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AWADmail Issue 587 - ExtraA Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Tidbits about Words and Language
Pronouncing aluminum as ah-loo-min-eum is one of my favorite British
shibboleths. Being an American chemist myself, I sometimes assume this
shibboleth when I feel like having a little fun (ex. "I have a Friedel-Crafts
reaction to do, has anyone see my Ahhh-looo-min-E-ummm trichloride?" Pro-tip:
begin with a throaty pirate arghh then inexplicably switch to a falsetto
with a spot-off British accent and take your time to clearly emphasize
When I hear someone use "spendy" in place of "pricey", I can be pretty sure
the person is from Oregon, or from a bordering community. It's the only place
I've heard that usage. What's interesting to me is that "spendy" puts the
onus on the buyer; "pricey", common everywhere else, puts it on the seller.
The word "shibboleth" identifies a group of people who are well-educated,
a custom becoming dangerously outmoded.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, in the US at least, one could discern the
political stance of a native English speaker by how they pronounced
Chile. People who supported the overthrow of Salvador Allende said
"Chilly" (rhymes with Willie) People who supported Allende pronounced it
"CHI-lay". The same dichotomy occurred with Nicaragua. It was pronounced
'Nicker-AH-gwa' by those who supported the Contras and by an approximation
of the Latin American Spanish pronunciation by Sandinista supporters.
When my husband is a passenger in the car he responds to my text messages
for me! On reaching our destination I always have to phone friends and
family to apologise or explain. After the laughter dies down I am assured
"No need to explain -- we knew it was Gordon!" My husband's shibboleth is
any texting he does!
Geoduck pronounced as gooey-duck. Very
few people out of the area pronounce it correctly.
I work for The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. Within our
vast company, a large number of employees work at the Parks & Resorts
(P&R). Those "front facing" to customers and guests are considered to be
"on stage" and "performing" while at work -- thus they are called "Cast
Members" rather than employees. We can always tell when dealing with a
current or former member of the P&R team when they refer to themselves or
other employees as "Cast Members".
You can tell that someone has not spent much time in San Francisco lately,
or ever, when they refer to her as San Fran or Frisco. To the best of
my knowledge, she goes only by SF or The City. My out-of-town brother is
aware of this, and will even use the name San Frisco to get my tragus.
My favorite shibboleth is the double space after a period in a written
document. I fist noticed it while taking some online classes. It clearly
says "I'm old enough to have used a typewriter."
As a lawyer, when you see the following, "Smith v Brown", you say Smith
and Brown, not Smith versus Brown. It becomes automatic, after a few months
in law school. So much so, when you see a sports match e.g. Manchester
United v Manchester City, you have to make a conscious effort to say
versus rather than and. This is true for the courts in the Commonwealth;
I am not sure if it holds true the Courts in the US.
Malta has two official languages, English and (not surprisingly)
Maltese. Most Maltese are very fluent in English, and many speak English
as a first language. Their shibboleth is pronouncing 'th' as 't'. So I
attended a TEDx talk and momentarily wondered what 'tree-d mathematics' was.
On the kibbutz in Israel where I live, my husband's family (all 63 of
them!) has a very specific whistle which identifies the Albeg "Clan". If I
hear that whistle I know that there is an Albeg around somewhere and it's
excellent for getting a family member's attention in a crowd.
My favorite shibboleth popped immediately to mind: the child's game Duck, duck, goose,
where the kids sit in a circle, whoever is 'it' taps their heads saying
"Duck. Duck. Duck..." and when they get to the person they choose to chase
them around circle, in most states they say "Goose!" But in my home state
of Minnesota, we say "Grey duck." No one who isn't from Minnesota has ever
heard of such a thing, and they think I'm crazy when I tell them I grew
up playing "Duck duck grey duck".
I live in Sequim (pronounced Skwim). I dream of opening a store called
"Sequim Sequins" someday ... just to mess with people).
In Clonmel in County Tipperary in Ireland, instead of saying "Hello"
they say "Well".
I have found in my work as a Sign Language interpreter that Deaf people
also have developed a few shibboleths. My favorite one is this: There
are many types of hearing loss. Those who are born deaf and utilize Sign
Language as their main mode of communication consider themselves culturally
Deaf (capital D) and they are a tight-knit group. There is a Sign used to refer
to someone else who was born with hearing and later became deaf (small d), to
distinguish him/her from the culturally Deaf; it is the Sign for "hearing"
(which is done with the index finger at the chin and the palm perpendicular
to the floor, the index finger moving in a small circular motion). The
shibboleth happens when this Sign is moved up to the forehead area to
indicate that even though the person is mechanically deaf, his/her thought
process, attitude and orientation is more identifiable with hearing people.
