Who Dat? Where Y’at? (cheers to BigEasy.com)
Where Y’at? In New Orleans, that’s the same as asking, “How are you doing? What have ye been up to” It’s also the reason some people are described, affectionately (though not always flatteringly), as “Yats.”
In New Orleans, and in Louisiana generally, people have their own way of expressing themselves. Y’at words, Cajun, Creole, and the many other cultures that create the distinct flavors mixed into the local jargon! Of course, you will find many words (particularily place names) that are in the language one of the many Indigenous cultures of Louisiana…though the pronunciation, filtered through colonial speech, may not be exactly as originally intended.
Unfortunately for those trying to blend in, there’s no simple trick or key. Some local accents follow a pattern, like saying ersters, erl and berl instead of oysters, oil and boil. Other pronunciations defy convention. No one really knows why the locals say bur-GUN-dy instead of BUR-gun-dy, or Calee-ope instead of Cal-aye-o-pee…but we do. And who would have guessed that some people would call Clio Street “C-L-Ten”…but that’s another story.
More often though, we just use different words. Calling the streetcar a trolley, or a crawfish a crayfish is a great way to prove you’re just visiting. It may take many visits to establish your street credibility. In the meantime, the glossary below may help you figure out what the locals are saying to you.
Beignets. Beignets are donuts with corners and no holes. The coffee shop Café du Monde, in the French Quarter, made them world famous.
Big Easy. It’s difficult to say where this nickname originated. Reportedly, it’s a nickname early jazz musicians gave to the city. It was repopularized in the early 1970s. The Times-Picayune’s gossip columnist of the times, Betty Guillaud, championed its use in response to New York becoming the Big Apple. At the same time, James Calloway, another Picayune reporter, published a novel called The Big Easy. That novel was the basis for the 1984 film starring Dennis Quaid, Ellen Barkin and John Goodman.
Cajun. Cajun is a contracted pronunciation of Acadian (in French, Les Acadies). It refers to the people and culture descended from Acadian refugees forced out of what is now Nova Scotia in the 1750s (known as Le grand dérangement or “the great inconvenience”). Many settled in Louisiana, bringing their food, music and joie de vivre with them, creating a unique cuture of its own. The Louisiana prairies (known for large Sugar Cane plantations) have the greatest historical population of Cajuns; places like Acadia, Evangeline, Lafayette & St. Landry Parishes.
CBD. Central Business District aka “the American side” of New Orleans. Separated by the Neutral Ground of Canal St. – the other side being the Vieux Carré (Old Square, aka The French Quarter – designed in a square grid)
Cher. French word traditionally used by both Cajuns and French speaking Creoles as a term of endearment. Generally sounds like “sha” or “share.”
Court Bouillon. Creole cooking – this is a tomato enhanced fish stew with innumerable recipes and spellings. In his autobiography Louis Armstrong called it “cubie yon.” That’s a pronunciation that tends to work even in more distinguished Creole restaurants.
Creole. Originally referred to the generations of children born in the colony to parents from Europe or Africa. Now everything pertaining to their culture and cuisine is referred to as Creole. Depending on who you talk to, Creole can mean many different things. Really it means “a mixture of…” which pretty much defines most things in Louisiana!
Crescent City. The city gets this nickname from the way it is nestled in a swooping bend of the river, from the Uptown Riverbend area to the heart of the French Quarter.
Dirty Rice. A soul food recipe adding liver and spices to rice. Served in Creole restaurants as well. Usually served with Red Beans…on Mondays…
Dressed. Sandwiches in New Orleans either come dressed – with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise – or they come undressed. (See Po’ boys)
Étouffée. (pron. eh-too-fee, though commonly eh-too-fay – also see Roux) French for smothered. It’s a Creole and Cajun cooking technique often used with shellfish, like shrimp or crawfish, or even duck. The main ingredient is cooked in a brown sauce with tomatoes, onions and seasonings.
Fais Do Do. (pron. fay dough dough) Cajun term for a dance party. It literally means “to make sleep.” These large parties were originally held for family and friends in people’s homes. As the music and dancing went late into the night, children would eventually tire themselves out and go off to sleep without being told; hence the name!
Faubourg. French for neighborhood. The areas outside the original city limits were given names like Faubourg Marigny, Faubourg St. John, Faubourg Treme. They are still called that.
Gris Gris. (pron. gree-gree). Something magic, or a good luck charm. Gris gris bags and little totems are often the symbols of cast voodoo spells. . (See voodoo)
Gumbo. New Orleans’ most famous soup. Comes from the African term for okra (gombo), which slaves used to thicken the soups. Gumbos are now thickened in different ways and can include everything (a gumbo ya-ya) or be predominantly seafood, fowl and sausage, or vegetarian (gumbo z’herbes).
Hurricane. Pat O’Brien’s invented and popularized New Orleans’ most famous cocktail. The rum drink is served in a tall glass with passion fruit juice, garnished with an orange & cherry. Like its namesake, it can suddenly blow ye down!
