In his Pulitzer Prize-winning tome A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole masterfully captured New Orleans' pervasive colloquial vernacular and unique lingual customs. Confederacy should be required reading for anyone considering a visit to the city that gives new meaning to butchering the English language while mixing it with liberal doses of French phrases.
The following is pretty much universal throughout the city: “Where y’at?” is equal to “Where are you at?” which is equal to “How are you doing?” “Lemme axe you sumthin’,” is equal to “Let me ask you a question.” “Y'all” is equal to “you all” or "all of you." And “lagniappe” is “a little something extra.”
Take a look at our New Orleans dictionary for a guide to the city’s very own vernacular.
Bayou: Choctaw for “small stream.” It’s a creek with a slow current, flowing from a river or lowland lake, Bayou St. John in the Mid City neighbourhood is lovely example.
Cities of the Dead: New Orleans cemeteries, of which St. Louis No. 1 is the oldest. Because of the high water table, the dead are buried above ground in tombs instead of within it. Elaborate monuments cluster together like small communities.
Crescent City: A nickname for New Orleans. The original city was built within a crescent formed by the Mississippi River.
Faubourg: As in Faubourg Marigny. Originally suburbs, they’re now neighbourhoods near the French Quarter.
Jazz: In 1891, New Orleans barber Buddy Bolden blew a few hot notes with his cornet and invented a new form of music that mixes African and Creole rhythms with European styles.
Mardi Gras, aka Carnival: The season of debauchery that starts on January 6th (the Twelfth Night feast of the Catholic Epiphany) and climaxes on Mardi Gras Day (Fat Tuesday), the day before Ash Wednesday – the beginning of the Catholic penitential season of Lent. During the 12 days preceding Mardi Gras, more than 60 parades and hundreds of private parties, dances and masked balls are held throughout New Orleans.
Neutral ground: When the Americans arrived in New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the Europeans and Creoles who inhabited the French Quarter rejected them. The immigrants settled across Canal Street and established new neighbourhoods. Canal Street became the “neutral ground” in the clash of cultures.
Second Line/Secondlining: In a second line parade participants walk behind a brass band through the streets, swinging handkerchiefs in circles or pumping umbrellas over their heads. The shuffle step or dance when following the band is called "secondlining.”
Streetcar: New Orleans’ name for the world’s oldest continuously operating electric street railway. In 1835, a steam engine train ran from the French Quarter along St. Charles Avenue to the outlying town of Carrollton (now the Uptown Riverbend area). In the 1860s, the route became a horse and mule-drawn line, and went electric in 1893. Today, the 35 original electric cars are registered to the National Register of Historic Places.
Swamp: A low, marshy wetland, heavily forested and subject to seasonal flooding. Fascinating, educational tours, such as those offered by Pearl River Eco Tours, are available at locations 40 miles from the city.
Voodoo: From voudun, meaning “god,” “spirit,” or “insight” in the Fon language of Dahomey. Voodoo came from the West African Yoruba religion via Haiti, where African practices mingled with the Catholicism of French colonists.
Vieux Carré: Literally, "Old Quarter,” it refers to the French Quarter. Today, its 90 city blocks hold about 2,700 European and Creole-style buildings.
Andouille: Spicy, heavily smoked Cajun sausage typically made with pork. Cleaver & Co., located Uptown, makes a fine version.
Beignet: Creole pastries that are fried into golden puffs and generously sprinkled with powdered sugar. Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter and Morning Call in City Park are two local standard-bearers.
Cajun: The earthy, robust Cuisine of the bayou country of southwest Louisiana, such as that featured at the Bon Ton Cafe. Expect dishes with smoked meats and assertive spices.
Creole: Such as that found at Dooky Chase, this cosmopolitan cuisine of New Orleans has European, African, and Caribbean influences.
Courtbouillon: Cajun for “short soup,” it’s fish simmered in a spicy tomato sauce.
Crawfish: A seasonal (late Winter until the end of Spring) crustacean that looks like a miniature lobster. In Louisiana they’re usually boiled with plenty of seasonings and spices. Jack Dempsey's serves them by the pound during the season.
Etouffée: K-Paul's in the French Quarter serves a beautiful rendition of this smothered dish, that’s usually made with crawfish or shrimp and served over rice.
Creole Mustard: A piquant, pungent country-style mustard containing coarsely ground mustard seeds. Zatarain's brand is a local standby.
Dressed: This is how you order your po’ boy sandwich if you want it with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayonnaise.
Jambalaya: New Orleans’ answer to Spain’s paella, this Cajun rice dish always includes spices and aromatic vegetables and may incorporate sausage, ham, chicken, and/or seafood.
Gumbo: New Orleans’ and South Louisiana’s signature Creole dish. Native American filé (ground sassafras leaves) is the essential spice. In Southern Louisiana, it’s made with a dark roux, shellfish, and sausage, and served over rice. Most restaurants have some variety of this on their menu.
King Cake: Oblong cakes served only between Twelfth Night (January 6th, the Feast of the Three Kings) and Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday. Originally a version of French brioche, they are typically decorated in purple, green, and gold sugar.
Muffuletta: A large, round sandwich first created by Central Grocery and assembled on Italian bread with salami, ham, provolone cheese and Italian olive salad.
Poor Boy (aka. Po-Boy, Po' Boy): A sandwich served on French bread stuffed with fried seafood or meats. Parkway Bakery on Bayou Saint John is a New Orleans institution.
Snowball: New Orleans gets hot in the summer and people cool off with cups of powdered ice flavoured with syrup. Hansen's makes the locals' favourite.
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Have you visited New Orleans? Were you caught out by the local lingo? Share your experiences with us in the comments section below.
Written by Jyl Benson
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About the author: JylBensonJyl Benson
A native of New Orleans, Jyl Benson has over two decades of experience as a journalist, editor, and writer, with a concentration in southern American culture, cuisine, and heritage.