Water fountain or bubbler? Lightning bug or firefly? Pop or soda? Take the linguistics test

A wonderfully cool series of dialect maps by Joshua Katz, from the Department of Statistics at North Carolina State University (using survey data from Bert Vaux), tracking how we say different words, and different things, across the US.

For example, do you say water fountain, drinking fountain or water bubbler?  Lightning bug or firefly?  Do you pronounce mayonnaise with 2 syllables or 3?  And did you know that in part of the south when it rains while the sun is shining, they call it “the devil is beating his wife”?

Katz even has the linguistic breakdown for specific towns – he’s got both of the small towns in Illinois where I grew up.

I grabbed a couple dozen of the maps, with Katz’s permission, and put them in a slide show below.  Just click the “next” button below the image to see the next one.  And do check out Katz’s site for the 122 maps and more – you’ll be there all day!  Here’s my slideshow of some of the more interesting, maps, and below that is a quick email I got from Katz explaining a bit more about the project.

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I emailed Katz asking for a bit more information on where he got the data from, and also why some of the maps show word options that don’t seem to have any representation on the map itself – meaning, the option is colored green but there’s no green on the map. Here’s what Josh wrote back:

The composite maps only show the most common answer at every location. The more clearly one answer dominates, the darker the color. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. For that, you have to look at the individual maps… There you can see the variation in where each answer is more/less common. So, for example, the cream cheese question: cream CHEESE isn’t estimated to be the most common anywhere… but looking at the map you can see that it’s relatively more common in West Virginia (36% in Charleston) than it is in New Jersey (11.5% in Parsippany).

The research was done as part of my final project for Applied Spatial Statistics at NC State (taught by Brian Reich). I had first stumbled onto Vaux’s old dialect maps back when I was an undergrad, and when it came time to choose a project topic, I immediately thought of doing something with that data. So, back in early March, I sent Dr. Vaux an email and he sent me back the dataset.

I’ve always found regional variations in dialect really fascinating. Language says so much about who a person is. To me, dialect is a badge of pride–it’s something that says “this is who I am; this is where I come from.” So, just to take one example, being from South Jersey, what everyone else calls a sub will for me always be a hoagie.

Oh, and I absolutely LOVE this one. I’d NEVER heard of that third option.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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  • Scott Hill

    Around Chicago, people of Polish descent will say, “The witch is making butter,” when it rains while the sun is shining.

  • Spotpups

    I love to read about this stuff. Being raised by a father from the South, mom from New York and raised in the Mid-Atlantic until my mid teens and then in the Midwest it helps me make sense of my varied vocabulary.

  • EMTME22

    I don’t know if this has been brought up yet, but I don’t understand when people end a question or phrase with “with” For example: “can I come with” or “he just likes to be with”. Why don’t they finish it? I would say “can I come with you” or “he just likes to be with you”. Has anyone else heard this?

  • samizdat

    My wife and I were looking at this last week late, and being from St. Louis (though born, along with my younger brother, as an Okie; So glad Woody Guthrie and Will Rogers are from there, otherwise…), I was amused to see the region around STL as this lonely blob of “soda”, not soda pop, sodie (my dad, from Pittsburgh, said that, or sodie pop), or pop. S-o-d-a. When I was about ten or so, we were visiting our cousins in OH, and they kept asking if I wanted a pop. We were looking at each other, “is this person crazy?”, until my dad translated for me: “Sodie pop…soda, To-Ch-Mike” (he had this habit of forgetting which son was which, kind of like I’ll go through all three of our cats names before hitting the right one). I swear, I had never heard ‘pop’ in reference to soda in my entire then-short life. Now, St. Louis-isms (which I haven’t picked up, in spite of being here since ’66, when I was two), that’s another entertaining kettle of fish. Big German and Irish Catholic populations here in the STL. Yunz, hun, 44 as farty-far, etc., quatter=quarter. And that’s just a start.

  • dula

    Yes, I guess it was a German thing.

  • Sparky


    “Hoagies” is not a ‘burgh thing, it’s imported from Philly. The term comes from Primanti’s-like sandwiches that workers used to make for lunch when they worked at the Hog Island shipyard, just outside Philadelphia. They started with a loaf of Italian bread, and piled meat and vegetables inside.

    BTW: Unlike Pittsburgh, a hoagie in its true form does not include salad dressing.


  • Ah yes, the plural ‘you’ known as “yinz”, although where I was brought up, it was closer to “yunz”, kinda like taking “you” and “unz” and mashing ’em tight up against each other. How could I have forgotten that one? It’s totally iconic for the city — where ‘Iron City’ and ‘beer’ are interchangeable terms.