Five generations of my family have lived in Wallkill, a very small hamlet in
New York state's Hudson Valley. We're considered newcomers by some standards
-- other families have been here far longer -- but a true test to see if
you're local is to pronounce DuBois, a founding family name and also one of
the streets in town. If you say "DOO-boys" or "DUH-boyce", you're a local;
if it's "DOO-bwa" then you are definitely not from around here.
When New Jerseyans visit the coast they are said to have "Gone down the
Shore". The "to" is discarded. This applies in all cases, even if someone
travels north. You do not "Go to the beach" until you have "Gone down the
Shore". You do not rent a "beach house", but a "shore house".
One of my all time favorite websites for MANY years is a Harvard Dialect Study
from 2003. Their maps of dialectal
usage in the United States is fascinating and brought back many memories
of Southern usages I'd heard and used as a child but had long forgotten
(like hearing my grandmother tell me to go get a buggy at the supermarket
to put our groceries in).
There are a lot of shibboleths in Turkish politics. If you say turban
(türban) that means you are a republican or indeed a supporter of the Republican
People's Party, and if you say headscarf (bas örtüsü) that means you are a
democrat or indeed a supporter of the ruling Justice and Development Party,
or at least not supporter of Republican People's Party.
How is the state of Oregon pronounced? Not Or-uh-GONE. Pronounced like
"organ", the instrument they play at weddings and funerals. When I was
a kid growing up there, on TV commercials I routinely heard it pronounced
wrong, as in "Send $19.95 to Box 1200, Portland, Or-uh-GONE ...", and we
knew that commercial wasn't produced in Portland.
Although I live 500 miles away, I can tell a true Detroiter
by his use of the plural/possessive form of "Ford", as in The Ford Motor
When I was a student at Mount Holyoke College, we were told on the first
day that Holyoke was not pronounced like a sacred tree (holy oak) but an
unbroken egg (whole yolk).
The frequency of use of the word CONTEXT (as in, it depends on the context)
tells me I am speaking with a fellow translator.
When you call a person either by name or by phone and he/she responds by
saying "What happened?", you can be (damn) sure that he/she is from Goa,
You can pick put a person from Pittsburgh, Pa if they use "yinz" (second
The original name of the town of Mason City in Iowa was Shibboleth.
I received an email from a Professor, not known to me, and he ended his
e-mail Floreat. It is unusual to see Latin (correctly used) in an e-mail
so I enquired whether he was Old Etonian, he was! Eton's college motto is
Floreat Etona -- Let Eton flourish.
Some of my favorite shibboleths hinge not on pronunciation but on word
emphasis. The Sherlock Holmes story "The Five Orange Pips" features
a mysterious envelope containing five seeds ("pips") cut from an
orange. Those who've read the story know to stress the word "Orange" in
the title; everyone else tends to emphasize "Pips" (as if Gladys Knight's
backup singers had carotenosis). Similarly, the film "The Big Red One"
(stress on "One") refers to a red numeral 1 on a shoulder patch; folks
who haven't seen it often emphasize "Red" (as if answering the question:
"Which of those dogs is named Clifford?").
I do a lot of Perl programming, and try to keep up with the jargon. Since
there's not much verbal interaction in the community, many of us are caught
out with shibboleths because we don't get together often. Here are a few:
Randal Schwartz talks
of PERL as a shibboleth. While outsiders may write "PERL", insiders write
"Perl" for the name of the language, and ""perl" for the executable.
The phrase or saying: "You put your foot in it!" or "I put my foot in
it!" is often used by African-Americans to indicate that something is
particularly tasty or well done. For example, I make a very good mac
'n' cheese. My friends and family members will say after eating it,
"Girl, you put your foot in it!" meaning that I gave it my best efforts
or all (down to my feet/toes). It can also be used by the person who has
accomplished or done something to describe his efforts. For instance,
when someone compliments me about a dish or cake that I have made, I can
reply, "Thanks. I put my foot in it!" When I have used this phrase among
non-African Americans especially young children, I always receive a glare,
a puzzled reaction, or a surprised look of sheer horror as they think that
my toes might have actually touched their food.
I think it fair to say that any native Chicagoan or longtime resident would
recognize what the code words "Next Year" referred to. The chance of the
Cubs winning the series. I can vouch for at least a forty-year usage of
this Chicago baseball shibboleth.
