V: Language


             The popular folk-characterization of midwestern English as relatively bland and colorless is well-articulated by one of the laypeople interviewed in the educational video American Tongues(1986). The speaker, himself a midwesterner, says the language is "straight English" that comes "right out of the dictionary," and describes it further as having "no colloquialisms" and "no uniqueness." While such perceptions cannot be dismissed out of hand--they do, in fact, dictate the reality of many Americans--a great deal of empirical evidence suggests rather that the slang and other unconventional words and phrases used in the English of the Midwest help render it as interesting and distinctive as the English used anywhere in the United States.

            This distinctiveness, however, is often misrepresented by popular how-to manuals that purport to teach their readers "how to talk midwestern." The authors of such guides typically prescribe such folksy-sounding constructions as woulda, coulda, and shoulda (for 'would have', 'could have', and 'should have', respectively), or gonna, wanna, liketa, useta, and oughta (for 'going to', 'want to', 'like to', 'used to', and 'ought to'), or kinda and sorta ('kind of', 'sort of'). Other similar advice includes that the final syllable of Missouri and Cincinnati be pronounced "uh" rather than "ee," that the -ing of words like nothing, something, fishing, and working be replaced with -in' (nothin', somethin', fishin', workin'), and that speakers comment frequently on the changeability of the weather ("if you don't like the temperature, just wait 30 minutes"). Again, the linking of speech patterns like these to the Midwest constitutes a powerful cultural stereotype--and again, one that influences what many Americans believe to be true (because ideas grounded in illusion are just as powerful as those grounded in fact), so it cannot be ignored--but the reality is that such features mark general stylistic informality rather than any specific regional dialect. Indeed, they occur so regularly throughout all colloquial American English that it is impossible to identify them even quantitatively with any one geographic area.
            The other major stereotype about midwestern speakers, particularly those who are older and rural, is that they describe life's circumstances almost entirely through the use of quaint aphorisms. He's the highest man on the totem pole and It's no skin off my nose, in fact, are often described as "midwestern folk sayings," as are Beggars can't be choosers, He's a wolf in sheep's clothing, There's more than one way to skin a cat, Don't count your chickens before they hatch, and a host of similar expressions. But once again, there is no empirical evidence to support this folk-perception. Some of these sayings may be more popular in the Midwest than in other places--He's the tallest hog at the trough, for example, is more likely to be heard in Illinois than in New Jersey or Arizona or Florida--but such proverbial wisdom is expressed in one form or another throughout American (as well as all other varieties of) English.
            What, then, is unique about midwestern English? If we accept that this variety of the language is actually a patchwork of overlapping subvarieties loosely identified with corresponding, overlapping sections of the Midwest (the Plains, the Upper Midwest, the Ohio and Upper Mississippi Valleys, the Eastern and Western Midwest, and so on), the answer is a great deal indeed. According to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), many older speakers especially may describe a torrential rainfall as raining pitchforks and nigger babies in the Eastern and Central Midwest (elsewhere in the country, such downpours are variously described as raining pitchforks and bullfrogs, pitchforks and darning needles, pitchforks and sawlogs, pitchforks and grindstones, and pitchforks and barn shovels). When someone fails, does poorly, grows weak or tired, or backs out of an agreement, he or she is often said to poo(h) out in the Northern and Eastern Midwest (this may be a variation of the more common poop out). And chiefly in those states bordering the Mississippi River, the slippery elm tree (Ulmus rubra) and white elm tree (Ulmus americana), both of which, when cut or burned green, spew copious amounts of sap--is called a Piss elm (with elm sometimes pronounced as two syllables, ellum).
            Again according to DARE, if something such as a tree or a building is tipping or slanting or out of plumb in much of the Eastern Midwest, speakers may describe it as leaning toward Fisher's (the same building or tree in Indiana may also be leaning toward Cooper's; elsewhere in the country it is leaning toward Perkins's, leaning toward Jones's, or leaning toward Sawyer's). A once-popular children's game in which a long stick was used to flip up and then hit a shorter stick was called knick-knock between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. A large sum of money can be referred to as the bucks or big bucks (as in, "John just got a new job; he's really in the bucks now") everywhere except the southern half of Kansas and Missouri. And the freshwater clam Fusconaia flava is known in the Upper Mississippi Valley as a pigtoe, and in the Ohio Valley as an Ohio River pigtoe.
            The diverse subcultural interests and lifestyles of Midwesterners are everywhere reflected in their language. From the many on-line dictionaries and glossaries that chart the evolution of such subcultures and lifestyles, we can learn that cyclists use pooch polo to describe the swinging of a frame pump to dissuade a pursuing dog. Mud duck occurs among members of adolescent street gangs to characterize an unattractive female (the phrase should not be confused with the mud duck used elsewhere in the Midwest as well as farther south and east, which refers to any of a variety of ducks otherwise known as coots). Many older gay males in the Midwest describe their peers' backsides with spare tire. Drug dealers and users, especially in the larger urban areas of the Central Midwest, often use 222 to refer to methamphetamine, and Joe Friday(s) to refer to one or more Quaaludes (known more widely as Ludes; according to the Indiana Prevention Resource Center at Indiana University, Joe Friday derives from 714 being both the numeric code imprinted on Quaalude tablets and the badge number of the eponymous character from the popular old television series Dragnet).
            It is almost impossible to know how current such terminology is, however. One of the hallmarks of slang is that, as a linguistic fad, it tends to be ephemeral, and this is especially true of the slang used by subcultures engaged in illicit or socially unacceptable activities. The members of these subcultures must often communicate with one another while simultaneously concealing their activities from the authorities, potential marks, or society at large; thus they have a vested interest in keeping their specialized language a secret. None of the terms cited in the previous paragraph appear in any of several of the most comprehensive dictionaries of modern American slang, including the Dictionary of American Slang, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. By the time they are included in future editions, they will most likely have become obsolete, at least among the groups that used them originally.
            The currency of slang and other unconventional language used by broader cross-sections of midwesterners is often easier to document, though establishing the precise sociocultural origins of such words can still be difficult.  Most, in fact, are probably lost to history, though some can be traced most immediately to the East and West Coasts. Cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have long been recognized as trendsetting hubs of creation in the worlds of fashion and hairstyle; less well-known is that they often serve as progenitors of linguistic fads as well. In the late 1980s, doughnuts was being used to mean 'dollars' on the West Coast; but by the early 1990s the term had migrated inward at least as far as the central Midwest, where it was adopted as a sign of being "cool" by many college students (who then abandoned it by the mid-1990s, the word by then presumably having lost its luster of chic). Similarly, three-tie in much of the East Coast business world in the early 1980s referred to a person wearing suspenders and a tie. The term quickly fell out of use, but it was discovered it again within a few years on college campuses from central Ohio to eastern Kansas.

