Dictionary is going to say what we mean no matter where we are

March 30, 2009

It's almost too late, and the tragedy is that I did not hear about this project until a co-worker sounded the alert last week.

Academics are wrapping up work on the first-ever "regional dictionary" that will document the meaning of phrases used in different parts of this great land of ours.

The classic example, I suppose, is what we in Hagerstown would know as the common "sub." In other areas the sandwich might be known as a "hero," "grinder," "hoagie" or "botulism."

Usually this does not cause too many misunderstandings, but sometimes it does. At northeast lobster pounds, clams are known as "steamers." You normally order a bunch while your lobster is boiling. Up there, of course, a sandwich of ground meat in tomato sauce is called a "sloppy Joe."


You can probably see where this is going. At a football-game concession stand, a friend from the shore was surprised to see steamers on the menu. So she marched up and said, "I'd like two dozen steamers, please."

"Uh, OK. Do you want me to wrap them up in a box?"

"No, I'll eat them here."

The American Dialect Society Dictionary will be able to clear up such misunderstandings. Out west, for example, ordering a bear claw will produce a pastry, not an ursine delicacy. And before you go to San Francisco, you should know that a "Hangtown Fry" will include, along with a lot of other stuff, oysters and scrambled eggs. (The story is that a man condemned to death ordered the most complicated collection of foodstuffs he could think of in order to postpone his execution for a least a couple of days.)

I'll be curious to see how this regional dictionary deals with the Tri-State area. How, for example, will they possibly be able to define "tip jars"?

"Move on" could be problematic. In most areas of the nation, it is synonymous with a liberal political action group. To us it means fast: "The school bus is coming down the street; get a move on."

Here, to throw up is to upchuck; itch is a verb; unsuccessfully popping a beer during a drag race is a "teachable moment"; and a snake bite is a reptile dysfunction.

Here are some other entries I would include:

Phrase: "Surf and turf."

Translation: Carp and groundhog.

Phrase: "Mute."

Translation: Something that doesn't matter anymore, as in a mute point.

Phrase: "Higher ed."

Translation: Employing a guy named Edward to clean out your gutters.

Phrase: "Intelligent design."

Translation: A riding mower with cup holders.

Phrase: "Hard-earned tax dollars."

Translation: Money procured as you're sitting in the break room picking flakes of dead skin off your scalp while waiting for the shift change.

Phrase: "Wursh."

Translation: Something you do to the sheets every two months, whether they need it or not.

Phrase: "Targeted investment in education."

Translation: Lottery tickets.

Phrase: "Christmas lights."

Translation: What illuminates your front porch in July.

Phrase: "Balanced diet."

Translation: Three chili dogs on your girlfriend's thigh.

Phrase: "Family planning."

Translation: Your six kids throwing a fit in the aisle of a department store to distract the clerk while you shoplift a "50 Best NASCAR Crashes" video.

Needless to say, these need to be included in the new regional dictionary, or else no one who visits the area will be able to figure out what we're talking about -- which is not to say that we know ourselves.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or via e-mail at

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