Tucson Slang

Tucson Slang

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Having grown up on the East Coast, living in southern Arizona has taken some getting used to. Of course, there's the obvious – the heat. There's so much extra heat in Tucson that they'd gladly export it if they could. While adjusting to blistering temperatures is a big part of living here, you also need to get to know the Tucson local language as well. As it was once part of Mexico, there's a huge Spanish influence that's still present, but there are also some other words and phrases that you absolutely have to know to be able to speak the Tucson slang like a true Tucsonan.


The first time I heard this word I thought, "What, are we living in the South Pacific now? Isn't a monsoon some kind of tropical hurricane that hits places like Fiji?" It turns out that the monsoons, in Tucson slang, are seasonal thunderstorms that provide Southern Arizona with the majority of its roughly 12 inches of rainfall a year. And, believe me, these storms are a really big deal. While the monsoon season doesn't start until July, the local weather forecasters start talking about them months before they arrive. When they finally do make their dramatic appearance, I have to admit they are some pretty serious thunderstorms; including some that drop hailstones in the desert in the middle of July. But, while you may call them thunderstorms just about anytime else, between July and September you must refer to them as "monsoons" if you want to use the proper Tucson local language.

"Saguaro" (sa-hwa-ro)

One of the many species of cactus plants that you'll find growing around Tucson, the saguaro is the granddaddy of all cactuses. It can grow to be up to about 50 feet tall and even grows arms. Although they are often associated with the entire desert southwest, they are actually native to the Sonoran Desert in Southern Arizona and Northern Mexico. While the iconic saguaro is the most easily recognized cactus in the area, it is probably also helpful to know a couple of other plants mentioned often in the Tucson local lingo, like the "cholla" (choy-ya), also known in Tucson slang as the "jumping cactus," the "ocotillo" (ach-o-tee-yo), the "palo verde" (pal-o ver-dee) literally the "green stick" with bark as green as its leaves and the "mesquite" (mis-keet). Most of the names of the plants names are of Spanish origin and some of the animal names are as well, such as . . .

"Javelina" (have-uh-lean-ah)

If you saw one, you might think it's some sort of wild pig, but you'd be wrong. The javelina is what's known in Tucson slang as a collared peccary, and while it looks like a hairy pig, it's not. These critters travel around in small packs and love eating all kinds of native desert plants, and just about anything else you put out in your yard. We learned that the hard way one Halloween when, after a couple hours of carving pumpkins, we proudly put our Jack-o-Lanterns out on the front walkway. About 15 minutes later my daughter yelled out, "The javelinas are eating our pumpkins!" I tried to explain to my young, distraught son that the "stupid pigs" that were eating our Halloween decorations weren't pigs at all, but that didn't seem to help much.

"Swamp Cooler," also "Evap Cooler" or "Evaporative Cooler"

Did I mention that Tucson can get pretty hot? During the summer months, it can seem like the thermometer constantly stuck somewhere above the 100 degree mark. Believe it or not, some people actually lived in this town before the widespread use of air conditioners. One way that they were able to survive the sweltering temperatures was by using what Tucson local lingo refers to as "Swamp Coolers." If you've never seen one before, they're pretty simple. They use a fan to pull air into a house (yes, they pull in that blazing hot air) and the air passes through water-soaked membranes (known as cooler pads) thus adding moisture to the very dry air and producing a cooling effect. They work pretty well for most of the year, except during Monsoon Season (see #1 above), when there's already a lot of moisture in the air and that's when only AC will do the trick to really cool off your house.

"Eegees" (Eee–geez)

Driving around Tucson you'll see all of the usual fast food joints you'd find everywhere else in the country, but the one establishment that will look unfamiliar is Eegees. Found only in Tucson, the Eegees chain serves up sub sandwiches and French fries, but it's locally famous for the concoction that serves as its namesake, the Eegees. It's basically a fruit-flavored treat that has a consistency so thick it requires a spoon for you to eat it. If you're lucky (or unlucky) enough to be here during the summer, you might get to try a flavor of the month like Orange Dream or Watermelon, but all year long you can enjoy Lemon, Strawberry and Pina Colada flavors. Before you visit, you will want to add Eegees to your Tucson lingo memory board and destination list. Flavorful and cold, it is the perfect treat for a hot summer day, or any day for that matter.

