Wednesday, April 25, 2012

V is for Vocabulary

POP QUIZ! Name these items:


  SODA? POP? COKE?

Image courtesy of Alessandro Paiva, rgbstock.com



                                  
BAG? SACK?

Image courtesy of Sanja Gjenero, rgbstock.com



SNEAKERS? TENNIS SHOES?

Image courtesy of Sanja Gjenero, rgbstock.com



FAUCET? SPIGOT? SOMETHING ELSE?

Image courtesy of Zsuzsanna Kilian, rgbstock.com



Your answers to the questions above will likely depend a lot upon where you grew up or where you now live. For example, according to the The Great Pop vs. Soda Controversy, "pop" seems to be the word of choice in the Northern, Midwestern, and Western states, while "soda" is more prevalent in the Northeast and parts of California. Many Southerners, on the other hand, seem to prefer to use the word "coke."

As far as the quiz above goes, no answer is wrong. However, that doesn't mean that we won't ever run into awkward language situations here in the United States.

One of the first things I noticed when I moved from my home state of Michigan (Upper Michigan, to be exact) to western Nebraska in 1994 was that the names I'd always associated with certain objects suddenly didn't fit them anymore. I felt like I had walked into a different world when I went to the local grocery store one afternoon soon after I had arrived in town. The clerk rang up my purchases, then asked me a question I'd never heard before in the context of a store: "Would you like a sack for that?"

This is what I looked like when I heard her question:

Photo by Robert Kraft
Courtesy of Public Domain Pictures

(Just look at the eyes. Ignore the dog around them.)

"What?" I said. It wasn't an "I didn't hear you" what. It was more of a "what in the world are you talking about" kind of what.

"Do. You. Want. A. Sack?" She said each word slowly, as if she were speaking to someone very, very stupid. (Apparently, she was).

Slow speech notwithstanding, I was still confused. "A sack?"

"Yes. A sack." She kind of hissed the word that time, and I started to hear grumbling coming from the people in line behind me.

Suddenly--and I don't know how or why, only that it happened--the proverbial lightbulb when off and my brain comprehended what she meant. This is what I looked like at that moment:

Photo by Kim Newberg
Courtesy of Public Domain Pictures

Don't I look wise? (Again, ignore the fur. And the whiskers. And the whole "this is a cat" thing. I know it's a cat. Just look for the essence of wise.)

"Oh, you mean a bag!" I said triumphantly, like I had cracked some kind of code. (Actually, I felt like I had cracked a code.) "Yes, I'll take one!" (Notice how overly enthusiastic I had become. I was trying to erase my earlier ignorance by turning on my bubbly charm--kind of like pop when you shake up the bottle.)

The clerk ignored me, slammed my purchases into a bag (excuse me--sack), and I left the store feeling like a stranger. In a strange land. Or something.

When I told this story to my journalism students the next week, I was met with the same blank stare I had given the clerk.

Photo by Robert Kraft
Courtesy of Public Domain Pictures

(That picture's just too good not to use again.)

There was silence. I stared at my students. My students stared at me. Finally, one brave young man spoke up. "Um, of course it's a sack, Ms. P. I don't get it. Why would you call it a bag?"

Clearly, we had a communication problem.

I explained to the class that the only sack I knew was in football, and by "knew" I meant I had heard some announcer say the word as I was surfing past ESPN to get to a rerun of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I had grown up calling these paper containers bags. That's what my parents called them; that's what my grandparents called them. I assumed that was what everyone called them.

Obviously, I assumed wrong.

Since that fateful day in Nebraska when my ideas about everything I thought I had known were dashed, I've come across many more examples of the country's varied vocabulary. Here in western New York, for example, those shoes pictured above are called sneakers. I grew up calling them tennis shoes. People in some parts of the country say that the water receptacle that Jack and Jill carried up the hill is called a pail; others call it a bucket. Some fry their eggs in a frying pan, and others fry them in a skillet. And in some areas of the country, water comes from a faucet, yet in other areas, it comes from a spigot

Moving from one part of the United States to the other means you almost need to learn a new language.

I know I did.



Have you noticed differences in vocabulary in various parts of the United States? If you're not from the US, have you noticed any vocabulary differences in your country?

60 comments:

  1. Several years ago when I was planning a trip to Italy, I frequented a travel forum. I kept reading comments about how to dress, and the one that kept coming up was not to wear trainers. What? Training bra? Training pants? It took me forever to figure out they meant tennis shoes.

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    1. LOL That's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about! :)

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  2. Ha ha! Enjoyed your post very much. Wait till you are in Singapore - more new words to learn!

