Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Local Words of the Year for 2009

I saw a whole slew of lists highlighting the words of the year for 2009, and I just had to have one for City Dictionary. A few shout-outs to people and organizations that have already been working on this topic: Nancy Friedman, Wordnik, Merriam-Webster, New Oxford American Dictionary. Most lists include timely words, as in the following criteria taken from the American Dialect Society:
  • new or newly popular in 2009
  • widely or prominently used in 2009
  • indicative or reflective of the national discourse
I tried thinking of a word on City Dictionary that would fit even one of these criteria and only came up with meep, which had been banned during the current school year by Danvers High School. While this was a great word and a timely example of a word with local significance, City Dictionary isn't necessarily about the latest trends in vocabulary. The best words on the website are often the gems that have been around for decades without us, the majority of Americans, even knowing about them. So, for our Local Words of the Year, I simply picked five words of local significance that most Americans probably don't already know, words they will find interesting, and maybe (in the case of a few of them) words that are deserving of more widespread use (which will, of course, be out of my hands). Anyway, our Local Words of the Year are as follows, in no particular order:

polio water
As City Dictionary user QQgreenIZ puts it, polio water is Boston speak for a puddle of water. Another user calls it "stinky water from the gutters that mixes with garbage." Corroborating these definitions, in the book
All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, author Michael Patrick MacDonald writes, "the water in the gutter was called polio water, because it stank so bad from mixing with mud and garbage, and if you ever stepped into it you were branded for a whole day as the one with polio on your sneaker." He follows that definition with a story about someone "spilling more water into the gutter, making floods of polio water at the bottom of the street." The term must have originated from the harsh reality of the first half of the 20th Century when polio had not yet been eradicated. The poliovirus, which was spread through fecal-to-oral contact, was commonly found in sewage water, which suggests that polio water may have originated as a term with a truly literal meaning.

Slugging is a form of hitchhiking that has developed in the Washington, DC area that benefits both the hitchhiker and the driver. The concept is ingenious: 1) Form a line of passengers near the freeway, 2) hitch a ride from a car passing by to make a total of three or more passengers, and 3) take a ride on the freeway in the High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane and get to work quicker. Slugging in the DC area has become such an institution that there is even a website dedicated to local information on slugging, as well as the history of the term and the ins and outs of slugging etiquette. According to, the word "slug" originated from toll booth attendants who were warned of fake coins from commuters called "slugs". Then, in the 1970s, when people started to form lines to hitchhike and take advantage of the new HOV lanes, buses often stopped to pick these people up. Annoyed by the false bus riders, bus drivers became better at distinguishing between real bus patrons and the fake ones, whom were then deemed "slugs".

neutral ground
Neutral ground has three potential meanings in New Orleans. Most commonly referred to as a street's median in other parts of the country, neutral ground arose in New Orleans when Canal Street formed the barrier between the old French and Spanish parts of town and the newer American part. The median of Canal Street was considered the neutral part of town where people could trade, and was thus dubbed neutral ground. By extension, all street medians in New Orleans have become neutral ground in the everyday language of the locals. The term neutral ground was also used shortly after the Louisiana Purchase when the United States and then-Spanish Texas laid claim to land in Western Louisiana. To arrive at a temporary settlement, the two parties agreed to deem the land "neutral", giving rise to the term "neutral ground". The third meaning is decidedly less linguistic in nature, but stays true to the historical theme of this term. A City Dictionary user informed us that Neutral Ground is the name of New Orleans’ first coffeehouse.

The word "
sconnie" can mean anything relating to Wisconsin, or—when capitalized—"Sconnie" can refer to a person from Wisconsin. While the concept seems rather straightforward, very few people are in agreement as to where the word comes from and who actually uses it. On City Dictionary, people have documented use within Wisconsin and in neighboring states like Michigan and Minnesota, as well as far away places like Colorado and Hawaii. With that said, many naysayers within Wisconsin consider it a term that ought to be relegated to other-state obscurity. City Dictionary user madnick calls sconnie a "bogus term made up to sell t-shirts." He must be referring to Sconnie Nation, the Wisconsin lifestyle business started in a dorm room by two University of Wisconsin-Madison students. Sconnie Nation sells apparel with the Sconnie® brand (which the company has trademarked). The signature Sconnie t-shirt has become so popular at Wisconsin Badger sporting events that the national media has taken notice. During a SportsCenter broadcast in 2009, an ESPN anchor referred to the entire state of Wisconsin as Sconnie. Also, an article on ESPN’s website refers to the "beer-soaked Sconnie faithful" at a Badger game in 2008. This last reference plays right into Sconnie Nation’s message of Sconnie as representative of Wisconsin’s beer-centered culture. While some Wisconsinites resist, the word sconnie has secured its place in the local vernacular. What remains unclear, however, is exactly how widespread the word’s use really is.

meat raffle
Cultural staple of Minnesota, a
meat raffle often takes place in a bar and supports a local charity. Tickets are typically sold for $1 apiece, and the winners get—you guessed it—meat. The meat consists of any number of different cuts from the local butcher. Needless to say, if you are not from Minnesota—or from another Upper Midwestern state—meat raffles are probably far off your radar screen.

Note: Simonk01 on Twitter informed me that meat raffles take place in Britain. Also, after looking at the Wikipedia entry for meat raffle, I noticed that concept is called a meat draw in Northern Britain, and and meat tray in Australia and New Zealand.


If you have any other WOTY lists to share, please mention it in the comments.

Happy New Year!

Thomas from City Dictionary

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