  • silas1898

    I went to college there and the dialect is amazing. I picked up “red light” for “traffic light” and can’t think of how to spell the way they say downtown or tire iron. Pop drove me nuts. I couldn’t say it. I used “coke” instead.

    yinz be good..

  • Zorba

    Do you still have any remnant of a Chicago accent, John?
    I am particularly thinking of the, I don’t know what the linguists call it, but the very broad “a” sound. My Chicago cousins have it. I used to marvel at the way they pronounced “park” and “mark,” for example. ;-)

  • Really, they didn’t even know about 16 inch softballs? And oh yeah I still say coming with, or can he come too, and all that.

  • oh yeah, the clicker, I’d forgotten about that

  • I learned about that for the first time coming to grad school out east. I couldn’t believe it was real, that the words had 3 different pronunciations. Being a good chicagoan, they have one :) I can now kindof sortof do the three different pronunciations if I go really slow and think about it.

  • I always like off-ten is very high-fallutin :)

  • Beer garden, I love that. You mean like any bar?

  • dula

    My grandmother used to say davenport for couch and beer garden for bar. She would say “they go like the deuce” to refer to a person driving too fast, and “this court is so dusty” to refer to her trailer park. I loved her.

  • mirth


    I once moved to NY just to get that southern stank offa me.

  • It’s not all that bad! In fact, you too can become a Southerner, and it don’t hurt much — except for that part where they stick the straw into you ear and suck out 90% of your brains…


  • mirth

    Hiya Zorbear,

    Me, Southern? Fuhgeddaboudit! ;)

  • Add “well, shutmymowth” and you could pass for southern!


  • ARP

    Same, but I’ve given that up a while ago. However, I still use the term “clicker” at times for the remote, due to my grandparents. They actually had an old TV with a “clicker” style remote.

  • mirth

    I know! Each time I see it, my breath catches.

  • Wow. Just…wow.

  • mirth

    Since this is a fun thread, and because of John’s interest in photography, I hope an OT is ok:

    I just came across this photo, an entry in this year’s National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest, yet to be judged. Quick breath intake, Oh!

    Additional entries are here, but to my mind, none so stunning.

  • mirth

    I still catch myself saying manaze, and another from my southern MO youth: “Goaheadon,” said all together with a quick nod up of your head, meaning continue. And fixin’ for just about you plan to do right shortly.

  • same here then there’s Crick and Creek

  • Zorba

    And then there are those natives of Baltimore who pronounce the name of their city “Bawlmer.”
    And why do so many Marylanders call everybody “hon”?

  • Monoceros Forth

    Most of my pronunciations and idioms are consonant (pun intended) with the majority usage indicated on the maps, but I tend to pronounce “marry” differently from “Mary” and “merry”, which I tend to pronounce the same. Weirdly this usage seems from the map to be found only in Pennsylvania. So where did I get it from?

    Some of my usage is from conscious choice that has hardened over time into habit. I’ve taught myself, for example, to pronounce “cot” and “caught” differently, and to pronounce “wear” and “where” differently.

  • Don’t get me started on the Pittsburgh-isms I was raised with… Well, okay, a few–

    Water fountain, pop, chipped ham, hoagies, mayn-ayz (mayonaise), lightning bugs, supper (almost exclusively).

    I’d also add that it’s very common in certain sentence structures to drop the infinitive “to be”. For example, you might hear a Pittsburgher say something like, “The car needs washed.” Or “The house needs vacuumed.” I’ve heard that ‘likes’ and ‘wants’ are also sometimes given this treatment, but can’t honestly say that I’ve heard it.

    The term for it is “infinitival copula deletion” and apparently derives from immigrants from Scotland and Northern Ireland.


  • Allie Brosh wrote eloquently on the ‘Alot’ phenomenon.


  • The ashram where I spent much of my time in India had a great many German students (adults though).

    It seemed like every other word out of their mouths was “genau”. (It indicates agreement, with enthusiasm connotations, as in ‘Exactly!’)

  • Mr. Ephemeris

    How about often, pronounced with and without the T? I say of-fen, my daughter says off-ten.

  • Naja pallida

    Don’t even get me started on my time in Bangor, Maine. Bang-gore? Banger? Bunger? Oy vey. :)

  • Indigo

    Yes. I’ve heard that “alot.” (a lot is two words, dammit!)

  • Indigo

    And “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

  • Indigo

    Bitte? Jawhol. Das ist ganz klar. Bitte = please. It’s a translated Germanism meaning “Huh”? or “What?” Bitte schön, however, means “Thank you.”

  • Indigo

    Yup! It’s a bubbler (Hoosier born and bred). Aks me no questions, I’ll tell yu no lies. An’ all . . .

