Your Guide to the Unique Vocabulary of New Orleans
If you’ve ever spent an appreciable amount of time in New Orleans (or even just watched a movie/show set here), you’ve probably noticed that people down here have a very particular style of speech, not to mention a quirky and lovable local vocabulary. And you’ve probably been hugely confused by it. The distinctive, Brooklyn-by-the-way-of-Mississippi-Delta way that many folks down here speak is one of the city’s many charms, so here’s a handy field guide.
A general greeting, not necessarily “where are you?” geographically, but a more philosophical “where are you?” in life, and an inquiry into your general well-being and state of mind. Also, this phrase is crucial in defining a certain aspect of New Orleans culture and its people, known colloquially as “Yats,” and their/our distinctive brand of elocution is known as “yatspeak.”
A way of saying “all right,” though this is often used as a greeting and not necessarily the answer to questions. Sometimes you can say “hi!” to a New Orleanian, and they’ll give you “awrite!” even though you didn’t specifically inquire about how they’re doing (or “where dey at”). Similarly, you can express salutations to someone by simply nodding, smiling, and saying “Awrite!”
To shop for and purchase ingredients at a store, particularly at “Da Rouse” (Rouses Markets) or Dorignac’s, in Metairie.
Very sadly, Schwegmann's grocery store “ain’t dere no mo,” but longtime natives still use the size of their shopping bags as a general unit of measurement. To wit: “We got four Schwegmann's bags of crawfish down by my mama’s!”
“Don’t eat the dead ones”
Many locals urge friends to avoid consuming boiled crawfish with straight tails, because popular opinion holds that they were dead before they hit the boiling water, and hence not fit to be eaten (crawfish are traditionally boiled alive). Science is dubious on the issue, but some local chefs still claim that, boiled dead or alive, crawfish with curled tails are simply tastier.
An avocado. There’s no wholly accepted explanation for the name, but with the vaguely crocodilian skin on some avos and their distinctly pear-like shape, it doesn’t take a huge mental leap.
The inspection certificate for your automobile. True, “brake tags” cover turn signals, lights, the horn, and other important parts of your ride, but New Orleanians are strangely focussed on the car’s stopping ability. At least semantically. They sure as hell aren’t concerned with their turn signals, as anyone who’s driven in NOLA will tell you.
“I agree with what you are saying, or what you have just stated.” Also, a way to make sure a person isn’t jesting with you, by inquiring whether or not what they’ve told you is “f’troo?”
The plastic receptacle in which you place your drink -- usually an alcoholic beverage -- when you leave a bar or restaurant to continue your journey elsewhere. Drinking in the out-of-doors is legal in NOLA and often encouraged, although doing so from a glass bottle is not, hence the need for go-cups.
A particular shade of the light spectrum known fondly by NOLA natives, as it was once the iconic brand of the (sadly) defunct grocery store and pharmacy chain, K&B.
The federal flood(s)
This refers to the great New Orleans disaster of 2005, which began with a hurricane (we do not like to utter the “K-word”), but really got nasty when the levees -- improperly constructed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers -- breeched and let all that terrible water in. Ten years on, and it’s still a delicate issue here. Tread lightly.
A cheer for the New Orleans Saints, the city’s beloved NFL team. While the full chant goes “Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?! Who dat! Who dat!” the shortened “Who dat!” is more of an emphatic expression of team love and support rather than an interrogative. The only acceptable responses, should someone shout “Who dat!” in your direction, are “Who dat!” and “Yeah you rite!” Fans of the Cincinnati Bengals use a similar term, “Who dey,” which is about as strange to New Orleanians as Cincinnati chili with cinnamon served on spaghetti with shredded cheddar cheese. Seriously, they do that there. It’s weird as hell.
Yeah you rite!
“You are indeed correct, my friend.” Used often as a way of agreeing with someone’s opinions, especially when it comes to the New Orleans Saints (see above). Also employed when a band or musician is just killing it in a live performance.
A dear friend, generally someone you grew up with or have great affection for. The term originates from the city’s various “wards,” i.e., neighborhoods or “faubourgs.” If you were raised with someone in the same “whoad,” they are your “whoadie.” But it can also refer to a close friend, regardless of where that person was reared.
A dragonfly, also known as a “mosquito hawk.” Because they eat mosquitos, don’t they? And never swat them, as doing so is considered bad luck.
Ordering a po-boy, hamburger, or other sandwich “dressed,” means that it will contain lettuce (usually shredded iceberg), sliced tomatoes, pickles, and a healthy amount of “my-nez.”
“Did you acknowledge and/or recognize what I have just said?” Additionally, “Do you agree with my opinion on this subject?” Example: “Dat girl be crazy, y’errm?” “Yeah you rite.”
A New Orleans-style Italian salad often containing the same kind of “olive salad” used to dress a muffaletta sandwich. Though the term is offensive and derogatory to Italian-Americans (the word originating from an Italian dialectical term for “thug”), oddly enough, many Italian-Americans in New Orleans do not find it so, and continue to order “wop salads” to this day. Good luck finding it on a menu, though.
The cardinal directions of New Orleans, as the city is wedged in a crescent shape between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, and standard directions often tend not to apply to the city’s layout. For instance, you actually drive east to get to the West Bank. If you tell a local to “head north,” they will have no idea what you’re talking about. Tell them to “head toward the lake,” and they’ll immediately understand.
The New Orleans term for the grassy median strip between the two sides of an avenue, where the streetcars roll. There is some history there.
Neutral ground side, sidewalk side
The respective sides of a boulevard, particularly when it comes to Mardi Gras parades. If you have a friend in a Carnival krewe, they will let you know their position by indicating its number, where they are situated on the float itself, and what side of the street they are facing, i.e., “I’m on float number six, third one from the back, sidewalk side.”
Throw me somethin’, mistah!
“Please, kind sir, would you toss some Mardi Gras beads, doubloons, or trinkets in my direction? I would be ever so thankful!” The official chant of the Carnival masses.
A traditional style of New Orleans architecture, in which the layout of a house or apartment flows uninterrupted from the front door, through the homestead, to the back door, often on a single story. New Yorkers and others might know this as a “railroad.” Legend has it, the term originated from the fact that, in this kind of abode, one could fire a shotgun through the front door and have the pellets arrive somewhere in the backyard, without hitting anything. We do not advise testing this out.
A shotgun house with a second story built upon the rear section, making it resemble a dromedary (at least architecturally speaking).
The French Quarter. The term isn’t as common these days -- most locals refer to that iconic neighborhood as “The Quarter” -- but it's still in use, particularly by people of a certain generation and from certain areas, like “Da Parish.”
Louisiana famously does not have counties, but instead uses the term “parish,” in reference to the longstanding ties of this part of the country and its people to Catholicism and "Catlicks." “Da Parish” generally refers to St. Bernard Parish, and often specifically to the city of Chalmette, east of New Orleans.
A person from Chalmette, in Da Parish.
Pronounced “LAN-yap,” this is an old French term for receiving a little bit extra for free, like the 13th donut in a baker’s dozen.
A favorite summertime treat and cousin to the sno-ball, a “hucklebuck” is simply frozen Kool-Aid in a Dixie cup. It’s all pretty simple: take a cup of Kool-Aid, throw it in the freezer. When it’s done, you just need to loosen the frozen block from the sides, pop it out, and flip it upside-down back in the cup. That way you can enjoy both the cooling treat, and clean, non-sticky hands.
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Scott Gold is a New Orleans writer who considers this city to be his whoadie. Follow him at @ScottGold.