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Terminology Specific to New Orleans Culture
It always helps to know some cultural expressions:
- Book: sometimes this means book, sometimes it means magazine or newspaper. The only way to know the difference is to understand the context in which the word is being said by whatever local is saying it. One time I was reading The Times Picayune and a little old lady approached me and respectfully asked if, once I was finished reading my "book", I could share it with her. At first I looked around, then realized she was referring to the newspaper in my hand.
- Camelback: House with a 1-story front section and 2-story rear. In the past, NO residents were taxed according to the dimensions of their street facades (not now).
- CBD: Central Business District. Back when I was living in New Orleans, this area was just starting to become hip and renovated. Nowadays, it's a thriving (albeit small) business area where converted warehouses are now restaurants, lofts, and attorneys' offices. Home to the SuperDome.
- Downtown: In NO, "Downtown" is anything on the French Quarter side of Canal Street. The other side is "Uptown". In the 19th century, "Downtown" was French while "Uptown" was American.
- Making Groceries: this is New Orleans speak for "grocery shopping"
- Neutral Ground: the grassy median of an avenue or boulevard. As mentioned, Canal Street used to be the boundary between the French and American sections of the city. Legend has it that a strip of muddy grass running down Canal came to be known as the "neutral ground" dividing these sections. You'll hear this word a lot.
- Parish: Most states have counties, but Louisiana has "parishes" which reflects how they initially began as actual church parishes.
- West Bank: the side of the Mississippi River opposite New Orleans, where Algiers and Gretna are located. The NO side of the river is the "East Bank", but people crossing over from the West Bank don"t refer to it as "going to the East Bank", they refer to it as "going into town".
Streetcars in the Neutral Ground
One of the first things we did on Saturday morning was go to an orientation talk where we had King Cake and learned about good deals and how the locals talk.
It took a little while, but I finally got used to calling them STREETCARS. Because they are NOT trolley cars. That's a GREAT faux pas (French for 'bad idea').
But there are other, less obvious specifically New Orleans idioms.
* Dressed = Sandwiches served with lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise i.e. -"the works"
* Makin' groceries = Buying groceries
* Neutral Ground. = Median or grassy area between the paved areas on a boulevard where the STREETCARS run. (4 pictures here)
* Parish - -Louisiana has Parishes not Counties.
* The Parish refers to Chalmette, a suburb outside New Orleans.
* Police Jury -- Like a City Council, but has more legal authority
* Twinspan = twin bridges connecting the Northshore at Slidell with New Orleans across Lake Pontchartrain.
* Uptown = Area "upriver" from the French Quarter
Here are some pronounciations:
* Banquett (ban' ket) = Sidewalk-- originally French meaning a small bank along the road
* Calliope Street (Cal' i ope) (The ope said like rope--no "e" heard) Don't ask where "Cal-lie-o-pea" is, nobody will understand what street you're looking for!
* Fais do-do (Fay' dough dough) = A Cajun dance party, after the children have gone to sleep
* Gris gris (gree gree) = Voo Doo good luck charm
* Lagniappe (lan' yap) = Something extra that you didn't pay for--thrown in to sweeten the deal--like a baker's dozen .
* Muffuletta (Moo Fa' lotta) = Round, fat sandwich filled with salami-type meats, mozzarella cheese, pickles, and olive salad. (Second picture)
* Pirogue (Pee' row) = Flat-bottom canoe
* Tchoupitoulas Street (Chop a two' les) (tricky to say AND spell)
* Vieux Carre' (Vooo ca ray') (View ca ray') French for "Old Quarter", this is a term used for the French Quarter including world-famous Bourbon Street
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Local Vernacular and Pronunciations
If you've never been to New Orleans before, one of the first impressions you'll have is how strange the New Orleans accent is.
Add to that some idiomatic expressions and words unique to New Orleans, and you'll find yourself in need of a dictionary.
The following words may help:
- Banquette (bank-et): from the French word which means a bench-but in NO speak, it means "sidewalk"
- Batcher (bat-sher): again, another French word (batture) which means the strip of land between the levee and the river
- Chawters: A wonderful street in the French Quarter. It's spelled the French way, "Chartres" - but don't dare to pronounce it as such. In fact, the only way to really know how such words are pronounced in New Orleans (note: they're not necessarily pronounced in the French way just because the word itself is French), is to hear it being pronounced by a native. Another example of street name pronunciations is "Burgundy". You'll want to pronounce it with the accent on the first syllable which is instinctive - but NO! Around New Orleans, you'll hear it being pronounced with the phonetic emphasis on the SECOND syllable, as in Ber-GUN-dee.
