Seattle, WA

How to Not Sound Like a Newcomer to Seattle

Maria Shimizu Christensen

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Entrance to the Pike Place Market in Seattle.Photo by Maria Shimizu Christensen

There are pros and cons to being a newcomer or visitor in any city, but Seattle is somewhat notorious for a phenomenon called the Seattle Freeze that makes it just a little harder to fit in. The idea is that residents are polite but it can be hard to make friends. There’s debate about whether or not the freeze actually exists, and everyone’s mileage may vary, but it doesn’t hurt to learn to speak like a native. This is also useful for visitors and tourists trying to find their way around the city.

The vast majority of Seattle residents were not born and bred in the city. Over two-thirds of Seattleites came from somewhere else. According to an article in The Seattle Times half of the adults in Seattle came from other states, and 20% came from another country. So, most people have to learn to pronounce some difficult place names and pick up the local slang any way they can.

Unlike other parts of the country, people in the Pacific Northwest do not have a distinctive accent. Pronunciation is closer to dictionary English, but many places in and near Seattle have Native American names and a few take some real practice to pronounce correctly. And then, just like many other regions in the country, there are local phrases and slang that will mark you as a resident as soon as you utter them.

The Mountain Is Out

Mount Rainier dominates the views from the Puget Sound region, but only on a nice day. If the mountain is out it’s a beautiful day. You will hear this a lot in the summer, but people get very excited about being able to say it in the winter.

Local Lingo

Alki: this is Alki Beach and the surrounding neighborhood located in West Seattle. All you need to say is Alki. It’s pronounced “alk-eye” and is where the first settlers landed to found the city.

The Ave: the main street in the University District in Northeast Seattle is officially University Way NE. Everyone has always called it The Ave.

The Eastside: this is not the east side of the city, it comprises all of the cities east of Seattle and Lake Washington, like Kirkland, Bellevue and Redmond. Also on the eastside are the fast growing cities of Sammamish (suh-MAM-ish) and Issaquah (IZ-uh-kwah).

Geoduck: you pronounce this gigantic clam “gooey-duck”. It has a very long neck, looks slightly repulsive, and although it tastes very good, even some natives have never tried it.

I-5: the interstate highway running from Canada to Mexico cuts through the middle of Seattle. Never call it “The I-5”.

The Locks: boats enter the locks in Ballard to travel between Puget Sound and Lake Union. The actual name is the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. No one knows this.

The Market: there are dozens of seasonal farmers markets and market stores in the city but there is only one Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. You can call it the Pike Place Market, or The Market, but never call it Pike’s or Pike Street unless you want to rile people up.

The Pass: The Cascade Mountains in Western Washington are traversed by several passes, but in Seattle if you say “the Pass” everyone will assume you’re talking about Snoqualmie Pass, an hour east of the city. It’s pronounced “snow-KWAH-me”.

Puyallup: this city south of Seattle plays host to the annual and popular Puyallup Fair. It’s pronounced “PYEW-alup” (as in gallop).

Sequim: over on the Olympic Peninsula is a town famous for its lavender. It’s a popular day trip from Seattle. It’s pronounced “Skwim”.

The Sound: Puget Sound is never “Puget’s Sound” and while “The Puget Sound” is technically correct it will rarely work in conversation. Just say “the sound” and everyone will know what you mean.

UW: Pronounced “U-Dub”, this is a nickname for the University of Washington.

WSU: Pronounced “Wah-zoo”, this is a nickname for Washington State University, located on the east side of the state.

The UW and WSU are traditional rivals in the annual Apple Cup football game, which is a big deal in Seattle, and just about everywhere else in the state.

This list is not comprehensive, and there are many more cities, towns, parks, landmarks and more that have unique names, but this is a start with the most common items. Asking people for directions and pronunciations will usually produce helpful results. After all, Seattleites are polite.

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Author of a Seattle handbook for newcomers, Maria provides news, guides, and tidbits for city dwellers, visitors, and day trippers

Seattle, WA
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