Prisencolinensinainciusol, the Catchy Italian Pop Song That Sounded Like It Had English Lyrics, But Was Actually Gibberish (1972)

Yes­ter­day a friend and I were stand­ing on a New York City side­walk, wait­ing for the light, when Stayin’ Alive began issu­ing at top vol­ume from a near­by car.

Pavlov­ian con­di­tion­ing kicked in imme­di­ate­ly.  We’d been singing along with the Bee Gees for near­ly a minute before real­iz­ing that nei­ther of us knew the lyrics. Like, at all.

Ital­ian actor and musi­cian Adri­ano Celen­tano’s cult clas­sic, Prisen­co­l­i­nensi­nain­ciu­sol, inspires a sim­i­lar response.

The dif­fer­ence being that should I ever need to prep for karaoke, Stayin’ Alive’s lyrics are wide­ly avail­able online, where­as Prisen­co­l­i­nensi­nain­ciu­sol’s lyrics are kind of anyone’s guess…nonsense in any lan­guage.

Celen­tano impro­vised this gib­ber­ish in 1972 in an attempt to recre­ate how Amer­i­can rock and roll lyrics sound like to non-Eng­lish-speak­ing Ital­ian fans like him­self.

As he told NPR’s All Things Con­sid­ered through a trans­la­tor dur­ing a 2012 inter­view:

Ever since I start­ed singing, I was very influ­enced by Amer­i­can music and every­thing Amer­i­cans did. So at a cer­tain point, because I like Amer­i­can slang — which, for a singer, is much eas­i­er to sing than Ital­ian — I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inabil­i­ty to communicate…I sang it with an angry tone because the theme was impor­tant. It was an anger born out of res­ig­na­tion. I brought to light the fact that peo­ple don’t com­mu­ni­cate.

And yet, his 1974 appear­ance in the above sketch on the Ital­ian vari­ety series For­mu­la Due spurs strangers to make stabs at com­mu­ni­ca­tion by shar­ing their best guess tran­scrip­tions of Prisen­co­l­i­nensi­nain­ciu­sol’s lyrics in YouTube com­ments, 51 years after the song’s orig­i­nal release.

A sam­pling, anchored by the cho­rus’ icon­ic and unmis­take­able “all right:”


My eyes lie, sense­less.
I guess I’m throw­ing piz­za.

And the cold wind sailor,
freez­ing cold and icy in Tuc­son



My eyes are way so sen­si­tive
And it gets so cold, it’s freez­ing

You’re the cold, main, the same one
Please let’s call ’em ‘n’ dance with my shoes off
All right



My eyes smile sense­less but it doesn’t go with diesel all right.



I don’t know why but I want a maid to say I want pair of ice blue shoes with eyes…awight.


Prisen­co­l­i­nensi­nain­ciu­sol’s loop­ing, throb­bing beat is wild­ly catchy and immi­nent­ly dance­able, as evi­denced by Celentano’s per­for­mance on For­mu­la Due and that of the black clad dancers back­ing him up dur­ing an appear­ance on Mil­lelu­ci, anoth­er mid-70s Ital­ian vari­ety show, below.

The atten­tion gen­er­at­ed by these vari­ety show seg­ments — both lip synched — sent Prisen­co­l­i­nensi­nain­ciu­sol up the charts in Italy, Bel­gium, Ger­many, France, the Nether­lands, the UK,  and even the Unit­ed States.

Its mix of dis­co, hip hop and funk has proved sur­pris­ing­ly durable, inspir­ing remix­es and cov­ers, includ­ing the one that served as philoso­pher Slavoj Žižek’s Euro­vi­sion Song Con­test entry.

Prisen­co­l­i­nensi­nain­ciu­sol has net­ted a whole new gen­er­a­tion of fans by crop­ping up on Ted Las­so, Far­go, a com­mer­cial for spiced rum, and seem­ing­ly innu­mer­able Tik­Toks.

We’ll prob­a­bly nev­er get a firm grasp on the lyrics, despite Ital­ian tele­vi­sion host Pao­lo Bono­lis’ puck­ish 2005 attempt to goad befud­dled native Eng­lish speak­er Will Smith into deci­pher­ing them.

No mat­ter.

Celentano’s supreme­ly con­fi­dent deliv­ery of those indeli­ble non­sense syl­la­bles is what counts, accord­ing to a YouTube view­er from Slove­nia with fond mem­o­ries of play­ing in a rock band as a teen in the 1960’s:

This is exact­ly how we non-Eng­lish-speak­ers sung the then hit songs. You learned some begin­ning parts of lyrics so that the audi­ence rec­og­nized the song. They heard it at Radio Lux­em­bourg. From here on it was exact­ly the same style — out­side the cho­rus of course. Adri­ano Celen­tano was always been a leg­end for us back in Slove­nia.

h/t Erik B.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Sto­ry of Lorem Ipsum: How Scram­bled Text by Cicero Became the Stan­dard For Type­set­ters Every­where

Hear All of Finnegans Wake Read Aloud: A 35 Hour Read­ing

Watch La Lin­ea, the Pop­u­lar 1970s Ital­ian Ani­ma­tions Drawn with a Sin­gle Line

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Watch the Original Schoolhouse Rock Composers Sing “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just a Bill” Live in Concert

At first blush, School­house Rock!, the inter­sti­tial ani­ma­tions air­ing between ABC’s Sat­ur­day morn­ing car­toon line up from 1973 to 1984, may seem like a catchy, edu­ca­tion­al equiv­a­lent of sneak­ing spinach into pan­cakes (and a major Gen X touch­stone.)

