Because the United States is a massive nation with 3.8 million square miles and 50 distinctive states, the way that people talk around the country is going to vary. And we’re not just talking about accents, of course. We’re talking about the idioms and peculiar phrases of regional dialects.
No area of the U.S. is immune to its own slang, even if they think they might be. Someone from New York will have a completely different dialect than someone from California. Heck, even people from big cities and small towns talk differently. But few regions have as many unique phrases and slang terms as the Midwest.
Yes, the Midwest. The home of swing states, ranch dressing on everything, and some of the friendliest folks in the world. This block of states perhaps has some of the most charming slang you’ll ever hear.
Most of America calls a watering station a water fountain or drinking fountain. Not Wisconsinites! They call it a “bubbler.” This fun phrase has since spread to neighboring states like Minnesota, where about one-third of locals use the term and most at least recognize it.
What people in other parts of the country see as a dangling preposition, Midwesterners see as a friendly invitation. “I’m going to the grocery store, want to come with?” Why say “me”? Everyone knows you’re already going anyway.
Perhaps one of the most stereotypical Midwestern phrases, “dontcha know” is truly something folks in Minnesota say. What does it mean? Nothing! But it’s pretty useful for emphasis, dontcha know?
This isn’t really something Midwesterners say, but rather something they don’t say. Helping verbs like “to be” are often omitted to make shorter sentences. For instance, “The dishes need to be washed” can transform into “The dishes need washed.” Similarly, you can also say things like, “My car needs fixed” or “My hair needs cut.”
Photo Modified: Wikimedia Commons/ Ragesoss . CC BY-SA 3.0
Remember playing the game Duck, Duck, Goose as a child? Sure you do. Almost everyone does. And almost everyone calls it the exact same thing. Except, of course, for Minnesotans, who call the game “Duck, Duck, Gray Duck.” The gameplay is exactly the same, but before the chase phase, the person who is selected as “it” is labeled as a gray duck instead of a goose.
Going on a roadtrip? Hop on the expressway! What other parts of the country call the highway, freeway, or interstate, people in Chicago and other areas in the Midwest refer to as the expressway. It makes sense when you think about it — you’re traveling express.
Going to exercise before work? Throw on your gym shoes if you’re in the Midwest. What other areas of the country call sneakers or tennis shoes are referred to by their actual use in the Midwest. You’re wearing those Nikes to the gym, aren’t you? They’re your gym shoes. Meanwhile, those heels are your dress shoes and those slippers are your house shoes.
In parts of the Midwest, people call that little fabric and rubber circle (aka, a hair tie) you use for ponytails a hair binder. You’re binding your hair together, not tying it together. Get it together, rest of the country!
What is known as a casserole to the rest of the country is called “hotdish” in the Midwest. This meal is immensely popular in the region, thanks in part to the frequently frigid weather. The exact ingredients can be tinkered with, but beef, green beans, corn, and a can of cream of mushroom soup make for a solid, standard base. Then comes the important part: topping the dish with cheese and, more often than not, tater tots.
Want to know how Midwesterners are friendlier than you? Look no further than “Jeet?” You see, they want to know how you’re doing, so they’ll check up on you. Part of that led to this unintentional slang term that combines the question “Did you eat?” into one word. As in, “Jeet this morning?”
Used mainly in Minnesota, this is a diverse sentence-starter that can end in numerous ways. A statement like, “Oh, for fun!” is used to express how enjoyable something is. Likewise, “Oh, for cute!” states how adorable something is.
When something small but silly, startling, or surprising happens, you’ll hear a Midwesterner blurt out a little “ope!” Somewhere between “oops” and “uh-oh,” this phrase is a charming exclamation is a guaranteed sign someone grew up in the Midwest.
Our friends from the United Kingdom and Australia might know the food “pasty” as a baked pastry filled with meat and vegetables (also called a “Cornish pasty”), but most of America knows this term as part of an exotic dancer’s wardrobe. Except, of course, for the Midwest (specifically Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan), where the filled pastry is also popular.
Fizzy, bubbly, flavored water is a standard in America, but what it’s called varies greatly. Is it soda? Coke? If you’re in the Midwest, the answer is “pop.” If you don’t want to sound like an outsider, remember this the next time you’re ordering drinks.
No, we’re not talking about foods to feed your dog. Puppy chow is made up of Chex cereal that is mixed with melted chocolate, peanut butter, and powdered sugar. This irresistible sweet snack is commonplace at children’s birthday parties and potlucks. If you’re in other parts of the country, perhaps you’ve heard it called “muddy buddies” or “monkey munch.”
There are approximately 100,000 different ways to say that you’re drunk. Wasted, hammered, smashed, pissed, and plastered, just to name a few. In the Midwest, if you’ve had a few too many Miller Lites, you’re “schnookered” or “schnockered.”
Another term prevalent mainly in Wisconsin, “stop and go light” is used to refer to a traffic light or traffic signal. In true Midwestern fashion, this is a slang term dictating exactly what an item does. Indeed, a traffic light tells you whether you should stop or go…
“Hey, can you sweep the living room?” In the Midwest, that doesn’t mean you should break out the broom. It means it’s time to vacuum up all that dust. Yes, “to sweep” and “to vacuum” and “sweeper” and “vacuum” are synonymous in Ohio and Indiana. Is it confusing? Sure. But it’s all about the context.
“Tough luck” and “tough cookies” may be more common in the rest of the U.S., but in the Midwest, responding to someone’s misfortune is all about tough tomatoes. And it works, when you think about it, under-ripe tomatoes are inedible and unappetizing. Meanwhile, tough cookies just need a bit of milk.
Adopted by Scandinavian-Americans from a similar phase of Norwegian origin, “uff da” (or huffda, uff-da, uffda, oofda, or numerous other spellings) is used to express sensory overload, as well as emotions like surprise, astonishment, exhaustion, relief, dismay, and almost anything else. Uff da! That’s a lot of uses!
What better way is there to say “yes” than an enthusiastic “You betcha!”? In the Midwest, there’s nothing heartier and more positive than this exclamation. Even if this phrase seems a little bizarre to you, it's nowhere near as baffling as some of the weirdest regional slang across America.
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