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Arts & Culture

New Orleans Speak: Key Words and Phrases

Everyone who watched the Saints beat the, well, who cares, at the Superbowl heard the infamous, “Who Dat!?” over and over and over. Who what?

I arrived in this city the weekend the Saints won the NFC championship. I had two weeks to acclimate myself to living in a new city with a winning football team before the Superbowl. I hadn’t been in this city during the regular season and didn’t yet understand the Saints history or the language of New Orleans that accompanied it.

At the risk of sounding like an idiot by asking what people were shouting in exclamation, I Googled “Who Dat.” Yes, I Googled it. In private. Turns out “Who Dat,” according to Wikipedia, has been around for a long, long time, starting in minstrel shows and vaudeville acts, being claimed by the Saints in the early 1980’s. And let me tell you, when in a crowd of Saints’ fans, which means basically being in New Orleans, nothing can stop the bubbling forth of “Who Dat?!”. It’s infectious. As a newcomer, it feels like “Who Dat?!” is more than the Saints, and the Saints are more than a football team. It’s all about civic pride and joy. People who live here, love here.

The same weekend the Saints won the Superbowl, I moved from my temporary apartment in the Lower Garden District to my home Uptown, just a block down from the local favorite Dirty Coast, a fabulous t-shirt place that illustrates all insider New Orleans phrases, attitudes, jokes and must-knows, including my first ever Saints’ shirt. I felt this was a place to help newcomers understand the strange language that accompanies living in New Orleans.

What did I learn from Dirty Coast?

Directions. When I was looking for an apartment, I kept using directions like the rest of the world uses: north, south, east, west. Not here. We say Upriver or Uptown, Downriver or Downtown, Riverside and Lakeside. The city is shaped by the bend in the river, and the streets follow its path too. If you are driving, opt for a GPS.

In New Orleans, this is a very familiar greeting, “Where y’at?“, a simple phrase that means a lot too: “Hello, what are you doing, where are you, how are you, what’s your state of mind?” It’s close in meaning to “What’s up?” but definitely a N’awlins original. “Y’at” is even used to describe someone who lives in New Orleans. And Dirty Coast has great “y@” stickers too.

Aside from Dirty Coast breathing life into our verbal fluff, I have a few additional favorites, like the common street greeting of “Hey, baby.” I love hearing it, especially from a stranger. It’s a term of immediate endearment. It means, all at once, “Hi, how are you, you look nice today, thank you for smiling at me, isn’t it a lovely day, and a wonderful place that we live in?” All those things, just two little words.

Y’heard?” is pronounced in one grunt: “yerrrd”. It means, “Do you understand what I’m saying” or “Got it?”

Listening to someone pronounce street names is a tourist give-away . Tchoupitoulas is pronounced “chop-uh-too-lus”. Calliope is pronounced “cal-ee-ope”. If you say Calliope with the “ee” sound at the end, no one will know what you are talking about. And my favorites: Burgundy is “bur-GUN-dee”, emphasis on the “gun”; and Chartres is “char-ters.”

Last but not least, you must know the terminology for ordering your po-boy just how you want it. Dressed means you want it with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. Pickles and onions are optional. A dressed po-boy from Domilise’s, Crabby Jacks or Parasol’s will treat you just right.

Now that you know the lingo, be prepared when it goes a little like this: “Hey, baby. Where y’at?” You respond, “Fried shrimp po-boy, dressed, with pickles.” She hands you your po-boy, wrapped in crisp, white paper, overflowing the perfect crispy bread, and as you walk out the door, several patrons shout out, “Who Dat?!” and suddenly you don’t feel so New to the Orleans. Y’heard?

Native Kansan Sunny Dawn Summers has been oversharing since grade school, giving extraordinary breath to ordinary air. She currently resides in New Orleans, the land of accidental muses.

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