Even English-speaking visitors will have to learn some New Orleans yatspeak and slang to understand everything they hear in the city. I was constantly delighted by the new words and usage I heard during my month’s stay. Despite speaking “English,” between the various colorful dialects and the words I’d never heard before, I was constantly trying to figure out what I’d just heard and what did it mean?
I heard many words, sayings, and phrases in New Orleans that I had to look up, figure out or ask someone about. Most of these words derive from other languages, disciplines – like architecture- or cultural activities unique to New Orleans. You’ve likely heard of a few of them. I’m from the Midwest, so much of it was new to me, though we have unique words and phrases too. I laughed with one of my tour guides about it and she said “Yeah, it’s dat yatspeak. Ya get used to it doh.” Even the slang has slang.
A banquette is a sidewalk – if you’re lucky enough to have one – it’s the concrete strip between the house or business and the street. I had to ask what this was the first time someone said it to me. You might hear someone say, “I saw him this mornin’ walkin’ down the banquette.”
I learned this one during alligator hunting. Kidding! I wasn’t hunting; I was hiding. A bayou, while appearing swamp-like, is a slow-moving river. A swamp is just a piece of spongy land saturated with stagnant water. Cajuns hang out on the bayous. (see below)
To people outside of the city, when referencing beads, we’re probably talking about jewelry making, but in New Orleans, they’re more likely talking about the many-colored plastic beaded necklaces commonly referred to as Mardi Gras beads.
A beignet is a French doughnut covered in powdered sugar. You eat them by the dozen. Wait, maybe that’s just me. Pair with chicory coffee for an authentic New Orleans breakfast. Repeat daily.
The big easy is a slang term for the city and its laid-back way of life that comes from survival, celebration and knowing how to have fun. That’s just life in the big easy.
It’s not just a spice. Cajuns are descended mainly from French Canadians from Acadia who settled in southern Louisiana in the bayou areas. Cajuns are a white subset of Creoles derived from African, French, Spanish and Native American peoples. My bayou boat captain was a Cajun.
We’re you thinking the opposite of a camel toe? No. It’s a shotgun house (see below) with a second-story addition only on the back. If you go on a Garden District tour, the guides will tell you all about the different house styles.
Not the weekend companies that pull into town and sell super expensive tickets for dubious mechanical rides. In New Orleans, it’s the party season weeks beginning in January (Twelfth Night) and leading up to Mardi Gras.
Pronounced like the famous singer, but not her. Cher is a term of endearment. You can use it for someone you love, or if you’re a service provider, anyone you’re providing service to. Same as “hon,” “sweetie,” and “dear.”
Also, not just a spice. They’re people of French, Spanish, and Caribbean origins.
A Creole Cottage is a typical New Orleans single-story house with French and Caribbean influences, making it both fancy and colorful.
I didn’t hear anyone call it this, but you’ll see it on the water caps and niknaks sold around town, nicknamed the Crescent City because the Mississippi River bends in a crescent shape as it passes through New Orleans Parish.
Krewe maskers toss doubloon coins, stamped with the krewes logos, from parade floats. You can’t spend them, but people scramble for them anyway. Wait, I take that back. Since they’re popular collector items, you could sell them, so in theory, you can spend them.
We didn’t even have one parlor where I grew up, but in New Orleans, having two is so common they named a house after it. This is a big house with a big parlor that separates into two via pocket doors. Guys and gals, if ya please.
There are a lot of French words in New Orleans usage. Faubourg is a French word for a suburb outside the original city limits, such as Faubourg Marigny or Faubourg Tremé. I’ve studied French many times throughout my life. I’m still not any good.
FLEUR DE LIS
You may be familiar with the three-petal lily symbol seen adorning everything everywhere in the city, but did you know it’s called a fleur-de-lis? Literally “lily flower.” French royalty has used it to represent Catholic saints, purity, light and, surprise, it’s the badge of France.
If you’re not from New Orleans, you probably call those glorious cast-iron balconies “balconies,” but they’re galleries. You can only stand on a balcony, re: Juliet. But a gallery is a long, second-story outdoor walkway.
A go-cup is what you ask for when you want to take your alcohol with you to leave the bar. This is why people love New Orleans. Just kidding, it’s only one reason.
A gris-gris (gree-gree) is a voodoo spell or amulet. Typically created by a voodoo priestess, they can be used for good luck or to send evil wishes to someone else. You’d call it “putting a gris-gris” on someone in the bad case. (So don’t piss me off ; )
This oval ring cake is sort of like a cinnamon Danish but covered in purple, green and gold icing and sugar. A plastic baby is baked inside the cake (yep) and if you get the piece with the baby, you get to host the party the next year! Or at least buy the cake, something like that.
A krewe, not unlike the famed hairband of yore, “Motley Crue,” is a social club that host a parade, parties, or other events. Actually, they have nothing to do with the hair band; it’s just they’re just the only other “krewe” I know. There are 70+ krewes in New Orleans and, thus, many parades and parties!
A lagniappe (lan-yap) is a Cajun-French-inspired word meaning “a little extra.” It’s usually something good and typically free, like pretzels with your beer.