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  3. I LOVED this! I grew up, and still live, in NJ. As a kid, we took a cross-country camping trip when I was about 9 from NJ to Wyoming. It was a 3 week trip and I loved every minute of it. I will never forget though when we visited my mom's college friends in Illinois. My sister and I were asked if we'd like a pop. We looked a lot like that dog (minus the fur). Took us a while to figure out it meant soda, but yes cross country travel almost requires a dictionary. :)
    A2ZMommy and What’s In Between

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  4. I grew up in Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. We used the word "coke" for any kind of soda pop in Oklahoma. Then later in Wyoming it was soda. Never used the word pop.

    We used the word "sack" and "tennis shoes" ... or "gym shoes" for school. I remember when I was a kid this conversation took place between me and my mother:

    ME: I need new tennis shoes for gym.

    MOM: Why can't Jim buy his own shoes?

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    1. LOL Too funny!

      Isn't it crazy? Those states aren't really that far apart, yet the people in them speak different "languages."

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  5. Cute post! It is interesting how we do call objects different names from different parts of the country. It can be confusing too, like your story, until we pick up the local lingo :)

    great V!

    betty

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  6. I grew up in Georgia, where co-cola or coke referred to ANY soft drink. My cousins from Michigan called soft drinks, pop. We had many confusing conversations as kids, because to me pop is something that a balloon does right before a toddler starts to cry.

    Lucy

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    1. I can imagine how confusing that must have been. :)

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  7. oh for sure--my cousins from the northern parts--call coke, soda--very interesting post!

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  8. Really good writing! In Massachusetts, a drinking fountain is called a bubbler- or if you have the accent-"bubblah". I just looked it up and it also refers to a kind of drug paraphernalia... oh, dear.

    Thanks for praying for Porter!! He was found outside of Chicago!

    Bless you!

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    1. Thank you, Cheryl. :) (I don't think I could ever get used to calling a fountain a bubbler...)

      Oh, I'm so glad he was found!

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  9. No kidding then go to UK
    My friend asked me if I needed a Bra lee ( I was thinking hmm now that is a personal question). "No thank you"
    I really did need the umbrella they were offering

    I'm a San Francisco girl - "Coke" "Tennies" "Bag" "faucet (inside) "Spigot" (outside)
    and I am writing about dreams today

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    1. Bra lee. Wow!

      In Michigan, we used to call tennis shoes "tennies" sometimes.

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  10. I would have been a little confused with sack, but in Iowa, depending on your cashier, some will say sack and other says bag. But it is always "pop" here. :)

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    1. Yep, that bag/sack thing really got me. I had to get used to a lot of things like that when I was living in Nebraska.

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  11. In Arizona, we say soda. I came from Michigan, where we said pop, and for the first few years here, everybody looked at me like I was some dumb hick when I said pop.

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    1. Oh, how well I know that look! I've gotten it a lot. :)

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  12. I love this post. For me it's pop, bag, tennis shoes, and faucet. Though I use the other words interchangeably--except Coke. I've lived in the south for almost 20 years now, and I hate hate hate that.

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    1. Thanks, Liz.

      I think I would be really confused in the South. How does one know whether someone wants a coke (meaning some kind of soft drink) or a Coke (Coca-Cola)?

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  13. That's fascinating - I didn't realise that language varied from State to State. Here we do have some regional differences - for example, down south we say 'sandwich' and up north it's usually a 'buttie', although 'buttie' has been adopted all over the country, I think, for a sandwich with chips (fries) in it - a chip buttie!
    Here, where I live in the South of England, it would be a bag (or a carrier bag to be precise if we're talking supermarket bags), 'fizzy' for the fizzy drink, trainers for the shoes - and the faucet is a tap! I think it's pretty much the same all over the UK. Interesting post!

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    1. I love hearing about the UK! It's amazing how much the English language varies.

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  14. Love this post, Dana! When we moved from Chicago to Portland a decade ago, boy were we in for a surprise. :-o Not only are the typical grocery food selections completely different--so is the lingo!

    You never really realize how different things are outside your hometown until you leave it.

    BTW, I'm a pop, bag, sneakers, faucet kind of girl. :)

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    1. Thanks!

      You're absolutely right. When I left Michigan for Nebraska, I just assumed that the names of things I'd grown up with would be the same in both places. It was hard to accept the new lingo.

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  15. I remember traveling from Minnesota to Florida by car when we were kids and hearing things like soda, bubbler, sack, etc. After a trip down south I'd come home using the "wrong" terms with a southern accent for a few days--LOL! I was malleable. ;)

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  16. Spigot........now there's a word I haven't heard in awhile!

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  17. That's just funny! I'm with you on "bag." I say "pop" and "faucet" and "tennis shoes." Can you tell where I'm from?

