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Published May 19 2012

Swift: North Dakotans have own language

A sloppy Joe by any other name is still a sloppy Joe.

That’s the one thing I learned after checking out the “Dictionary of American Regional English,” which explains more than 60,000 regional words and phrases.

Also known as “DARE,” (just like the anti-drug program), the dictionary documents slang, sayings and pronunciations that vary from one place to another in the United States.

The final volume of the dictionary – which covers “Sl-Z” – was released in late March. The completed set of volumes has been lauded as a “landmark of American scholarship.”

That all sounds quite impressive, but I had to check for myself. My quest: to see how accurately the DARE reflects the real language of real North Dakotans.

In some ways, the dictionary seemed comprehensive and thoughtful.

For instance, there are at least six different monikers listed for the humble sloppy Joe. Honestly, Americans have coined more words for this ground-beef sandwich than there are recipes for Jell-O salad in the average Lutheran church cookbook.

My Iowa-born editor says he considers any sandwich topped with crumbled burger and spices to be a “loose-meat” or “Maid-Rite” sandwich. But if you stir in a tomato-based sauce, he says it’s automatically upgraded to a “Manwich.”

People in some parts of South Dakota and northwestern Iowa call these sandwiches “taverns” while some grade-school gourmands in Walla Walla, Wash., and Oshkosh Wis., refer to them as “spoonburgers.”

Some North Dakotans grew up calling them “barbecues,” a term that bristles the brisket of authentic Southern barbecue fans.

And then there are the real rebels. It seems people in certain pockets of the Dakotas – specifically, Williston, N.D. – call the saucy sandwich a “slush burger.”

My family, who had its own peculiar lexicon for many things, actually called this sandwich a “chili burger.” (Then again, we kept maple syrup in the fridge and butter in the cupboard, so obviously we couldn’t be trusted.)

But the most widespread name for this tasty-but-untidy sandwich is the sloppy Joe. I sometimes wonder why the sloppy Joe didn’t simply get a different surname according to where it was prepared.

A Southern sloppy Joe, for instance, could be a sloppy Bobby Joe. If prepared for an upper-crust Brit, it could be called an unkempt Nigel III. If made in western Minnesota, it could be a sloppy Sven.

But despite DARE’s meticulous attention to loose-meat lexicon, it missed many common North Dakota-isms.

What happened to the references of “Snocatting” vs. snowmobiling? Where is the entry for “putting on gas” – a distinctly northeastern North Dakota turn of phrase for fueling up your car? The dictionary dedicated lots of room to the pastries known as “sticky buns,” but there was not a crumb of information on the Upper Midwestern equivalent, the caramel roll.

The dictionary did conscientiously note one common Dakota-grown Germanism: the use of the word “not” at the end of a sentence.

An example: “You just made some chili burgers, not?”

Oddly, DARE only credits this parlance to regions of southeastern Pennsylvania, when I have heard it used in German communities throughout North Dakota.

The dictionary was more successful at capturing the eccentricities of Minnesota Norwegian speech. DARE’s editors give multiple examples on how “then” is used at the end of a sentence “So what’d ya think of that there Garrison Keillor reading then?”

In fact, I think Minnesota should honor this idiom-syncrasy by creating license plates that read: “So this is the state of 10,000 lakes then?”

Ample ink also is devoted to the Upper Midwestern term, “hot dish,” as well as the popular Norwegi-American expression, “uff-da.”

The hot dish entry carefully notes the difference between “a dish to pass” and a hot dish. “A dish to pass” is typically a cold dish, while a hot dish comes in a Crock Pot. (Unless, of course, all the slow cookers blow a fuse in the church basement. Then it’s a tepid dish.)

As early as 1941, there are documented uses of the word “uff-da,” according to the DARE. However, it’s been alternatively pronounced as “oof-dee,” and “oof-tee” – especially by those rebels in Wisconsin.

Uff-da fyda, not?


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