Great Words

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When traveling across the United States, it sometimes feels like the locals are speaking a whole different language. That’s where the Dictionary of American Regional English comes to the rescue. The last installment of this staggering five-volume tome, edited by Joan Houston Hall, was published last month, and let me tell you, it’s a whoopensocker.

In celebration of slang, here’s a list of 19 delightful obscure words from around the U.S. that you’ll want to start working into conversation.

1. whoopensocker (n.), Wisconsin
You know when something’s wonderfully unique, but the words “wonderful” and “unique” don’t quite cut it? That’s why the Wisconsinites invented whoopensocker, which can refer to anything extraordinary of its kind—from a sweet dance move to a knee-melting kiss.

2. snirt (n.), Upper Midwest
A gem of a portmanteau, this word means exactly what it sounds like: a mixture of windblown snow and dirt. Also, for your linguistic pleasure, try out the adjective version: snirty.

3. slug (n. or v.), Washington, D.C.
In addition to describing that shell-less snail-looking creature, a “slug” describes a traveler who hitches a ride with someone who needs passengers in order to use a High Occupancy Vehicle lane. The verb form, “to slug,” refers to the act of commuting in that manner. In New Hampshire, to gee-buck means something similar: to hitch a ride on the back of someone else’s sleigh.

4. wapatuli, (n.), Wisconsin
Nearly everyone who has been to college in America has either concocted, or been an unfortunate victim of, wapatuli: a homemade alcoholic drink with any combination of hard liquors or other beverages—Mountain Dew, white wine and vodka, anyone? A wapatuli can also refer to the occasion at which that jungle juice is consumed.

In Kentucky, the (perhaps more onomatopoeically correct) word for terrible liquor is splo, while in the mid-Atlantic, whiskey—especially the moonshine variety—is ratgut.

5. arsle (v.), Kentucky, Virginia, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Arkansas
Depending on the state, this word can mean a few things—to fidget, to back out of a place or situation, or to loaf around restlessly—pretty much all of which describe my activities on an average Sunday afternoon. (In Maine, instead of arsling, I might putty around, and in Vermont, I’d pestle around, but either way, it still means not a whole lot is getting done.)

6. jabble (v.), Virginia
You know when you’re standing at your front door rifling through your purse for fifteen minutes because you can’t find your keys again? That’s because all the stuff in your purse got all jabbled up. This fantastic little word means “to shake up or mix,” but it can also be used less literally, meaning “to confuse or to befuddle.”

7. sneetered (v.), Kentucky
If you’ve ever been hoodwinked, duped, swindled, fleeced or scammed, you done been sneetered. The noun version, sniter, refers to that treacherous person responsible for your unfortunate sneetering. Also see snollygoster, a shameless, unscrupulous person, especially a politician.

8. slatchy (adj.), Nantucket
This lovely little word describes the sky during a fleeting moment of sunshine or blue sky in the middle of a storm. The noun version, slatch, refers to that moment itself.

9. snoopy (adj.), Maryland, Pennsylvania
A more interesting way of saying someone’s picky, especially with regards to food.

10. arky (adj.), Virginia
This word refers to Noah’s Ark, not to Arkansas, so if someone calls your style arky—old-fashioned, or out of style—you can accuse them of being an anti-antediluvianite. (Which, full disclosure, is not technically a word, but should you ever actually employ such a comeback, you will win like a million gold stars in Nerdland.)

11. faunch (v.), South Midlands, West
Meaning to rant, rave or rage, this fairly well describes what many Americans have been doing while watching cable news. (Also, try out the phrase, faunching angry, when describing the guy whose parking spot you just snaked.)

12. chinchy (adj.), South, South Midlands
Not as direct as “cheap,” and less erudite than “parsimonious,” this useful word perfectly describes your stingy friend who never chips in for gas.

13. larruping (adv.), Oklahoma, South Midlands
You know when food tastes so freakin’ delicious, but “yummy,” “scrumptious” and “tasty” just don’t do it justice? That’d be a good time to break out this fabulous word, used most often in the phrase “larruping good.”

14. mizzle-witted (adj.), South
This satisfyingly Dickensian word means “mentally dull,” but depending on where you are in the country, mizzle can also be used as a verb meaning “to confuse,” “to depart in haste” or “to abscond,” or as a noun meaning, “a very fine or misty rain.“ So, if you were a mizzle-witted burglar, you might break into a house, get mizzled, trip the alarm, and then mizzle with your loot into the mizzle. Sans raincoat.