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    1. Well, you use the same words as I do. Midwest, maybe? Are you a Michigander, too?

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  18. Where I live, anything goes. I do say soda. I have never heard anyone say "pop" in my life.

    Funny how different areas use different words and I never really noticed before!

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    1. It's hard to believe we're all a part of the same country. :)

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  19. We had a conversation about this my freshman year of college. I was in the midwest, so pop won over soda. One of my friends brought up the question, "what do you bring your clean laundry up in?" A hamper, a laundry basket? "A bushel," he said. We all told him he was on his own with that one.

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    1. Well, that's one I've never heard!

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  20. I grew up in MD, but my hubby, older son and I moved to GA in '71. Our younger son went to college in Chicago, and picked up a lot of the idioms from there, which he uses to this day, plus he spent time overseas when he was in the military. Our daughters-in-law and son-in-law are from others states, and even other countries, so when our whole family gets together, the vocabulary is all over the map. Funniest language confusion ever, though, happened years ago, when I used the word "dungarees" with a classroom full of teenagers. (Ask your parents ... they know what it means.)

    Nice to meet you. I stopped by for a quick A-Z fly-by, but I'm taking off as your newest follower. I love your blog, and your voice. Good luck with the rest of the challenge.

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    1. It's nice to meet you, too. Thank you for your kind comments. :)

      I've heard the word "dungarees" before--unless there's a slang definition I'm not aware of.

      Delete
  21. I live in Ohio, and went to The Ohio State University, which has a diverse student population. My family traveled a lot, so the faucet is a spigot outside and a tap inside or out - all of those words are interchangeable. Soda and pop are interchangeable here as well, but in West Virginia, where my mom was born, it's pop. One idiom that has always given me pause for thought is the face cloth - I have heard it called a wash cloth, face cloth, wash rag...I can't imagine what else it could be called. Great post. We sure are winnowing down on the AtoZ challenge!

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    1. Interesting one! I grew up using the terms "wash cloth" or "wash rag."

      Thanks for your comments. :)

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  22. LOL Loved this post! I use soda, bag, sneakers and tap. No of the other commentators seem to use tap.


    Sonia Lal @ Story Treasury

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    1. Thanks, Sonia!

      Thus far, I think only two of you have mentioned "tap." I would have guessed there'd be more.

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  23. pop. bag. tennis shoes. faucet. from a midwestern girl.

    We get a lot of Canadien visitors where I live and it always makes me smile when they talk about going on holiday. I take vacations myself, but I'm not Canadien.

    Another I've wondered about is couch vs. sofa.

    So what do you use in writing then? That's the question. I've switched my sodas to pops and tennis shoes to sneakers. I can live with that minor change.

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    1. Good point! I guess I've never thought of these vocabulary differences in terms of writing. Up until this moment, I've used the words that I'm familiar with, but you've given me something to think about...

      I say "couch." :)

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  24. awesome post! how fun! and sorry nebraska, guess we should all be as smart (and friendly) as you all? ha!

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  25. Anytime I travel outside of Texas, I know exactly what you mean! At least I speak too fast to have an accent, I'm told.

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    1. It's crazy, isn't it? It's a whole other world!

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  26. My 25 year old daughter informed me the other day that the term "hella" was limited only to NorCal residents. No one in the rest of the country even knew what the word means (which is very as in this is hella good!).

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    1. The only time I've really noticed the word "hella" is in No Doubt's song, "Hella Good." I don't think I've ever heard anyone else say it.

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  27. Great post! I love quirks in linguistics. So much fun. I grew up saying fiddlesticks as a mild curse, but whenever I say it around my friends, they look at me like I'm daft. Apparently it's not something any of them have ever heard anyone else say...

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    1. Thanks!

      (And I love the word "fiddlesticks!")

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  28. Oh yeah...I had a lot of re-learning of the King's Speech when I moved from New Orleans to NC! Even though both areas are Southern...New Orleans has a unique vocabulary all its own!
    Fun and neat post!
    Hugs~

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  29. Great post, I am from the UK and in answer to other names of wash cloths that Elizabeth Towns mentions - its sometimes a wash cloth but more often than not its a flannel :)I used to live for a while in Africa and have a tendency to refer to pop/soda/coke as minerals. Here though, I think I would ask if you wanted a cold drink and then offer up the types. But others (I'm in the south) would probably say a fizzy drink. In a supermarket here we dont get paper bags like in the image - but they are still called bags by the person on the till - or carrier bag, often abbreviated to just carrier. Trainers. And lastly tap.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Kate! I love reading about all these differences in vocabulary. :)

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