            Some midwestern folk speech is directly traceable to ethnic settlement patterns. Chiefly throughout many heavily German-settled areas of the Midwest, for example, liver sausage (a translation of the German Leberwurst) is used to describe the food known elsewhere as braunschweiger, liverwurst, or hog-head sausageKlatch, also sometimes spelled clatch, clotch, clutch, glutch, klatsch, klot(s)ch, or klutch, is a verb that means 'to participate in a coffee gathering' (another translation, from the German Klatsch, or 'gossip', the word is known more commonly in the phrase coffee klatch, which refers to a gathering that features coffee and conversation). Schnickelfritz (also with many variant spellings, but most often shnickelfritz and snicklefritz) can be used to describe a rowdy or mischievous child (the etymology of the word is uncertain, but is believed to involve the German Schnickel/Schniggle, for 'little boy's penis', and the common German name Fritz, which passed into general usage during World War I after the military began using it as a derogatory slang term to describe anything or anyone German). Especially in Minnesota and Wisconsin, which are areas known to have been heavily settled by the Scandinavians, porridge or pudding that has cream as the principal ingredient is called rommegrot (the Norwegian word is rømmegrøt, or 'cream porridge'). And in those many French-settled regions primarily west of the Mississippi River, from Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas to Missouri and eastern Kansas, the terms pomme blanche, pomme de prairie, and/or pomme de terre (literally 'white apple', 'prairie apple', and 'ground apple', respectively) can refer to the edible tubers of the plant Psoralea esculenta (known more commonly as the Breadroot Scurf Pea), and sometimes to the plant itself.

            Of course Midwesterners have also created their share of unconventional English by adapting to new purposes words and phrases already in the language (as with three-tie and doughnuts, mentioned above). This is especially true of midwestern adolescents, who, like their peers everywhere, are the foremost originators and users of such language as the natural result of attempting to exert their autonomy from adult authority and mark the boundaries of their age-defined group. In the 1980s, students at TheOhio State University appear to have coined, among many other terms, junior ('an odd person'), Russell ('one who teases severely'), sport ('to lend money'), sugardale bologna ('bad breath'), W. C. Steakhouse ('a person lacking a suntan'), and zovrako syndrome ('the condition of having an unzipped fly'). These words and phrases are no longer as popular as they once were--many, in fact, no longer seem to be used at all--but most could be heard on larger college campuses in the Central Midwest at least through the mid-1990s.
            A great deal more remains to be done in the recording of midwestern slang and folk speech (as well as in how that slang and folk speech are perceived, both inside and outside the Midwest, and how those perceptions affect the way Midwesterners and their language are treated), but the research so far has revealed that this language is anything but plain. Its vitality and complexity mirror the vital and complex needs of its users, and because those needs are changing constantly, so too is the language. In fact, the only certainty concerning the slang, metaphors, and other unconventional turns of phrase used in the Midwest is that they will continue to remain as interesting as the people who use them.


Thomas E. Murray
Kansas State University
American Tongues, Center for New American Media (1986); Frederic G. Cassidy, ed., Dictionary of American Regional English, vol. 1 (A-C, 1985); Frederic G. Cassidy and Joan Houston Hall, eds., Dictionary of American Regional English, vols. 2 (D-H, 1991) and 3 (I-O, 1996); Robert L. Chapman, ed., Dictionary of American Slang (1998); Stuart Berg Flexner, I Hear America Talking (1976); Stuart Berg Flexner, Listening to America (1982); Stuart Berg Flexner and Anne H. Soukhanov, Speaking Freely: A Guided Tour of American English from Plymouth Rock to Silicon Valley (1997); J. E. Lighter, ed., Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, vols. 1 (A-G, 1994) and 2 (H-O, 1997); Eric Partridge and Paul Beale, eds., A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th ed., 1984).