I'm from the South, and you'll occasionally hear people say "make
groceries". It comes from the French influence of Louisiana and parts of
Texas, where one would say "faire de shopping".
Here are a few Canadian shibboleths. Like us Canadians, they are mild
and seemingly innocuous, but they immediately register the presence of
a fellow countryman who has descended to the southern giant known as --
a shibboleth itself -- "The States".
In Rhode Island, where I went to college, people called a milkshake a
cabinet. Very confusing for a Texas girl!
My shibboleth is from Southwestern Pennsylvania, specifically
Pittsburgh. This is the only place I know of where rubber bands are
referred to as "gumbands". Although I have moved around the country and
have tried to eradicate all traces of my Pittsburgh accent, as long as I
can say gumband and know that the people of Pittsburgh will understand me,
all is right with the world, if not the word.
I moved to San Francisco nine years ago from New Jersey. People like me
go back east for a visit. However, San Franciscans say "back east" to
refer to the eastern states, even if they have never been there. "They
have hurricanes back east. How can people live there?" For their part,
easterners say, "out west".
If someone says they live in "New York City" they are recent arrivals. We
"real" natives, when asked by other Americans where we were born, always
say "New York" (no "City") and when asked were we live -- yes, it's just,
I propose sipa, which is Bolognese dialect for si and is known as the
identifier for the Bolognese (see, for example, Inferno, Canto XVIII).
What is your good name? An elderly Indian would typically ask the question
In South Africa, where I grew up, you could always distinguish the kids in
school who grew up in Afrikaans homes because they all used the word borrow
to mean both borrow and lend. As in "Could you borrow me your pen?" This
is because Afrikaans only has one word for those two English words.
In the US upper midwest (Minnesota & Wisconsin) people often say "borrow"
when they mean "lend". "Will you borrow me a pencil?" Lots of Swedes &
Norwegians up here. In the Nordic languages, borrow & lend are the same
word, like "rent" in English. I can rent an apartment from you. You can
rent an apartment to me.
The US military used to ask suspected Nazi spies, "How many homers did
The Babe hit in 1927?", an answer, 60, that any GI, any American, would
know in 1944. Canadian intelligence in the 1980 and 1990s, doubting the
provenance of a person who claimed to be from Toronto, questioned him with,
"What is the phone number for Pizza Pizza?" The answer, 967-1111 is one
that no one who lived, or even stayed, in Toronto could possibly miss.
The US was not in WW2 initially and did not want Americans to
fight in it. Nonetheless some Americans wanted to join so they came up
to Canada to do so. At the border (or recruiting place), they'd be asked to recite the alphabet
starting from the end. If they started by saying ZEE (instead of ZED), they were sent back.
I am originally from New York but currently live in north Texas. I never
heard this before I moved here, but now it is a shibboleth to me that
someone is from north Texas or Oklahoma if they say "whenever" as if it's
interchangeable with "when".
When I hear someone use "whenever" in the sense of "when" (e.g.,
"whenever the house burned down"), I know there's a good chance they're
from Southwestern Pennsylvania.
My parents are from India, I was born in America, and I'm living in
Switzerland right now, so language and word use has always been a big
part of my upbringing. Switzerland is a country that prides itself on
micro-dialects and identifying people to the town based on their lexicon
and pronunciation. I suppose they are a bit too numerous to detail, but
one quite fetching shibboleth is that people from Bern use the term das
Quelleheureest-il to mean a wristwatch (which literally means "what time is
it", in French). The French influences in Swiss German are stark identifiers
of native German speakers versus native Swiss German speakers as well,
even when both are speaking high German. For instance, an umbrella is das
Parapluie in Swiss German and der Regenschirm in high german, etc, etc.
When it comes to English place names I think the prize goes to a Norfolk
seaside village of Happisburgh. I asked a local labourer where Happisburg
was and he did not know the village five miles away. When I showed him
the map he called it Haysboro.
I live in South Africa and one SA expression that I use and which amuses
my European friends is 'just now'. It is used when one asks anything like
'When will you go and do so and so' and means anything but Just Now. In
half an hour or longer or shorter, but it does mean that it will be done
eventually. I know there are others but cannot think of them 'just now'.
When I moved to Washington State from South Carolina I struggled with many
of the names. Be careful of accidentally referring to Mount Rainier as if
it were located in Monaco. They will revoke your driver's license if you
say Mount Rahn-yay.
