New Orleans Slang
Residents of New Orleans take pride in being different. The city is in the deepest south, but the New Orleans local language contains little of the southern drawl that permeates the speech of neighboring states. The combination of French, Spanish, Italian, West African, Caribbean, Native American, and English dialects in the old port city have mixed over the centuries to produce a uniquely New Orleans voice. As charming as the city's many dialects may be, New Orleans local lingo can confound visitors. Even natives can't agree on some words and street names.
The city's name itself is a source of confusion. To most residents, it's "New OR-linz" or "New OR-lee-uns." A few iconoclasts have come up with their own variations; the late Hap Glaudi, a beloved sports anchor, had his own characteristic "New ALL-yuns" that set him apart. No native uses the slurred and blurry "N'awlins." Like gumbo parties and the ubiquitous use of the word "cher," "N'awlins" is a Hollywood fiction that no local would utter no matter how many Sazeracs he'd downed. "New Or-LEENZ" will also never leave a local's lips unless he's singing and wants the lyrics to rhyme. Curiously, though, once the "New" drops from the city's name, "Or-LEENZ" becomes the proper way to say it. Orleans Avenue, Orleans Parish, and the venerable Omni Royal Orleans all follow the rule that without the "New," the "Leans" is long.
Terpsichore and Melpomene
Some older New Orleans street names confuse visitors and sometimes locals. The most famous are streets named after the Muses, the Greek personifications of various arts. Most folks get "Erato," the muse of romantic poetry. They run into trouble, though, with the muses of dance and tragedy. To a scholar, Terpsichore and Melpomene have four syllables each; those native to New Orleans generally condense them to three, but there's some confusion about which three they are. Purists may stick to "Terp-SICK-or-ee," but in the New Orleans local language, "TERP-sick-ore" is most common. Others use the pronunciation "TERP-isk-core" or even the two-syllable sister, "TERPS-core." Both are perfectly understandable in New Orleans. Melpomene fares a little better; at least New Orleans residents generally agree on one pronunciation for her name. Historians would refer to the muse of drama as "Mel-POM-uh-nee," but New Orleans natives know her as "MEL-puh-meen."
One of the muses deserves special mention. Clio, the muse of history bearing the shortest name, is also the street most baffling to local tongues. Pronounced "KLY-oh" by some native New Orleans speakers and by historians, it's "KLEE-oh" to others. To still others, it's CL-10, a mutation derived from the look of the street name in the font common to New Orleans street signs. At least one native has tried to justify this peculiar misreading as a belief that it stood for "County Lane 10." However, as New Orleans has parishes instead of counties, and as the road in question is clearly not a lane, it's likelier that he was just making it up. (That isn't unusual; New Orleans natives often prefer a great story to a dull fact.)
That grassy area between two lanes of a street is not a median strip in New Orleans. New Orleans slang dubs that area "neutral ground." Referring to it as a median or island instantly marks the speaker as a non-native. Legend has it that the term originated from the broad space in the middle of Canal Street that divided the French Quarter from the American part of the city. Canal Street represented a place for both cultures to meet and do business together, a neutral ground in which both communities could participate fully. To this day, the same streets that have a French name on one side of Canal have an American name on the other side, so there might be something to the legend. Many New Orleans thoroughfares have neutral grounds featuring park benches and bike paths that curve past the live oaks that grow there.
Place names aren't the only words that puzzle tourists. New Orleans' celebrated cuisine contains many terms that separate the natives from the out-of-towners. The creamy, sugary disc that is known in New Orleans local lingo as a "prah-LEEN" might be a "PRAY-leen" to a visitor. Some local dialects even transpose a few letters and call the treat a "plah-REEN," but the vowel sound remains the same; the long A is the sign of the praline neophyte.
The crunchy bits most frequently found in pralines are pecans, a wrinkly, savory delight of a nut that thrives in Louisiana's heat. The trees are so abundant and productive that some lucky locals make a cottage industry of selling pecans to neighbors in the fall. The neutral ground along the main street in front of the University of New Orleans once contained a few dozen prolific pecan trees, but unfortunately Katrina swept them away. Whether they're homegrown, foraged from a neutral ground, or store-bought, the nuts are universally known in New Orleans as "puh-KAWNs" or even "buh-KAWNs," but never "PEE-cans." Talk about PEE-cans to a native of New Orleans, and he's likelier to offer directions to the rest room than to share some of his snack.
Most of the country knows this iconic New Orleans ingredient as a "crayfish." Whether boiled up with new potatoes and short ears of corn and served on newspapers at a crawfish boil or served atop pasta with butter and garlic at a local restaurant, crawfish are a staple of New Orleans cooking. Locals call them crawfish or even mudbugs, but never will they say "crayfish." Printed signs sometimes contain a Y instead of a W, but the word is still pronounced "crawfish." Generations of New Orleans preschoolers, just learning to read, have been mystified at this only known instance in which a "Y" sounds like a "W."
People elsewhere in the country may buy groceries, shop for groceries, or go to the market; in New Orleans slang, that activity is described as "making groceries." The term comes from the Creole French idiomatic expression for shopping for dinner, "faire son marche." "Faire" can mean either "to do" or "to make." Creole shoppers, just gaining facility with English, accidentally came up with this minor mistranslation. Successive generations spoke English as their first language, but elements of their Creole French past stayed with them in a few phrases. Once a common expression, it's fading from popular use except among older residents, but any local who hears it is likely to remember a friend or relative from childhood who used to say it all the time.
If there is a single word that expresses both the history and the personality of New Orleans, "lagniappe" is surely the one. Lagniappe is a little something extra, an unexpected bonus. A baker who adds a free thirteenth doughnut to the dozen or a restaurateur who delivers a bottle of wine to a table of regulars is giving out lagniappe. The word was originally a Spanish term for a little gift, "la napa." Etymologists are uncertain of its origins before that, but the Native American Quechua word "yapa," also meaning gift, seems the likeliest source. The French blended article and noun together to produce "lagniappe," pronounced by both locals and visitors as some approximation of "lan-yap." The generosity of spirit and colorful history of the word embody all that's best about the city of New Orleans.
- Overview:New Orleans Travel Guide