When I was in fourth grade, a classmate called me a “human dictionary” because I was good at spelling. Looking back on this, I should have been offended, but as a nerdy fourth grader, I took it as a compliment.
But after moving to New Orleans, I have found my classmate was wrong because I am nowhere near human dictionary status. As a writer and editor, I tend to think I’m pretty good with the English language, but I have recently encountered a few puzzling words and phrases that I have had to Google.
Below are the words I've wondered about or looked up. To a New Orleans lifer, the words will be quite obvious, but if you're a fellow New Orleans transplant, I hope this list helps you around the city. Think of it as a fun vocabulary lesson; I promise these words will be more interesting than the ones you had to learn in fourth grade.
- Lagniappe: The word lagniappe (pronounced LAN-yapp) is ALL OVER New Orleans. I have looked up the definition twice just to make sure I understand it. According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, lagniappe is “a small present given to a customer with a purchase.” More broadly, it means “something given or obtained gratuitously or by way of good measure.” Neworleansonline.com defines it as “something extra.” It’s a word mainly used in Southern Louisiana and Mississippi, which made me feel better because now I understand why I had never heard it before. Its regional usage also explains why the word is often used in marketing for local businesses, such as Copeland's and its Copeland's Lagniappe Club.
- Neutral ground: In other cities, the neutral ground is known as the median, the strip of grass or cement running down the middle of a road. According to the The Big Easy Dictionary, a helpful little tool for New Orleans newbies, neutral ground “got its name from early New Orleans when the French and Spanish could do business between sections of the city standing on the ‘neutral ground.’”
- Y’all: This is an easy one, but it’s created some stress in my life. For a Southerner, “y’all” is the plural version of you. As a Northerner, however, I am partial to “you guys.” I have struggled with this short phrase recently because I keep thinking “Should I say y’all to fit in?” “Are people judging me when I say 'you guys?'" "What if I’m talking to a group of girls? Will they understand why I still say 'you guys?'" I can’t bring myself to say y’all yet. As a Northerner for 23 years, "you guys" is ingrained in me and I don’t know if I’m ready to give it up yet. Maybe some day you will hear me say "y’all," but it’s going to take some time to let go of "you guys."
- The Quarter: This seems especially obvious, but it's worth noting. I have learned that New Orleans residents call the French Quarter "The Quarter," while tourists call it the French Quarter. It’s kind of like how people in DC call the subway the Metro, but people in Boston call it the T. They’re all talking about the same thing, but natives have a very specific term for their own city and only outsiders get it wrong. It's the subtleties that separate the locals from the tourists.
- Throw: My colleagues sometimes talk about “throws.” I had no idea what they were talking about when I first moved here, but I have since learned that a throw is what is thrown (not sure why I didn’t understand this) in Mardi Gras parades. For those who have never experienced Mardi Gras in New Orleans (like myself), throws range from plastic cups to beads to doubloons, according to mardigrasneworleans.com.
- Who Dat: If you come to New Orleans and don't know anything about the city's lingo, make sure you at least know what Who Dat means. It's the cheer of the New Orleans Saints, but it seems to be a cheer for New Orleans in general. It's shortened from the phrase "Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?" but that's kind of long, so I like to stick with the two-syllable Who Dat. It's the perfect example of New Orleans phrases you won't hear anywhere else.
And just in case you want to read about some more New Orleans terms… The sites listed below have longer lists than mine. They're the perfect study guides to the Big Easy.