During my lifetime I have lived (three years or more) in five countries. When
I speak Spanish, any native Spanish speaker immediately knows that I
was taught Spanish in Mexico, because I use the diminutive "ito" freely
('momentito' instead of 'un momento').
In the US military, 'Respectfully' is restricted to someone of the same or
just inferior rank. 'Very Respectfully' for someone of superior rank. In the
UK military it tends to be more complicated, and is generally the following,
"Aye" (Scots for "Always" and used between UK military officers who are
familiar), Yours (used between officers who are close), "Yours Sincerely"
(formal), "Your Obedient Servant" (formal to a senior officer), "I Remain
Your Obedient Servant" (for ongoing communication), "Yours Respectfully"
(rarely), (when neutrality or indifference is seen to be appropriate).
New and cleverer forms of complimentary closing are always being invented
and that too is part of the routine and is a shibboleth.
In the UK military we read a great deal into this "complimentary closing".
For example, the attitude of the writer, the degree of respect, the status,
possibly the background, and even class. And this is a shibboleth at its best.
First, the word "Military" refers only to the Army in formal, exact
usage. Armed Forces or "Service men and women" refer to the full panoply
(a particularly apt word) of USA, USN, USMC, and USAF plus in wartime USCG
(usually listed, and paraded, in order of establishment). Examples: The
Military Academy is in NY. The Naval Academy is in MD.
When my stepdaughter was a four-year-old she asked her mother one Connecticut
morning, "Why do we call this an egg?" Her mom, who has a PhD in Germanic
languages and a master's in linguistics and who did not believe in talking
down to children, launched into a disquisition on the origins of language
and was at about the metamorphosis of grunts into words when the little one
said, with some impatience, "No, no, no! Why do we call this an egg? When
we lived in West Virginia it was an aig!"
In the San Francisco Bay Area, you can tell a recent transplant by the
way they refer to our Bay Area Rapid Transit system. Locals say "BART"
while others refer to "The BART".
My daughter attended a sports competition over the summer and met teenagers
from all over the United States, Canada, and South America. She told me that
she and the other teens from the San Francisco Bay Area taught those from the
other locales a term that is near and dear to SF Bay Area residents (mostly
teens). The word is hella --
as in "That hamburger tasted hella good."
Two immediately spring to mind from my upbringing in Northern Ireland
during the troubles. It was possible to discern a person's religion by
asking them to recite the alphabet. The letter 'H' was pronounced 'aitch'
by Protestants, 'haitch' by Catholics, as a by-product of the segregated
education system. Similarly, a reference to Ulster's second city as
'Derry' marked the speaker as a Catholic, whilst a Protestant would say
A very common word in India, but little-known elsewhere, is prepone.
It's used in the sense opposed to
"postpone", a well-established and understood word in English language.
If you were in Pittsburgh, you would "sleep in" if you were staying home
from work, "ret up" if you were cleaning your room, ask for a "pop" if you
wanted a soda. There are so many of these shibboleths that are unique to
Pitts; that one could make a long list of them.
People from Philadelphia PA say "wooder", for water. I've lived in LA CA
for years and I can tell when someone is from Philadelphia by this word
alone. We Philadelphians are a tribe, no matter how far we roam. Soft
pretzels with mustard and wooder.
I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, a town that was full of Germanic
descendants. At the age of 12, my parents took the family to the Grand Canyon
-- way out west. As I gazed upon the Wonders of Nature, a woman behind me
addressed me, but I didn't catch her words clearly. Turning around, I said;
"Please?". "Oh", she exclaimed, "You are from Cincinnati!" I was shocked
at her clairvoyance. Later in high school, my German teacher explained
that the German word "bitte", actually translates as "please", but is
generally used to mean "Please repeat your question."
Loved this explanation of the word shibboleth used in a battle not
far from my home. (Nothing is far in Israel, since we are such a
small country). Israelis while speaking English will never say "What's
the catch?" Instead, they will say, "What's the Catch 22?" Which is a
shibboleth that "catches", Israelis while travelling abroad as though the
word "Israeli", is written on his forehead.
Here is Cincinnati, I have come under fire for calling the insulated boxes
you take camping 'ice chests'. No joke, there were a few people who would
blush every time I said 'ice chest' and would correct me by reminding me
it's called a cooler.
When I moved from New York to Kentucky, I learned that people in the state
gave a Frenchish pronunciation to Louisville (loo-a-vul?) but pronounced
Versailles (ver-SAILS) as though it were English.