"DM" (pronounced Dee – Em)

There are nothing like abbreviations and acronyms within the Tucson slang to confuse newcomers to the town. Just start throwing them around in a conversation and you're sure the uninitiated will be totally lost within seconds. One of the big ones in the Tucson lingo is "DM." So what is it? Is it some big employer in town (like IBM), a neighborhood or area (like "the OC" in California), or some government organization (like the FBI or the CIA)? Turns out its all three – "DM" refers to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, which occupies a pretty large chunk of Tucson and is one of the largest employers in the area. One of the other being another abbreviation, "U of A" or "UA" (University of Arizona), but that one's a little easier to figure out.

"Bear Down"

Speaking of the University of Arizona, Tucson is simultaneously a military town (thanks to DM – see #7 above) and a college town. Glancing at the local paper, you might think you were reading a college newspaper since most of the sports section seems to be dominated by the UA athletic teams. Lacking any professional sports organizations, Tucsonans have had to pretty much turn to the UA by default if they are looking for local teams to support. If you go to any UA sporting events, you will see and hear the Tucson term "Bear Down" quite a few times – there's even a gym on campus that "bears" the name. But the UA teams are known within the Tucson local lingo as the Wildcats, so what's up with all this talk of bears? The phrase originated in the 1920s when a popular UA athlete was injured in a car accident and he told his coach during a hospital visit to encourage his football teammates to "Bear Down." This is one of those slang phrases that has simply stuck with city and its natives ever since.

"Ajo" (Ah-ho)

No, it's not "Ay-joe" as many out-of-towners may think. It's just one of many roads, streets and subdivisions that, like a lot of the flora and fauna in the region, have Spanish names whose pronunciations in the original Tucson local language are tricky for English speakers. Other major thoroughfares with Spanish names include: "Tanque Verde" (Tank-ah Ver-dee), "Escalante" (Es-cuh-lan-tay) and "Naranja" (Nah-ron-ha). One road that seems to give out-of-towners fits but it's not Spanish lingo: "Houghton Road" (How-ton).

"Rocky Point" or "Puerto Penasco" (Pu-wert-o Pen-yas-co)

You'll hear locals talk about the beaches and the seafood at both of these places, and you'll wonder where they're located. It turns out that they're both in Mexico, and they're actually the same place. It's kind of like Peking/Beijing and Bombay/Mumbai – there's the name of a foreign city that English speakers use, and there's the real name. Rocky Point is a bit of a mistranslation from the original name in the Tucson local language, Puerto Penasco (literally Rocky PORT, not POINT), and it's the closest ocean access point for Tucson. While the beaches of San Diego are about a six-hour drive away, you can get to Rocky Point in about half that time. There's a border crossing involved, and Americans need a passport now to travel to Mexico, but many Tucsonans are more than willing to do whatever it takes to get away from the desert heat and spend some time at the ocean, and no matter how you say it, Rocky Point/Puerto Penasco is their closest option.

"But at least it's a dry heat."

You can find this Tucson slang on t-shirts and bumper stickers all over the place, and you'll hear it immediately after, "Yeah it's 107 degrees . . . ." I guess the heat is supposed to be more bearable since there's usually nearly zero humidity in the air, but my oven creates a dry heat and the food seems to cook just fine in there! However, I still find myself saying it when I try to explain to my East Coast friends and relatives how I can stand living in this place.

That's a starting point if you're planning on spending some time in Tucson and want to be able to speak the "Tucson local language" like a native. So, if it's monsoon season, and the swamp cooler isn't handling its job, and even the saguaros and the javelinas look thirsty, Bear Down and head over to Eegees on Ajo, Houghton, or over by DM for some refreshment. And if that doesn't work, you can take a trip to Rocky Point/Puerto Penasco. And just remember, it's a dry heat!

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