- Etouffee (eh-too-fay): This is interesting. In French, this word means "stuffed", but in New Orleans this is misleading. Shrimp or Crawfish Etouffee for example does not come stuffed with anything - in Louisiana, they actually transformed the French word "etuve" which means "stewed", so that's how you'll find your etouffee dishes in New Orleans.
- Lagniappe (lan-yap): means something extra, an unexpected treat. This is a strictly Louisiana word.
- Tchoupatoulas (Chop-a-tool-us): A riverfront street (outside of the French Quarter proper) which is actually spelled Tchoupitoulas, from the Choctaw word.
- Vieux Carre (voh- care-eh): French for "old square", and refers to the French Quarter. You'll often hear locals refer to the French Quarter mostly as just "The Quarter". Except they'll be pronouncing it like "Da Kwah-tuh".
Often you will see or hear the word Lagniappe while in New Orleans. This word is from Louisianan French, meaning a small gift given to a customer at time of a purchase, and is more often translated now into something gained gratuitously or through good measure. Essentially, this can be either a regular gift, or just a bit of knowledge passed on to someone. VirtualTouristers are known for passing Lagniappe on to others quite often, as we don't get paid for the tips we write.
During our trip to Jean Lafitte National Park's visitors center, we were able to get alot of lagniappe from several of the signs, including this one here.
Mardi Gras Terminology: Krewe
"Krewe" really means "crew" - which is the generic name for the organizations behind specific Mardi Gras parades, and the people behind the masks who throw the beads and dubloons off the floats.
It's very prestigious to belong to a krewe and typically only the gentrified, old money families had this honor; more recently with newer parades like Bacchus and even Endymion, the business folks (not necessarily native NOs) have jumped into the picture making it a bit easier to be in some (not all) of the krewes.
The krewes of Comus and Rex are the oldest krewes (and thus the oldest established Mardi Gras parades). Both are still extremely exclusive.
Throw Out Your French Book
Forget any French that you know; it won't help you very much in New Orleans. In many cases, French street names, family names, and food names aren't pronounced the French way -- over the years; they've been Southern-ized.
Praline ......... PRAW-leen
Even words with a typical French pronunciation have the accent on a different syllable, Southern style:
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French or Spanish?
When New Orleans was acquired by the Spanish in 1763, the French settlers accepted their new Spanish cousins with a reasonably minor amount of revolt and bloodshed. It was from this melding of the two cultures, combined with a generous sprinkling of African influences from the slave population, that Creole society and cuisine were born. (The "French" architecture for which the Quarter is famous is actually Spanish, the entire city having burned in 1788 and much of it again in 1794.) France and Spain shared boundaries and social customs, so their citizens lived in relative harmony, but when the United States made the Louisiana purchase in 1803 and New Orleans became American, Mon Dieu! Pas Possible! At that time, a physical and spiritual separation began, with the newly created Canal Street as the boundary, that would last over a century and would further insulate the French Quarter from the bustling city around it.
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First of all, New Orleans is pronounced "Nawlins" by the locals. You might also hear it referred to as "The Big Easy" which is a response to New York's moniker, "The Big Apple." You'll also hear it referred to as "The Crescent City" which refers to the crescent shaped bends in the Mississippi River.
Here are some other New Orleans colloquialisms:
"alligator pear" = avocado
"andouille" (AN-DOO-EE) = spicy sausage used in traditional New Orleans dishes
"banquette" (BAN-KET) = sidewalk
"beignet" (BEN-YAY) = powdered, hole-less doughnut, most notably served at Cafe du Monde
"chickory" = a ground root that spices up coffee
"Krewe" = an organization that parades during Mardis Gras
"lagniappe" (LAN-YAP) = free
"locker" = closet
"Po'Boy" = sandwich made from French bread
Its a common (but old) expression to address females as dawlin' (darling without the accent). Transplants generally haven't picked this up, so if you hear it, its a pretty good bet that your speaking with a local.
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There are ways of saying certain words/places here and ways not to. Just because it's spelled a certain way, doesn't mean the locals pronounce it that way. So next time you're down in the Big Easy, and ask directions, follow these tips:
New Orleans (the city)- is pronounced more like NAW-lins or even NAW-lee-uhns. The city is not New Or-LEENS.
Orleans (the parish)- the name of the parish (county in the other 49 states) where NAWlins is, is pronounced Or-LEENS parish. Confusing yet?
If you need directions to these streets, make sure you pronounce them right:
Rue Chartres is not said like in France as CHAR-truh, but CHAR-ters
Rue Burgundy doesn't stress the first syllable, but the second, so it's bur-GUN-dee.
