Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I say drinking fountain. You say bubbler

While reading a short excerpt of fiction, I stumbled over a phrase. I had no idea what it meant. Was it a bit of teenage slang? Was it a saying spoken only in remote parts of Wisconsin? No idea. Regardless, I was confused, and a writer shouldn't confuse readers.

So where do we draw the line at using bits of dialect?

I grew up in Arizona, and moved to Rhode Island when I was twenty-two. I thought, hey, it can't be all that different. I'm still in the US...Wrong. I can still hear my roommate's guffaws when I told her I was going to Worcester (Wore-sess-ter). New Englanders say (Woo-stuh). It was merely the tip of the language barrier.

I called the main roads freeways. Here they call them highways (because they aren't free). I also called our freeways THE 202, THE 10, THE 101, but in New England it's just 95. I said hella cool, they say wicked cool. Things of this nature are a preference. If I said freeway, people would laugh, but they understood what I meant. And everyone knows a sub, a grinder and a hoagie are all the same thing. (At least I hope so)

Then there are the terms that everyone doesn't know. Do you know what a quahog is? (And it is NOT a city Family Guy fans) It is a large clam found only in this area. And I'll never forget when a woman asked me, "You gotta bubbler?" The way she spoke made it sound like an infectious disease. However, a New England translator informed me a bubbler is a drinking fountain. I am also embarrassed to admit that I thought the package store, or packie, was a place to mail packages and not purchase liquor.

In writing, you can make your characters more believable by using some regional dialect. In fact, I wouldn't write about a place without knowing some of the local lingo. If your protagonist is a girl from Arizona driving 202, I wouldn't buy it. It just doesn't sound right without THE. On the other hand, when using obscure terms like "quahog", you need to make sure the meaning is explained in context, otherwise your readers will spend the rest of the book trying to figure out what the hell one is and miss your story.

So what are some of your local terms? Please share and state your location. And if anyone is writing a book set in New England or the Southwest, let me know. I would be happy to help.


jjdebenedictis said...


This is basically a dead term. It was used by my grandfather and his generation in a fairly localized region of the Canadian prairies. Being a bit of a word geek, I always thought it was cool to know a piece of slang that had virtually disappeared.

Oh--what does it mean? If you imagine a crate that has weakened at the joints, so that it slumps into the shape of a trapezoid rather than being square, that crate is yaw-yeed.

Rachel Menard said...

JJ. I have to say that is one I have NEVER heard. But it is a good one. I'll definitely use it next time I encounter a lopsided crate. :)