Hurrication. During Hurricane season (late summer to early fall) many New Orleanians & South Louisianains take a short vacation out of state.
Jambalaya. A well seasoned rice dish cooked with sausage and usually chicken. It’s a rustic dish meant to be cooked in a large pot to feed many.
Lagniappe. (pron. lan-yap). French for a little extra, or a bonus. As in “They threw in a little lagniappe.”
Laissez les bon temps roulez (pron. lay-say lay bohn-tohn roo-lay). French for “let the good times roll.” Never taken lightly in New Orleans.
Making Groceries. Shopping for food.
Muffaletta. An Italian sandwich originally created (and still awesome) at the Central Grocery. It stacks ham, salami and provolone cheese on a special round loaf of bread and then stuffs it with olive salad. Pronounced “moo-fa-latta.”
Mymomenem. An inclusive ‘word’, for “my mom and them” or my family or my mom’s place. When one goes to visit one’s mother, one can say “I’mgoinbymymomenem.”
Neutral Ground. In the early 1800s, the French and American populations of the city didn’t get along particularly well. Some major streets had a French and an American side. The middle was referred to as the “Neutral Ground” taken from Napoleon’s term for the space between opposing armies. For example, the French Quarter’s famous Bourbon St. is called Carondelet St. on the “American side” (Central Business District – see CBD) of Canal St.
Parish. Louisiana has parishes instead of counties. New Orleans is in Orleans Parish.
Po’ Boy. A sandwich of anything from roast beef, sausage, shrimp, oysters, alligator…served on French bread. With tomato, lettuce and mayonnaise it is “dressed.”
Praline (pronounced both pra-leen and pray-leen). A super sweet cookie made from melted sugar. Originally a French recipe with almonds, the locals have generally preferred the more readily available pecan (pronounced both pee-can and puh-cahn…depending who ye ask).
Roux (pron. roo). The basis for much Cajun and Creole cooking, including gumbos, soups, sauces and other dishes. A roux is simply flour and oil cooked in a pan till it browns. Depending on what it will be used for it can be blond or dark brown for richer, smokier flavors.
Second Line. As a noun or verb, the second line is the funky walking/dancing part of a parade just behind the band, which is the first line. Second lines always include marching brass bands. The tradition comes from jazz funerals.
Shotgun. This is the term for New Orleans’ style of long thin houses – the reference being that if ye stood at the front door, ye could fire a shotgun straight out the back one! Usually they stretch four or five rooms in a row with the doors lined up. A house adjoining two such homes is a “shotgun double.” And a shotgun double with a second floor added in the back is a “Camelback shotgun”. Camelbacks came about when the city based taxes on how many floors a building had on the street.
Streetcar. New Orleans has had streetcar railroads since the 1830s. The St. Charles line is the only original line left. The Riverfront has a restored streetcar line. They are not called trolleys or cable cars; you’ll find those in San Francisco.
Vieux Carré. (pron. view car-ay or voo-car-ay) French for Old Square. This is the old term for the French Quarter – still used by many who live there. Rampart St. is a nod to the fact the Vieux Carré was once literally a fort with “ramparts” (guard towers) in the 4 corners!
Voodoo/Voudou/Voudon. Frequently misrepresented and misunderstood belief. From the Fon word “Voudon”, meaning “the power; that who is invisible; the creator of all things”. New Orleans has its own brand of voodoo – it is a fusion of the voudon religion of Senegambian slaves, filtered through the Caribbean (largely Haiti), and the Catholicism of the European colonists. Marie Laveau, one of the city’s most famous practitioners (mid to late 1800s), attended mass at the St. Louis Cathedral every day. There continue to be a few authentic sources for New Orleans Voodoo in the city.
Wawaron. (pron. wa-wa-ronh) A word you may hear to describe a Bullfrog, meant to sound like the noise they make. This is a word from the Wendat Nation, an Indigenous people north of the Great Lakes. How did it end up in Louisiana? Possibly trade down the Mississippi, possibly with guides who directed the first French to the mouth of the river.
Who Dat. The chant of “Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints” originated in minstrel shows and vaudeville acts of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and was then taken up by jazz and big band performers in the 1920s and 30s.
The first reference to “Who Dat?” can be found in the 19th Century. A featured song in E.E. Rice’s “Summer Nights” is the song “Who Dat Say Chicken In dis Crowd.” “Who dat?” was used as a tag line in the days of Negro minstrel shows. “Who dat?” “Who dat say who dat?” More Who Dat history at Wikipedia / Who Dat & The Saints (Nola.com)
Zydeco. The accordion and rub-board led sound of South Louisiana’s Creoles. Zydeco was forged by luminaries such as
Clifton Chenier, Rockin’ Dopsie, Sr., Boozoo Chavis. A sort of twin to Cajun music but with a rhythm and blues sound.