We always say "my mother" or "my father", even when speaking with our
siblings present. There is no Turkish equivalent of mom, mommy, dad, daddy,
etc. in Turkish. There's only the formal "mother" (anne) and "father"
(baba). But when speaking about our parents, we always add the possessive
suffix "-m" as in "annem" and "babam". So, when we speak English, we
translate the possessive suffix to "my mother" and "my father." On many
occasions, my friends have interrupted me to ask "do you and your sister
have a different mother? or father?"
As a Spanish speaker I recognize my fellow Latin Americans and Spanish
because we are eSpanish espeakers. An e (pronounced like the Spanish e)
will always be added to a minor or major degree to any word that estarts
in s, (esport, estate).
In the software industry, the usual word for the compiled text that makes
up computer programs is code, and it is used like the words deer, fish,
or sheep. One speaks of "the code", or "some code", never "a code". But
people who learned how to program on supercomputers in the scientific
programming world often refer to their text as "codes". Whenever I hear
a programmer talk about their "codes", this shibboleth tells me that they
were probably trained in a national lab.
An Italian shibboleth is the way people from Florence and surroundings
pronounce words beginning with a "c" followed by "a". In standard Italian
this "c" is pronounced with a guttural sound "k". In Florence they pronounce
it "h" (aspirated sound like in "hammer"). For example, the word "casa"
(house) is pronounced "kah-sa" in standard Italian, but "hah-sa" in the
Florentine accent. This shibboleth characterizes the Florentines and those
living in Tuscany near Florence.
Certainly, the pronunciation "trawna" for "Toronto" ... only "pure
Torontonians" do that! Another shibboleth is the use of passwords with
the "p" sound in Israel. Arabs cannot pronounce "p" and it sounds like a
"Wicked Pissah" Definitely defines our little part of the country; Boston
MA. It means "awesome!"
You're probably going to get a lot about how Houston Street in NYC is
called HOW-ston and not HU-ston but perhaps how I use this as an example to
teach others about shibboleths and pronunciation will set me apart from the
rest? I teach ESL in the city and occasionally take my students on a field
trip/scavenger hunt where they must ask a stranger where "Houston
Street" is. They then have to report back on how the overall exchange went,
what the stranger said, how his/her attitude was. Some students use the
correct pronunciation, some don't. Most strangers correct those who say
HU-ston and, surprisingly enough, most of the strangers don't give the
students too much of the notorious New York attitude.
In the eighties I was staying at a hostel in Christchurch, New Zealand. As
I prepared my dinner, a European hosteler said, "You're an American,
I can tell. Only Americans trim the stem end off their tomatoes."
The word "shibboleth" itself became a shibboleth which identified my
granddad as a chaplain in World War II.
He was overseas serving as a chaplain in the European Theater. He and some
of the enlisted men were playing a game of Horse. In the game, the men
took turns around the circle adding one letter each to spell a word. The
first player to be unable to think of a word and add a letter would be out.
On this particular day, the men had decided, prior to the game, to play
a good-natured prank on the chaplain. During a round of the game when he
would be the fourth player, it was prearranged that the first three men would
use the letters "s-h-i" leaving "Chappy" to have to complete the word with
the obvious --"t" and put him in an embarrassing position.
Sure enough, when his turn came, the only word that came to him was
the obvious. But, these men did not know my granddad's determination,
good humor, and fierce desire to do right AND to BE right! He thought and
thought of a way around the problem. The men teased him, saying, "come on,
Chappy, you know the answer! It's the only one! Say it, Chappy, say it!"
Finally, in an inspired stroke, my granddad triumphantly shouted, "B!" The
men protested, saying he had no real word in mind. He told them the word was
"shibboleth". They then challenged him, insisting that he had made up the
word to dodge the prank. But, being a biblical scholar, well-versed in Jewish
history, he held his ground and defined the word. The men remained unmoved.
Ever persistent, he then wrote to my grandma who was back home in Texas and
asked her to please tear that page from the dictionary and send it to him
as proof! (No Wikipedia or instant communication.) When the page arrived,
he showed the men, thus beating them at their own game, staying true to his
beliefs and strengthening an already good rapport with the men in his unit.
Thanks for bringing back a great memory of a great man!
In Australia, one thing which indicates age is what you say on being
introduced to someone. If you're over 50, you're more likely to use the
British formula, "How do you do?"