LAISSEZ LES BON TEMPS ROULER
The phrase Laissez les bon temps rouler is all over the city. On flags, towels, t-shirts, shot glasses, and even public buildings. It’s the city motto, of sorts, if not actually. It’s a Cajun expression meaning “let the good times roll.”
As kids in Michigan, they taught us to identify an “oak leaf,” and I feel really cheated. They never mentioned the southern live oak. It’s an evergreen that always has comparatively tiny leaves. Plus, it grows long, wild branches that bend and bow over whatever the hell they want to. They’re spectacular.
In New Orleans, they don’t shop for groceries. They make them. The first time I heard it, I thought it was an error, the second time, I looked it up. Like most things in the big easy, it comes from French: “Faire son marché,” meaning to shop. But it got lost in translation and “faire” meaning “to do” or “to make,” and eventually, it broke down into makin’ groceries.
Speaking of groceries, there’s an entire lexicon on New Orleans food. What’s the difference between a gumbo, jambalaya, and a boil? Plenty. And about a million French food terms that you’ll have to go to culinary school to understand.
You call a person on a float a masker. And they’re supposed to be anonymous and always keep their mask on. Like Jason Voorhees or Michael Meyers, but more friendly.
In New Orleans, they love to call a sandwich anything except a sandwich. They get specific. A muffuletta (mu-fa-latta) is a round Italian sandwich with ham, salami, provolone cheese, and olive salad. It’s the size of a medium pizza.
To anyone not from New Orleans, it is a median. The area of grass or earth in between two streetcar lines or streets. Someone said it started on Canal Street and had to do with old, old-school land disputes during times around Lousiana Purchase (remember learning about that?) Now, people like to jog there.
NOLA OR N’AWLINS
Said quickly like a name, “Nola” is abbreviated for New Orleans, Louisiana. If you’re in a hurry and saying New Orleans or typing it repeatedly is too much work, “N’awlins” also works.
In other places, a parish is called a county. Louisiana has parishes because of its French and Spanish history. Parish comes from the French word “paroisse.”
Seeing and hearing are two different things. Picayune (Pic-ee-yoon) is something small. Also used to describe someone as being nit-picky. I learned how to pronounce it when I heard a woman say, “It’s a picayune, but it bothas me.”
It’s a sandwich, in this case, a long one. You might call it a sub with good bread. Yum, bread. When you order one “dressed,” you want mayonnaise (mynez), lettuce, pickles and tomatoes on top. If you prefer plain, you’ll have nuttinonit.
A portico is a porch, though architecturally speaking, it’s a covered porch. However, I even heard it used to describe the seating area outside of a business, “They’re tables out on the portico near the banquette.”
This one got me because I have always called it a “pray-line,” but in New Orleans, they called it a “praw-leen,” and I didn’t know what they were talking about until I saw it. It’s brown sugar and pecan candy patty. De-lish-ous.
No, not a gun, it’s a house. It’s a long, narrow house like a trailer, but they’re lovely and often feature old wood and charming Victorian embellishments.
The second line is the group of people that follow behind the main part of the parade – which is the first line. Sometimes the parades are so fun that people can’t help but join in off the streets.
In Michigan, we threw them. In New Orleans, they eat them. It’s finely shaved ice with flavored syrup. It’s the closest they’ll ever get to the real thing in the balmy south. Where I come from, it’s not a good thing when one’s brother makes you eat a snowball, but here. Yum.
I’m from the Motor City, so to me, a “street car” is for racing. In New Orleans, a “streetcar” is a vintage form of train transportation that is affordable, reliable, and environmentally friendly. Who would have thought 200-year-old transit could be so smart? Someone tell Ford and Telsa.
Anything tossed or handed to you from a Mardi Gras parade float is a throw. It could be beads, doubloons, plastic cups, or other trinkets.
THROW ME SOMETHING, MISTA!
This is a popular phrase you’ll hear a lot during Carnival and Mardi Gras parades from people begging in the streets for throws. I ain’t too proud.
Some people and maps use Vieux Carré, which is French for “old square,” which is confusing because you probably know the area they’re referencing as the French Quarter.
Sometimes people will tell you what “ward” a place is located. Huh? Wards are the 17 areas within New Orleans’ Parish.
As a Detroiter, I was familiar with this one, but in New Orleans, they say it less literally – not just asking “where are you” but also “how are you?” They might ask it while you’re standing right in front of them. I had a tour guide ask me “Where y’at” when she greeted me, so I looked for the street sign to tell her. This is also where the phrase “yatspeak” comes.
Said and heard a lot so it’s worth mentioning. If you’re an American football fan, you probably know it’s a chant for New Orleans Saints fans: “Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?” I learned this from my ma, who was a huge football fan.
A shorter, better way to say “you all” which you hear around all parts of the south. But ya’ll really do need ta get down to N’awlins because you’re gonna love it.
There are at least a dozen more odd pronunciations, words, vernacular, terms and phrases, especially about food, places and conversation, but I think you get my point. In New Orleans, yatspeak is real, slang rules, and talking is just as colorful as everything else.
What other words or phrases have I missed? What other place has a lot of slang?