15. burk (v.), Georgia, South
More fun than the word “vomit” and more polite than the word “fart,” this utilitarian verb describes both activities. Just be happy that if you’re in West Virginia, you don’t get the skitters—an Appalachian version of Montezuma’s revenge.

16. snuggy (n.) Iowa, Midlands
Those of us who grew up with older brothers are intimately familiar with what it is to suffer from a snuggy—a friendlier word for a wedgie.

17. jasm (n.), Connecticut
Meaning “intense energy or vitality,” the sentence provided in the dictionary was so good, I wanted to share it with you all, too: “If you’ll take thunder and lightening, and a steamboat and a buzz-saw, and mix ‘em up, and out ‘em into a woman, that’s jasm.”

18. mug-up (n.), Alaska
When Alaskans take a break from work, grab a pastry or a cup of joe, and gaze out at Russia, they’re enjoying a “mug-up”—their version of a coffee break.

19. bufflehead (n.), Pennsylvania (mountains)
You would have to be a real bufflehead if you didn’t think this word, meaning a fool or idiot, is not an awesome insult. Also, for your consideration, the related adjective buffle-brained.

Note: Many of these words have more than five different definitions, in addition to five different spellings, depending on the region—or even the region within the region—from whence they came. (There’s a reason there are five volumes!) To find out more about the Dictionary of American Regional English, the University of Wisconsin-Madison created a great website about the project.

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About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://rhymeswithplague.blogspot.com Bob Brague

    I think chinchy is a mispronunciation of chintzy, which, besides meaning “decorated with chintz” is related to another pejorative, tacky.

  • http://rhymeswithplague.blogspot.com Bob Brague

    I am 71 years old and have lived in the Southwest, the Midwest, the Northeast, and the South, and I have never heard any of the other words in your list. Speaking of portmanteau words (I wasn’t; you were), my grandsons in Alabama say ginormous all the time.

  • Joe Canner

    I just recently learned the #3 version of “slug” and I live 30 minutes from the DC metro area. I think it may be more common in the Northern Virginia suburbs of DC. I have also never heard the #9 version of “snoopy.”

    Bob, I agree on chinchy/chintzy. Also, we have “ginormous” here in the mid-Atlantic.

  • DaveAlan

    larruping –please remember when pronouncing this word that the ‘g’ is silent. And it’s more Arkansas than Oklahoma, but east Texans say it also. It’s just a good word.

  • Phillip

    In the little town where I grew up , Sparta, TN, a common greeting or exclamation of excitiment/approval was “Yert!”, often accompanied by pumping one’s arm (like pulling a horn on a big rig). As far as I can tell, it is unique to Sparta. It has been around much longer than I have, and no one seems to know the origin.

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    I grew up in Pennsylvania, and I’m recall a version of #4 that is much more descriptive: rather than in the mid-Atlantic, whiskey—especially the moonshine variety—is ratgut, the term is rotgut, because that’s what it does. It might be enough to scare someone off of it!

  • http://restoringsoul.blogspot.com Ann F-R

    erratum: “I’m recalling” or “I recall” (sigh)

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Ah yes.

    #9, snoopy, is well used in my youth. Though the even more obscure “nebby” means the same thing in my old neck of the woods. FYI – the national current day form of this seems to be “creepy” or “creeping”. My daughter does not want me to creep in her bedroom when she is away.

    And I agree with Ann F-R, it is rotgut as far as I am concerned.

  • scotmcknight

    Well, well, Mr. Bob Brague, I think that spelling in the article is the proper one, if it does not look quite like the word we pronounce.

    #5 comment is hilarious. “Yert!”

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    I must contribute the most beloved word of my youth, “yinz”. In the south it is you all, or ya’all, but in Pittsburgh and thereabouts it is yinz.

    Like yesterday, I remember running into a hut at Cedar point where they sell really big pickles out of the barrel, and yelling to my family something like “yinz com’in?”. And the girl behind the vat of pickles said “I bet you are from Pittsburgh!”. I was floored. Dad had to explain to me that yinz is not a real word.

  • Percival

    Got a snuggie once on a school bus in Eastern Iowa. It sure felt like a wedgie to me.

  • Jenny Islander

    A mug-up isn’t exactly a coffee break. It’s traditional to have a hot drink available to anyone who visits your home, and to sit down and talk over that hot drink without glancing at the clock. That’s a mug-up.

    In most of Alaska (we have a lot of climate zones, so local variations apply), there are five seasons: winter, break-up or mud-up, spring, summer, and fall. Break-up is when the river ice cracks and begins to go downstream. Mud-up is when ground that has been frozen solid for months turns into pulpy mud covered with flattened dead grass. Actual spring is usually not far behind.


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