If you're under 50, you're less likely to understand what this means. If
you're under 40, you definitely won't understand it -- like Americans,
you'll think that "How do you do?" is a polite enquiry about your health,
and you'll answer, "I'm fine, thanks". For Australians under 50 (and
definitely for those under 40), the thing to say on being introduced is
now the American formula, "Pleased to meet you."
I grew up in Western New York where sandwich was pronounced samwich and
grocery was pronounced grochery. When I hear those two words, I know I'm
talking with someone from WNY.
As a biologist, my colleagues tend to come in two flavors: "field people"
who study trees, birds, or creepy critters, and "medical people" who study
bodies and what goes wrong with them. One shibboleth that quickly and easily
sorts the two is the term "DNR"-- both groups use it freely, but to one it
means Department of Natural Resources, and to the other, Do Not Resuscitate.
There is also a growing third category of "lab people" who study genes
and molecules; I'm just waiting for them to give that name to a class of
proteins or a gene family so that they can once again be part of the club.
If someone responds to the question "And what do you do?" with the answer
"I am an attorney", instead of "a lawyer", I know I am talking with
someone who has an inflated view of himself and thus with a need to preen
himself. If someone addresses me (I am a lawyer) by the title "counsellor",
I know that I am talking with someone who worked in an administrative or
security role within the court or penal system.
We Canadians are easily identified by two shibboleths: our ability to use the
word "eh" at the beginning, middle, and end of a sentence to convey a variety
of messages (see Orkin's Canajan, Eh?), and our compulsion to apologize.
Here in the South, northerners are confounded by the following exchange:
The theater where I worked in Germany (as an opera soloist), had, in addition
to the opera, a ballet company. After only a few days I was able to
tell the opera singers from the ballet dancers without seeing them in
rehearsal. How? No, not by their girth! It was the feet that gave it away:
the ballet dancers had, after years of practicing, a typical walk with
turned out toes.
The Danes have a shibboleth. It's the Danish for red pudding with cream on
it. The phrase in Danish is Rødgrød med fløde paa. It is almost impossible
for a non-native speaker of Danish to pronounce it correctly.
My husband can narrow down how he might have known someone during various
stages of his 75 years of life by how they address him:
The use of "Democrat" (rather than "Democratic") Party often indicates
that the writer or speaker is a conservative Republican. It seems that
conservatives use Democrat as a slur and avoid using Democratic for fear
that it implies that the party founded by Jefferson and Jackson might be
grounded on the principles of democracy.
When I moved to Boston from Ohio I lived near Route (rhymed with "out") 9.
In New England they say route like "root". My friend told me there
hadn't been a "route since Paul Revere routed the sleeping Minutemen!"
Protestants pronounce "schism" with as "skism." Catholics pronounce it is
"sism". Protestant pronounce "Augustine" emphasizing the first syllable,
AH-gus-teen. Catholics pronounce it uh-GUS-tn.
I come from Govan in Glasgow, Scotland and here, if you go to 'chapel',
you are Roman Catholic, if you go to church, you are Protestant. Nowadays,
if you go to either, you are one of a dying breed!
I think "go with", as in "I'm going to the store" and the response is
"I'll go with" is a Chicago thing. We never finish the sentence.
"Please do the needful" is a phrase which I see constantly when working
with our business partners in India.
I am Puerto Rican, from San Juan, the capital, to the north. We call the
nickel "vellón", but the people from Ponce (southern large city) call the
vellón "ficha". Anywhere in the Island, if somebody calls a nickel a ficha,
you know he/she is Ponceño.
There are several name places that are mispronounced by visitors:
This is not really a word or pronunciation, but I think it's a
shibboleth. Whenever Peace Corps Volunteers (or even Returned Peace Corps
Volunteers, for that matter) come into a conversation with someone with a
foreign accent, they immediately switch to "special English", or a slower,
more-enunciated version of their usual speaking speed.
Native Texans know that the town of Mexia is pronounced Ma-hay-uh. A
local joke has two men sitting in a fast-food restaurant in that community
arguing over the correct pronunciation of the name. One of the men asks
their waitress, "Ma'am, how do you pronounce the name of this place?".
She happily answers with a Texas drawl, "Day-ree Kweeeen."
Orthodox Jews refer to religious studies as "learning" as opposed to
studying, e.g. Where are you learning? I'm learning at the Bobover yeshiva
with Rabbi Chochem.
