Regional U.S. Slang Words You Should Know
English may be the official language of the United States, but each of its 50 states prides itself on having its own colloquialisms — thanks to the country’s melting pot heritage and multiplicity of languages and cultures. That cultural mix has resulted in some interesting twists on everyday words. Here are 12 fascinating regional slang words you’ll hear throughout the U.S. and where they came from.
If you want to talk like a true Mainer, the first word to learn is "ayuh," an informal way of saying "yes" or indicating your agreement to a statement. One of the regional slang words most strongly associated with the Down Easter accent of Maine’s eastern coastal region, saying “ayuh” out loud can sometimes stump tourists who didn’t grow up speaking it. It’s pronounced somewhat like “ey-yeah” (not “eye-yuh”). Maine’s most famous native, Stephen King, set many of his stories in fictional Maine towns and gave his characters real Maine accents, helping to introduce readers to expressions such as "ayuh."
If you're thirsty in Wisconsin, you'll head for the nearest “bubbler” — a slang word for a drinking fountain. Wisconsin NPR station WUMW investigated the origins of the term, but it turns out that no one really knows where the word came from. A popular theory (that has since been debunked) is that the word came from the Kohler company. As the story goes, an employee named Harlan Huckleby created a water fountain he dubbed the “bubbler” in 1888, and his employer, Kohler Water Works (now Kohler Company), patented his invention. However, there's no record of an employee at Kohler by that name or any patents from that time associated with the bubbler.
The most plausible theory about the word's origin involves water jugs used in one-room schoolhouses. Those jugs resembled modern-day water dispensers, which school children called "bubblers" at the time. The name may have carried over to modern use. Ironically, Kohler does make bubblers today — the company just calls them drinking fountains.
Cattywampus (Southern U.S.)
If someone tells you your tie looks a bit “cattywampus,” you'll need to straighten it up. "Cattywampus" is a Southern slang word meaning "off" or "askew." You may also see the word spelled as "caddywampus," although there's no consensus as to which is the right spelling. Similarly, the exact origins of the word, in use for about 200 years, are unclear. It may be a blend of the Scottish word "wampish," which roughly translates to "flopping about," and the colloquialism “catty corner” (“kitty-corner” in many parts of the country), meaning diagonally across. .
Gabagool (New Jersey)
You might want to know the meaning of this word if you're feeling hungry in New Jersey. "Gabagool" is what some New Jersey residents call Italian capicola, a smoked pork shoulder cut. You'll also often find capicola on the menu when you order deli sandwiches in nearby New York City. How did capicola become "gabagool"? It's largely due to passing down spoken language from one generation to the next. "Gabagool" is a language anachronism — a blend of Italy’s many regional dialects and the results of Italian immigrants hanging on to bits of their native language when they moved to America. It's what first-generation American kids heard when their Italian elders ordered capicola. Today, the term "gabagool" is cemented in Italian-American culture, heard on shows such as The Sopranos.
You can toss the word "jawn" in for just about any noun and be perfectly understood in Philadelphia. That's because "jawn" is a catch-all slang term for a person, place, or thing. The loose meaning of the word may be confusing to visitors — it has no equivalent in English or any other language. While strongly associated with Philly, the word likely originated in New York City instead. "Jawn" probably comes from the slang word "joint," a term used to describe a dining establishment. (For example, "That's a good burger joint.") When the word "joint" came to Philly, it morphed into "jawn," where it became a beloved part of local speech sometime in the 1970s or 1980s.
Packie (New England)
When someone tells you they are running to the “packie,” it's likely to cause confusion if you aren't a New England native. However, go ahead and put in your beer order, because “packie” is what many New Englanders (particularly those from Massachusetts) call the liquor store. You may also see the word spelled "packy," but it means the same thing. The slang word is a shortened form of the phrase "package store," a New England term for liquor store — a vestige of Prohibition, when buyers had to wrap everything purchased in liquor stores and couldn't display their purchases publicly. Officials later lifted the package laws, but the term (and its shortened version) stuck around.
“Yinz” is a regional version of the more well-known slang term "y'all." For Pittsburgh residents, it’s a way of saying "you ones" or "you all." There's some debate about whether this slang word is actually "yinz" or "yunz" — it can be either, depending upon whom you ask. The term likely originated from Scots-Irish settlers, who were the first Europeans to settle in Southwestern Pennsylvania in large numbers in the 18th century. According to popular belief, they used the term "you ones" to indicate a group of people, and that eventually shortened to "yinz."
In Boston (and other parts of New England), the word “wicked” often replaces “very” or “really.” It’s used for emphasis, like when something is “wicked cool” or someone is “wicked smart.” The true origin of using “wicked” as an emphatic adverb is lost to history, but there are some theories. It’s possible it evolved from the 13th-century terms “wicke” or “wicca” (as in witchcraft). It theoretically was used as a way to say something was cursed, making the weather “wicked” bad, for example. Some say that the witch trials in Salem only enhanced the usage.
You may know “dibs” as a general slang word to stake claim to something that’s yours, but in Chicago it refers to something very specific: reserving a parking spot in the winter with some sort of object. When it snows, Chicagoans who park on the street have to shovel all that snow out of the way so they can leave their spot. To prevent someone else from taking advantage of their hard work, Chicagoans will clear out their spot, then pull out just enough to throw a bunch of random stuff into the parking spot they just shoveled — think chairs, sawhorses, traffic cones, playhouses, wheelchairs, and even frozen pairs of pants. If someone ignores “dibs” items and parks in that spot, their car is likely to be vandalized. “Dibs” is a hotly debated subject in Chicago; some neighborhoods have outlawed it and others embrace it. It originated during the city’s 1967 blizzard, which dumped 23 inches of snow on Chicago.
“Grindz” (sometimes spelled “grinds”) is a Hawaiian slang term for food. It dates back to the mid-1800s and early 1900s, when different ethnic groups moved to Hawaii to work on sugar and pineapple plantations and had to learn how to communicate with each other. The resulting language was Hawaiian pidgin (also called Hawaiian Creole). “Grindz” is an all-purpose term used to refer to good food. If the food is extra delicious, one would say “ono grindz.”
The Big Ditch (Arizona)
If someone from Arizona says they’re going to spend the day at “the Big Ditch,” you can find them at the Grand Canyon. It may seem like a negative word, but Arizonans say it with fondness. It’s a lighthearted way to express how locals can often take for granted living next one of the world’s true natural wonders. While the nickname is common throughout Arizona, the exact origins and first usage of the term have been ditched in history.
Growing up in Utah, school children will get in trouble for “sluffing,” a regional slang term that refers to cutting class. The term derived from the phrase “sloughing off,” meaning to shed something or get rid of something. Technically, the students are just shedding a day from their attendance records. Coincidentally, “sluff” is also an avalanche term for when loose snow on top of a snowpack slides as a formless mass — another common occurrence in Utah.