By Jan Worth-Nelson
Ted McClellan, author of the regionally hot-selling How to Speak Midwestern from Belt Publishing can utter accents from Buffalo to Minneapolis and dissect how those accents came to be. He can also spell out origins of dozens of beloved and often sarcastic, often hilarious local phrases, from “Ooey Pooey” to “Bloomingulch” to “Naptown,” — and that’s just three from Indiana.
But in his appearance at Totem Books last week McClellan, a Michigan native, focused on Flint and Michigan idiosyncrasies, celebrating, for example the nickname “Chevy in the Hole,” for the old Fisher Body complex downtown along the Flint River — now lamentably bowdlerized to “Chevy Commons.”
The small but enthusiastic audience joined McClelland in making important distinctions between the “Flint coney” (tightly packed “dry” sauce–viewed as highly superior by Flintoids) and the “wet runny” sauce of the “Detroit coney.”
When McClelland showed a slide of auto workers on the line and asked, “where are these people?” everyone of course shouted “at The Shop” and then added, “They’re ‘shot rats.'”
He noted the phrase “30 and out” as a Michigan-specific term for retiring — generally from “The Shop,” and described other common terms from paczkis to “party store” to “pasties” to “ruin porn” to “pop.”
Familiar locations get their own, sometimes awkward, nicknames, like “Little Missouri,” in Burton, settled by, McClelland said, “hillbillies from the Missouri bootheel who migrated to Flint to work in the auto plants.” There is “Hamtown,” for Hamtramck, which McClelland pointed out once had a majority Polish population but “ironically, given its nickname, has the first Muslim majority council in the U.S.”
The audience agreed to prefer “Michigander” over “Michiganian,” and “Flintoid” or “Flintstone” over, well, whatever else we are called — Flintonian? No. He pointed out the moniker “Flintoid” grew from a raucous local rappers’ redo, “I’m a Flintoid,” of an old Rolling Stones’ song. “Flintstone,” of course, was borne from the three Flint basketball stars on the 2000 Michigan State NCAA championship team: Charlie Bell, Mateen Cleaves, and Morris Peterson. (There was a fourth, Antonio Smith, but he graduated in 1999).
The fine points of “Yoopanese,” entered in, such as the multi-use “eh” the exclamation “holy wah,” as well as gently disdainful terms like “fudgies,”– tourists visiting “up north” locales like Mackinac (Macki-NAW!)Island; “trolls,” for people from the Lower Peninsula (because they are “under the bridge”) and “trooper,” a troll who moves to the U.P., the Upper Peninsula.
Central to McClelland’s overview is how accents vary within the Midwest itself — in three regions he identified as Inland North, Midland and North Central. The accents and idioms in each of those territories reflect in many cases the regions’ many waves of immigrants — from Finland, Germany, France, Poland — as well as sturdy surviving holdovers from the Midwest’s ancient native languages.
Reading from the introduction to his charming and easy-to-skim book, McClelland said he did not know he himself had an accent until he was in a linguistics class as a sophomore at the University of Michigan and another student, from New Jersey, pointed immediately to the way he said “cayen” instead of “can.” Numerous other examples eventually emerged.
“Accents are an important element of regional identity,” McClelland said, “And an important element of Midwestern identity is believing you don’t have an accent — that you speak a neutral brand of standardized English from which all other Americans deviate,” adding most Midwesterners believe “there’s absolutely nothing exotic about Midwestern speech.”
In addition to pronunciation, social norms also contribute to how we make our way of speaking our own, he suggested, leading to a mishmash of linguistics, sociology, history and etymology which he calls “general rules for speaking Midwestern.” Among them:
- Talk through your nose, “as though your lower jaw has dropped off and you have to form words with the rest of your face.”
- Don’t just pronounce your r’s, draw them out as much as possible, as in “Thurr’s a reason yerrrr carrrs A/C don’t worrrk. You need to refill errr with coolant.”
- If you must criticize, do so “passive-aggressively,” saying something is “interesting” or “different,” code words for when we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or we don’t know what to make of it.
- Omit vowels.
- Mispronounce “foreign” names, such as “DeeTroight,” “Grash-ot,” “Cad-Joo” and of course, “Grand Blank.”
- Say “you guys” or “youse” to make up for the missing option of a plural “you” in English.
Overall, McClelland’s book, a popular rather than scholarly project, points out convincingly that indeed, Midwestern speech differs from that of the rest of the country. And among the ways we talk to each other every day are artifacts of our leveling, often loving, familiarity with our hometowns and the many peoples we came from. And that’s, well…interesting.
How to Speak Midwestern from Belt Publishing is available at Totem Books and here at Amazon.
EVM editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached as firstname.lastname@example.org.