On semantics

December 29, 2011

I really enjoy language.  I feel like I’m an effective communicator through written and spoken language, which may be where some of my joy of semantics and syntax come from.

As I’ve traveled this world, one of the things I’ve learned is that words carry a very different meaning depending on where you’re at.  When I use the word ma’am in North Carolina, people think I’m polite.  When I called a lady ma’am in a chocolate shop in New Zealand, she looked at me like I just killed her dog.  Apparently only spinsters are called ma’am there.  Who knew?

There’s nothing worse than missing the punchline of a joke because you imagined some guy who stood up and ‘pitched a tent’, actually brought a tent with him to the party.  So don’t miss out on something or make yourself sound like idiot because you’re not familiar with the lingo of the land you’re visiting.

Here are a few of my favorite semantic treats.


Where I come from a toboggan is a sled you ride on down a hill in the winter.  However, when I arrived in North Carolinaa few days ago, my friend’s fiancee commented on what a cute toboggan I was wearing.  I definitely wasn’t wearing a sled on my head.  No, a toboggan to some people is a winter hat.  Where I hail from, we call winter hats ‘winter hats’.

Toboggan sled - Toboggan hat

Personally, I don't wear my toboggans. I ride them.


There are basically two camps in the ol’ Pop v. Soda debate.**  One camp is anyone from the tri-state area of Northwestern Pennsylvania.  The other is anyone from everywhere else.  When you grow up in the isolated backwoods of rural Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania, your perspective on fizzy carbonated beverages is a little different than the rest of the world.  I went through my first thirteen years of life assuming that everyone ordered pop at McDonald’s.  Then a little spitfire from a town off of I-90 in upstate New York called Canajoharie moved into my life and taught me a lesson in humility I’ll never forget: when it comes to carbonated beverages, not everyone is speaking the same language.

Soda-Pop Map

As you can see, the sodas have it.

**I do recognize that some people in the South  call everything Coke.  I’m all about embracing diversity, but that’s just stupid.  You can’t order orange Coke.  It actually has a clearly defined and labeled name.  It’s ‘Slice’.  Get over yourself.  

Firefly/Lightning Bug

These terms are all over the map.  While I grew up calling those blinking insects lightning bugs, so did my friends from the South and California.  Some of my friends from New York call them fireflies, as do friends from Texas.  The verdict on this: I don’t care which term you use.  I’m okay with either.

Putt-Putt/Miniature (Mini) Golf

I personally enjoy and use the term putt-putt.  I also use it as a verb (i.e. “Let’s go putt-putting today!”).  It’s an enjoyable word to say.  One of those words that, when you say it, you just can’t help yourself but smile.  After extensive research however, I cede that I am in the minority and that most people refer to that joyous game as mini golf.

Sunview Mini Golf

While mini golf is the more widely used term, you can't deny that saying putt-putt is like a party rolling off your tongue.

I’m sure there are a few more regional words or phrases that could be brought to light, so feel free to chime in with your own special regional vocabulary.  I promise I won’t ridicule the absurd way that  you talk too much.