  • Zorba

    And then consider the different pronunciations of “marry,” “merry,” and “Mary.” I pronounce them all pretty much the same, as do many Americans. But technically, there is a subtle difference. ;-)


  • Zorba

    So did my Yia-Yia. ;-)

  • We used ice box too as kids. Or mom and grandma did.

  • Ooh you married a hobbit!

    Well, or a Gollum, to be exact :)

  • HolyMoly

    I remember not to long ago that there was news coverage here (Norfolk, VA) about the proper way to pronounced “Norfolk.” It was really quite interesting, really quite a heated debate. There was Nor-folk, Naw-fik, Naw-fuk, and Nor-fuk. I’ve heard ’em all. I use the last one myself. And these are differences just in one medium-sized city.

  • ARP

    Growing up in Chicago, linguistics and culture of that city fascinates me.

    1) Height-h was used in Chicago with enough frequency that I didn’t mentally stutter when I heard it.

    2) We always added a preposition at the end of sentences about accompanying. “I’m gone [rhymes with cone] to da Jewels, wanna come with?” “Can Johnny come too?”

    3) Chicago and Boston are the only two cities that call dibs on parking spots after they shovel them out.

    4) I was at a party in DC and someone mentioned their softball team, so I asked them if they played 12″ or 16″ Softball. They stared at me with a puzzled look on their face. I didn’t know that 16″ softball (where the ball is actually somewhat soft) is only played in the Chicago and a few surrounding areas.

  • Naja pallida

    Texass… it’s like a hole nudder cuntry.

  • BlueIdaho

    My favorite from growing up in Texas: I’m fixin’ to go…… It could have been anything really, fixin’ to go to the store, fixin’ to go take a bath, etc. When I worked in New England on projects, the natives always asked me to use that phrase and, of course, to say ya’ll as often as possible.

  • Rebecca

    Please excuse if this is a duplicate, I think the first one disappeared. Anyway, a few things.

    I’m from the Deep South and never heard the Z sound used in greasy. And that little spot in southern Louisiana on the long sandwich question? We call’em Po Boys.

    But, wow, I’d forgotten that we called lunch dinner when I was growing up. We ate breakfast, dinner and supper.

  • HeartlandLiberal

    Also, to this day, my wife, also from Alabama, pronounces ‘breakfasts’ as ‘break-fasts-es’.

    Gotta make that plural clear. A definite marker of the Deep South.

  • HeartlandLiberal

    Wonderful. I am in Bloomington, Indiana, south central part of state.

    I grew up in Alabama. Last week I was sitting at breakfast in a favorite eating spot with a friend who was on my staff before I retired, and who is still working. He grew up in Texas.

    We looked out about 7:30 to see brilliant sunshine flooding in under the clouds, but a torrential sudden downpour of rain from a localized shower.

    I turned to him just as the waitress was coming to refresh our coffee, and casually pointed out that the “Devil was beating his wife”?

    The waitress looked at both of us, and wanted to know what the hell we were talking about. So we explained.

  • Gindy51

    Even though I have not lived there in over 20 years, you sure can tell I grew up in California by the words I use. One that always drives me nuts is the word “Please” meaning “say what you said again”. I think it is only found in Cincinnati as those is the only people I have ever heard use it on a regular basis. I don’t think he went into that one phrase at least I could not find it in the listings.

  • pappyvet

    Oh Yeah! By the way,she pronounced it “Massatwoshits”

  • pappyvet

    To Grandma,it was always the ice box.
    “You dont eat enough to keep a chiger alive.”
    “I havent seen anything like that since Christ left Chicago.”
    If your left right hand itches,you will meet someone. If it’s your left,you’re going to get some money
    “Well I’ll Swanee !”
    And of course,we never landed on the Moon ;]

  • pappyvet

    flashlight bug and sodapop

  • FLL

    Say the phrase “greasy fries.” If you pronounce the “s” in “greasy” like a “z,” then you’re from the Deep South. In the rest of the country, it’s pronounced like the letter “s.” Generation by generation, the line that separates the two pronunciations is slowly moving farther south. Eventually, the “z” pronunciation will disappear.

  • Yeah I’ve heard that before “what kind of coke do you have?”

  • Naja pallida

    One of my personal pet peeves around here is that everyone around here refers to any soda, as Coke. If you walk into a restaurant and order a Coke, you have to then specify you want an actual Coke, not something else.

  • I LOVE this stuff. The best part is clicking over to the site, and checking on your home town – there you can see the percentage breakdown, which was really interesting. On some of the words, I was only a small percentage of the people in my town who say it that way (I suspect I got that from my immigrant mom, whose English is impeccable, but still has some quirks, like pronouncing the end of the word “height” with a “th” instead of a “t.”)

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