And don't even try to say Tchipotoulas, just point!
French Street names- sometimes
Many of the streets in New Orleans have French names, which isn't surprising given the city's history. Perhaps its a trick that locals like to play on tourists, but some street names are not pronounced as they appear. We were staying at a hotel on Chartres Street, which we believed was pronounced Char-tre. We learned one night while trying to get directions from some amused locals that the street name is pronounced Char-der, which is more southern than French. Go figure.
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The language: Neutral Ground...
The language: Neutral Ground (median between roads), Makin' grocery's (go to the grocery store), Hey to yo' mamma 'n dem (give my best to your family), dressed (put everything on my po'boy), river or lake side (New Orleans sits between Lake Ponchartrain and the Mississippi River...directions are 'up' or 'down' river, and toward the lake or toward the river), earsters & swimps (oysters and shrimp). #1 driving tip: Don't drive in New Orleans! Every driver has the right of way, red lights don't count until the 3rd or 4th car has run it, there are no legal left turns so you have to make them illegally and block all lanes of traffic whenever possible, turn signals (What? Car's have turn signal? Why?). Potholes (they exist everywhere but some are listed as Natural Wonders of the World).
Correct pronunciation of "New Orleans"
New Orleans is pronounced "New OAR-luhns". There is one segment of the population there who say it "Noo AW-yuns", but those who do so are usually older, often quite a bit older. Their pronunciation is less seen as the world gets more connected, something we see among so many older dialects everywhere.
The pronunciation "New or-LEENS" is heard fairly often, but always from people who live elsewhere and are generally unfamiliar with New Orleans. It always grates on the consciousness of residents, akin to fingernails on a blackboard. It sometimes shows up in song (such as, "Do you know what it means, to miss New Orleens?"), but that's more the function of poetic license and the need to rhyme.
The pronunciation "Nawlins" or "Nawleans" are inventions created for the benefit of tourists. It's a little bit of fun, admittedly, but I have not ever met anyone in New Orleans who says it that way in ordinary conversation.
Savour New Orleans, but don't...
Savour New Orleans, but don't pronounce it New Or-lee-ns, it's N'awlins and proud of it ! This is not France ( although lots of French and French Candian tourists) - but French character, cajuns, creole , jazz and southern hospitality have made it one the best places in the world to visit. Enjoy !
Local terms that may be unfamiliar to those from outside the area:
- Neutral Ground
The central median of a road or highway. There's an interesting history behind how this was derived, going back the 17th century.
Community Coffee House. This is a small chain of coffee shops run by the Louisiana coffee company. If a New Orleanian refers to the "CC's on the corner," they're not talking about the bad pizza buffet chain.
They've now been closed for years, but New Orleanians - and Louisianans in general - often still refer to any sort of corner drugstore, such as Walgreens, CVS or Rite Aid, as "K&B". At one time, virtually all drugstores on New Orleans street corners were K&B locations.
Women may be offended by being called this by men in the modern age, but this is a Louisiana thing, and it is not at all meant to be derogatory. It's more a friendly term for a man to use toward a women.
In a New Orleans accent, "Saint" is often pronounced with a sharper "a" as in "ant". This goes for any "Saint" name, such as Saint Charles Avenue and Saint Louis Cathedral, in addition to the now-popular football team.
I've been surprised how much this throws people off, but maybe because I've heard it all my life: chop-eh-TOO-lus
- "Go Cup"
A plastic or styrofoam cup a bar gives you so that you can take your drink on the street, "to go".
What Louisiana officially calls its counties. Orleans Parish (contiguous with the City of New Orleans) and Jefferson Parish are the ones most talked about in New Orleans. Saint Tammany (North Shore) will also often be referred to.
- West Bank
The area on the west side of the Mississippi River, directly south of the City of New Orleans, but including the Algiers district, which itself is regarded as more its own city (historically, it was) than a part of New Orleans.
- North Shore
The land on the north shore of Lake Ponchatrain. Includes Mandeville, Slidell and sometimes even Hammond.
- South Shore
The land on the south shore of Lake Ponchatrain. Normally used in conjunction with "North Shore" to offer counterpoint.
- GNO Bridge/"CCC"
The Business US 90 bridge over the Mississippi River near Downtown New Orleans. Officially referred to as the "Crescent City Connection" and formerly named the Greater New Orleans Bridge.
- "The Huey P"
The US 90, Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi River.
- "The High-Rise Bridge"
The I-10 bridge over the Industrial Canal, connecting Gentilly and the rest of New Orleans to New Orleans East.
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