Fans of science fiction generally refer to the genre as "SF" or sometimes
as 'SpecFic" (short for "Speculative Fiction", a term promoted and perhaps
coined by the late Robert A. Heinlein"). People outside the fan community
often refer to it as "SciFi" (pronounced to rhyme with "HiFi" or "WiFi")
which many SF fans consider to have a condescending or negative implication.
When I was a college student in Chicago (many years ago), I learned that
native Chicagoans proudly pronounced Goethe Street as "GO-thee" (where the
"th" in "thee" is pronounced as in "think", not as in "than").
There is one word that will set you apart, and define you unmistakenly as
an Anglo-Argentine! The word is "camp". The American "ranch" brings up the
thought of Roy Rogers, Indians, etc. etc. The British word "farm" makes
you think of "small" and Farmer Brown and his cow Daisy, "homestead" is too
Australian to be worth a mention. The dictionary (Appleton) gives many words
for "estancia": dwelling, habitation, living room AND (Am.) small farm. Small
farm? Many estancieros used/use a small aeroplane to cover their land.
So ... we use "camp". The dictionary defines camp as either military,
boy scouts' or involving mining quarters. But for us a "camp" is an estancia.
Differentiating freeways seems to be very regional. I can always tell
someone is from the Los Angeles area, not northern California, since they use
"The 101" or "The 5" when referring to said freeways. In the San Francisco
area, they are called "I-5" or just "101". In the Chicago area, freeways
are usually called "The Kennedy" or "The Eisenhower" and rarely referred
to by their number.
I grew up in Montreal where -- when you undertook your list of things to
do and places to go (dry cleaner, grocery store, post office, etc.) you
said that you were "doing messages". Everywhere else it is called "running
Rainy Seattle has two colloquialisms, one of which certainly qualifies.
"Sunbreaks" is a term used in the Seattle area but nowhere else I have
been. Weather forecasters use "Sunbreaks", to describe the infrequent
sunny minutes in an otherwise a cloudy and gloomy day. Another NW oddity is
the saying, "The mountain is out." The mountain is Mt Rainier, all 14,411ft
of the glacier-capped peak which dramatically rises from sea level. While
there are two mountain ranges and numerous notable peaks visible from
the urban corridor, locals know "the mountain" refers only to Mt Rainier,
and it is "out" when it is visible on a rare clear day.
A few years ago, I was eating lunch with a new colleague. I noticed she
screened her mouth with her hand held vertically as she chewed.
The best shibboleth story I know comes from Vermont in the
late 1990s (I was a teenager there at the time). Fred Tuttle
was running against Jack McMullen
in the Republican primary for a senate seat, to go up against Pat Leahy
in the general election. Fred Tuttle was a "real Vermonter", well known
locally from his starring role in the 1996 film "A Man With A Plan",
about a dairy farmer from Tunbridge who decided to go into politics.* Jack
McMullen was, as we say, "an outer stater", a flatlander from Cambridge,
Mass, with too much money and no understanding of the place or its people,
so Fred ran against him, pledged that his campaign fund would not exceed
$16, and challenged him to a debate that was aired live on Vermont public
radio. Fred handed Jack McMullen a list of Vermont town names to read
aloud, and somewhere between Barre and Calais (properly pronounced as
"Barry" and "Callous", as any real Vermonter would know) Jack McMullen
lost any chance he'd ever had at that nomination.
In Austin, Texas, there's a road called "Burnet Road." Folks from out of
town call it "bur NET" but the locals know: It's BUR nit, learn it, dern it!
One of the dearly held myths of baseball is that knowledge of baseball trivia
served as a shibboleth during the Second World War for discovering German
spies trying to penetrate American lines. It may or may not be true. There
is a movie scene from the 1940s in which Van Johnson is almost arrested for
being a spy because he's an aristocratic snob who doesn't follow baseball
and thus doesn't know what a "texas leaguer" is. (It's a weak outfield fly
ball that falls in for a hit because it's too shallow for the outfielders
to get to it. Apparently, it was a beloved tactic in the Texas League,
a minor league in the 1880s and 90s.)
"Wicked" as in "wicked good", "wicked fast", "wicked awesome" etc. is
indicative of someone from the Boston area -- proper or not. People in
and around New England use the word.
Having grown up an Air Force brat and attending 15 schools, I'm constantly
monitoring my shibboleths to fit the culture where I'm visiting or
living. Now transplanted in the South, many family members still live in the
North. I'm reminded of one summer when I visited relatives and attended a
Civil War reenactment in Ohio. It was odd seeing all the blue uniforms when
I was beginning to get use to Confederate uniforms at reenactments. But,
when I passed by one group of Union troops, they tipped their hats and said,
"How are you?" To which, I automatically answered, "Fine, how are ya'll." I
thought they would draw their guns on me then and there. "Ya'll!?!" they
turned and shouted, ready to put me in the stockade. "Uh, I meant, you
guys?" Note to self: Must remember if I'm in the North or South; the words
you use are dead giveaways. I'd probably never make a good spy.
