You know you're Iowan if you 'warsh' clothes, drink 'pop' and can tell a 'Maid-Rite' from a 'sloppy joe'
Editor's note — This column was originally published in December 2016.
He wasn’t trying to bridge a political divide between the Midwest and the coasts.
He wasn’t catering to cosmopolitan New Yorkers jarred by the presidential election, because now they're desperate for a crash course on all things Midwestern and a culture that helped elect Donald Trump.
But timing is everything.
So writer Edward McClelland, author of the new book “How to Speak Midwestern,” has benefited in part from the post-election scramble. There’s a new rush to understand these rural and roomy flyover states that we call home.
The Chicago-based writer’s book “has been adopted as this anthropological text by foreign and East Coast reporters,” McClelland sighed.
So the next time a national journalist stops you at the Iowa State Fair or the Iowa caucuses and seems strangely savvy about high-school wrestling (or “wrasslin’”), or is familiar with “Cedar Crapids” and other disparaging nicknames of cities, or asks for your recommendation on where to eat “supper” (not “dinner”) that night, look for the copy of McClelland’s thin tome poking out of a back pocket or purse.
The New York Times review of the book earlier this month is partly to blame for framing the volume as a new fashionable choice for “coastal elites.”
But McClelland, 49, was just trying to play the part of an apolitical, amused listener who grew up in Lansing, Mich.
“I saw linguistics as an aspect of the Midwestern culture I’ve been exploring most of my career — or ‘creer’ as they would say in Iowa.”
McClelland explains how the economic gut-check of the Great Depression, followed by the post-war rise of white, male TV news anchors who had all regional drawl and twang drummed out of them, helped promote plainer Midwestern pronunciation over a more formal, British-influenced speech.
“An increasingly middle-class society had no use for posh upper-class accents,” he writes.
He also shows how westward migration in the 19th century left the Midwest with three broad linguistic regions: Iowa is mostly in the Midland, with North Central directly above us and the Inland North (the lower Great Lakes from Buffalo to Milwaukee) to the northeast.
Thanks to this, there’s more variation in Iowa speech from north to south than from east to west. Northern Iowa, by the time you reach Mason City-Clear Lake, McClelland said, is more of a linguistic “transition zone” into the realm of "you betcha" and "hey dere" made famous (and exaggerated) by the 1996 film "Fargo."
McClelland has spent time in both states; last winter when an ice-fishing derby got canceled in Brainerd, Minn., he joined a friend in Cedar Rapids to stump for then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Matthew Gordon, a linguist and professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia, appears on the book's first page. When I got him on the phone he cited the regional variation in the use of "sack" or "bag" for groceries: His local Hy-Vee in Columbia prefers “sack” on its signs in the store.
“Nobody around here understands what that means,” he said.
As a native Iowan who has built a career on talking to Midwesterners and writing about them, I felt duty bound to take a careful listen to my own mouth, take this new expertise to heart and make a fresh analysis.
One of McClelland's revelations as an undergraduate college student was that he was part of the "northern cities vowel shift": stretching one vowel so that, for instance, "can" becomes "cayen."
I'm more the example of what's called the "cot/caught merger": two different words and their vowel sounds have become one.
Here are more linguistic quirks of Iowa and the Midwest that these experts and a bunch of Facebook friends helped brainstorm:
I grew up hearing “warsh” instead of “wash," as in hanging the “warsh” on the clothesline. My mom this week also reminded me that her mother, my grandmother, said “wrench” instead of “rinse.”
McClelland affirmed, “If you hear ‘warsh,’ you’re in the Midlands.”
He calls this, the "intrusive r,” perhaps “the No. 1 Midland feature.”
Gordon, originally from Lincoln, Neb., has an aunt who still says "garsh" ("gosh") and "squarsh" ("squash").
'Interesting' and 'different'
Iowans and Midwesterners loathe confrontation so much that they’ll call an unpleasant situation “interesting” or somebody they dislike “different” in their passive-aggressive dance around true feelings. This is related to the Southern insult in disguise, "bless your heart," but is even more milquetoast.
'Pop' vs. 'soda'
What we call a sweetened carbonated beverage might be the most classic example of our linguistic divide. An unscientific Harvard survey more than a decade ago found that nearly 80 percent of Iowans prefer “pop." The Midwestern preference gets attributed to the sound that vintage pop bottles made when opened, versus the soda fountains more common on street corners back East.
I could binge on nothing but food words
I grew up in western Iowa and yet don’t remember mention of “mettwurst," a raw minced pork sausage supposedly common there.
I should have remembered the “Magic Mountain” famous in the Quad Cities, a plate piled with toast, ground beef, fries and a million other calories.
But for Iowa food terminology nothing beats the regionalism of the loose meat sandwich created in the 1920s: It’s a “tavern” in northwest Iowa (where it reportedly began at Ye Olde Tavern) but also widely known as a “Maid-Rite” (named after restaurants that began in Muscatine).
The “sloppy joe” is the variation with tomato sauce.
Gordon the linguist grew up in Lincoln, Neb., with “yum-yum” as the local name for a loose-meat sandwich, thanks to the Yum-Yum Hut that sold it.
'Shell' of beer
This term for a small or short glass of beer apparently seeped into eastern Iowa from Michigan.
That tiny trickling stream running through your backyard isn’t a “creek.” It’s a “crick.” Rhymes with "hick."
That cloverleaf-shaped pattern you loop through on one of our interstate highways is a “mixmaster,” which has nothing to do with the music DJ at a party.
The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) gets mentioned in McClelland's book. That's made all the more appropriate since KYBO, a term for the portable toilets lined up everywhere on the ride, also appears. McClelland calls this the "quintessential Iowa word." According to The Register archive, the trademarked term was borrowed from a camp acronym: Keep Your Bowels Open.
Disparaging city nicknames
Nothing betrays Iowans' insecurities more than the way we gleefully, creatively trash the cities where we live. I grew up near “Counciltucky” (Council Bluffs) on the west side of the state, while “Davenpit” (Davenport) clings to the eastern edge. There's Sux City (Sioux City), Borington (Burlington) and Death Moans (Des Moines).
Cedar Rapids, besides its "Cedar Crapids" nickname, also suffers from a variation on its "city of five seasons" motto with a nod to its industrial scent, “the city of five smells.”
I didn’t realize that Cedar Rapids pronunciations also could sound like “Cheddar Rabbits,” echoing a local minor-league baseball team a century ago that called itself the Bunnies.
But now that my son can fire up his Xbox and swap lingo with nearly anybody around the globe in real time as they play video games, are we losing some of our regional conversational flavor?
"There’s some evidence of that," Gordon said, "where very localized speech patterns are being wiped out. But when they go out of use it tends not to be some kind of vague national standard."
He added, "You’re not going to put me out of work."
In other words, the jargon and pronunciations that divide us tend to be self-renewing, especially if you consider how much more racially diverse the homogeneous Midwest is destined to become.
We'll be caught up (or "cot" up) in these linguistic debates for the foreseeable future.
Kyle Munson is a former Iowa Columnist for the Des Moines Register.