front as the stereotype would have you believe. Some Canadians don't even do it at all, that I can tell. It seems to be an Eastern and/or lower class thing, to have it heavy.

    I grew up in cowboy country, though, not the city, so I heard a lot of rougher dialects, though I can't remember specific phrases. I'd imagine Canadian cowboys sound fairly similar to Montana ones, though we don't have the same pronunciation variants as you do.

    Basic BC accent stuff: We've got the standard 'eh' at the ends of sentences. It's a couch, not a sofa, and it's pop, not soda. We've got a couple words that have bled over from the old trading pidgin—'skookum' for 'really big' or 'awesome', and 'sticks' for wilderness areas (also known as 'the boonies'). There was a skookum waterfall not too far into the sticks from one of our houses.

    And now that I've written an essay, I'm going to go now…

  3. Thanks, Anassa. I really had no concept of a BC accent. My friend from Toronto has a very light accent. He's obviously Canadian, but it's more the rhythm of his words, as opposed to the pronunciation, that makes him sound Canadian.

    I have three students from Ethiopia. I love listening to them. They call me, "Meez Moosic." they can't say my real last name and know I'm the music teacher.

    We also have a large number of Native Americans from the Northern Plains Tribes. I've heard what's commonly called "reservation English" all of my life, but I have a great deal of trouble quantifying it.

  4. Not many people do, Scooter. Even other Canadians are stumped by the pidgin words. I think you've got something about the rhythm of Canadian English being different. I'll have to listen for that more.

    Thanks for reminding me about "reservation English"! I heard a lot of that growing up too. The differences are in the vowels, and in some of the stresses and rhythms, I think. I think the vowels are all pitched a bit lower than in "white English". (Sorry, linguist…)

  5. It probably depends on the tribe, but many of the Natives I've met clip their words and use pure vowels without dipthongs or tripthongs. It seems more apparent in the oldest members of the tribes.

    I love listening to Chief Joe Medicine Crow tell stories for that very reason. He's in his 90's, and he spoke at my husband's college graduation. His accent is quite thick, but before the end of the speech everyone in the Crow tribe was up and dancing and singing his honor song. Wow.


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