Alberta's extensive bituminous sands are "the oil sands" to supporters and
"the tar sands" to opponents of their development (and, by extension, to
the transport of their oil by pipeline). Both being perfectly accurate
descriptors, the choice depends on whether one is playing to "energy
security" or "environmental hazard" sensibilities.
I believe the most important shibboleth in the 20th century, from an
American's point of view, was lollapalooza, for which there are several
spellings. All those who served in the Pacific theater against the Japanese
in World War II will remember that when, in the dark of night, a figure
was seen approaching a base or a stronghold, the guard would ask "who
goes there?" Americans generally knew all they needed to say to identify
themselves as Americans was "lollapalooza", an utterly impossible sound
for a Japanese to make.
Whenever I hear someone say they will bring a "hot dish" to a potluck
supper, instead of saying a casserole, I know they are from Minnesota.
A common shibboleth in New England (it may be more localized to
Massachusetts) is the use of the word 'wicked' as an adverb to replace
really or very. "Ben Affleck's new movie was wicked good!"
Ever since I was a little girl, I've called the exclamation point
"excitement mark", and since no one corrected me, the rest of my family
has picked up on it, as well. At age 58, I still think it's the accurate
term when dictating something!
In the years when I was attending teacher conferences, one could distinguish
primary teachers from secondary teachers by the way they wrote their
names on the "Hello" name tag. Primary teachers printed their names,
while secondary teachers wrote in cursive.
You can be pretty sure someone grew up in the southern tier of New York
State when they say they're going "down" to Rochester. Down commonly means
you're heading south, but if you go south to Rochester, you're starting
out somewhere in Lake Ontario. In this case, however, "down" means down
in altitude. The Genesee River begins in northern Pennsylvania and flows
"down" (north) through New York's southern tier to its mouth at the port
of Rochester on Lake Ontario. So to get to Rochester from the southern
tier, you go "down", like the river. It's the same as the term "Down East"
for Maine. To get to Maine from Boston (in the old days, when you went by
sailboat), you travelled "downwind" along the coast. The expression spread,
beyond the sailing community, so now, if you say you're going "down Maine",
you're probably a New Englander.
In my state, there is an intense divide over whether to pronounce the name
Missour-ee or Missour-uh. "Ee" is usually urban, "uh" is usually rural or
used by older people, but as linguists have observed, there are no sharp
boundaries and the historical reasons for the different pronunciations
are unclear. What is clear is that some (not all!) Missour-ee-ans like
to sneer at Missour-uh-ans as uncultured hicks who are using the "wrong"
pronunciation. And for me that's a shibboleth indicating they are clueless
snobs, because the correct way to say a location's name is always the way
the people who live there say it. I'm reminded of a story a docent at the
Fayette County Historical Society's museum in Ansted, West Viriginia, told
me about how a tourist from New York "corrected" her on Appalachian, saying
it should be Appalay-shun instead of Appalatch-un. "Excuse me", my guide
told her, "these are my mountains, I think I know how to pronounce them!'"
Two recent discussions (1, 2) of the Missouri issue.
You can usually tell someone is not originally from Pennsylvania when they
use the full name when identifying a place. For example, a Pennsylvanian
would never say "Scranton, Pennsylvania". It's always, "Scranton, PA"
(the two letters spoken consecutively). I noticed it recently since I met
folks from Pittsburg, CA and Pittsburgh, PA and the California name was
spoken in full and the other was PEE-AYY.
I think "whistling Vivaldi" (and variations on the theme) might qualify as a shibboleth. I first learned what whistling Vivaldi means in this article. -Mary Mariyampillai, Kenvil, New Jersey (mary.mariyampillai gmail.com)
When entering Oxford from the East, you travel over Magdalen Bridge and
past Magdalen College (though Magdalen Street is one the other side of town
altogether). But woe to the travellers who pronounce it MAG-da-len! They
will be immediately identified as either tourists or freshers. The accepted
Oxonian pronunciation is MAUD-lin,
in keeping with the generally esoteric naming conventions in the City of
Shibboleth, West Wing style. President Bartlet further expounds.
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