Not so fast! It’s also jazz, baby!

Jazz pianist Bob Dor­ough recalled how an ad exec at a New York ad agency pitched the idea:

My lit­tle boys can’t mem­o­rize their times tables, but they sing along with Jimi Hen­drix and the Rolling Stones, so why don’t you put it to rock music and we’ll call it Mul­ti­pli­ca­tion Rock?

Dor­ough, whose com­po­si­tion­al pref­er­ences ran to “extrav­a­gant love songs” and vocal chal­leng­ing num­bers, real­ized that his first order of busi­ness would be to write a good song:

I hit upon the idea, let’s pick a num­ber. Three! That’s a good num­ber. And I sat down at the piano and start­ed fool­ing around. It took me 2 weeks.

In his hands, three became a mag­ic num­ber, an ear worm to bring even the most reluc­tant ele­men­tary math­e­mati­cians up to speed in no time.

Even­tu­al­ly, Dor­ough was able to bring many of his jazz world friends into the fold, includ­ing, most famous­ly, trum­peter and Merv Grif­fin Show side­kick Jack Shel­don, whose one-of-a-kind deliv­ery is the hands down high­light of “Con­junc­tion Junc­tion.”

(Many School­house Rock! fans, view­ing the excerpt of the duo’s mid-90’s live appear­ance on the KTLA Morn­ing Show, above, pro­fessed dis­be­lief that Sheldon’s soul was of the blue-eyed vari­ety, even though the ani­mat­ed engi­neer who serves as his avatar in that three minute episode is white.)

In an inter­view with the direc­tor of the Fil­lius Jazz Archive at Hamil­ton Col­lege, Shel­don agreed that the series owed a major debt to jazz:

When we made Con­junc­tion Junc­tion, it was me and Ted­dy Edwards and Nick Ceroli and Leroy Vine­gar and Bob Dor­ough played the piano. That’s a jazz band…it was real­ly noth­ing to do with rock. It was always jazz, but we said rock and roll, so every­body loved it for rock and roll.

Anoth­er mem­o­rable col­lab­o­ra­tion between Shel­don and Dor­ough is the much par­o­died “I’m Just a Bill,” in which a weary scroll loi­ters on the steps of the Cap­i­tal Build­ing, explain­ing to a wide eyed young­ster (voiced by his son) the process by which a bill becomes law.

Dor­oughs’ School­house Rock! con­tri­bu­tions include the haunt­ing Fig­ure Eight, the folky Lucky Sev­en Samp­son, whose sen­ti­ments Dor­ough iden­ti­fied with most close­ly, and Naughty Num­ber Nine, which his pro­tégé, singer-song­writer Nel­lie McK­ay sin­gled out for spe­cial praise, “cause it was kind of weird and sub­ver­sive:”

(It) made me want to gam­ble and win. I got hooked when I heard Bob’s jazzy rasp of a voice break­ing the rules even as he explained them… this guy had a wild mind, which I fig­ured out lat­er equaled cre­ativ­i­ty.

She also paid the per­pet­u­al­ly sun­ny Dor­ough, whom she first encoun­tered “glow(ing) with health and good cheer, spread­ing sun­shine wher­ev­er he went on the cam­pus of East Strouds­burg Uni­ver­si­ty, the supreme com­pli­ment:

Lou Reed’s idea of hell would be to sit in heav­en with Bob Dor­ough.

via Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed Con­tent 

School­house Rock: Revis­it a Col­lec­tion of Nos­tal­gia-Induc­ing Edu­ca­tion­al Videos

I’m Just a Pill: A School­house Rock Clas­sic Gets Reimag­ined to Defend Repro­duc­tive Rights in 2017

Con­spir­a­cy The­o­ry Rock: The School­house Rock Par­o­dy Sat­ur­day Night Live May Have Cen­sored

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Cab Calloway Actually Perform “Mr. Hepster’s Dictionary,” His Famous Dictionary of Jazz Slang (1944)

Who’s up for a good dic­tio­nary on film?

Col­in Brown­ing, assis­tant edi­tor of The Bluff, a Loy­ola Mary­mount Uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent news­pa­per, has some kopaset­ic cast­ing sug­ges­tions for a hypo­thet­i­cal fea­ture adap­ta­tion of the “Mer­ri­am-Web­ster clas­sic.”

He’s just mug­gin’, of course. Still, he seems like a young man who’s got his boots on.



In that case, you’d best acquaint your­self with the only cin­e­mat­ic dic­tio­nary adap­ta­tion we’re aware of, the Mr. Hep­cat’s Dic­tio­nary num­ber from Sen­sa­tions of 1945, above.

Musi­cal team Al Sher­man & Har­ry Tobias drew direct­ly from Cab Calloway’s Cat-ologue: a Hepster’s Dic­tio­nary, a lex­i­con of Harlem jazz musi­cians’ slang orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in 1938 ’ when choos­ing terms for Cal­loway to define for a young pro­tégée, eager to be schooled in “the lin­go all the jit­ter­bugs use today.”

In between, Cal­loway, lays some iron in white tie and tails.

By the time the film came out, Cal­loway’s Hep­ster Dic­tio­nary was in its sev­enth edi­tion, and had earned its place as the offi­cial jive lan­guage ref­er­ence book of the New York Pub­lic Library.

As Cal­loway wrote in the fore­word to the sixth edi­tion:

“Jive talk” is now an every­day part of the Eng­lish lan­guage. Its usage is now accept­ed in the movies, on the stage, and in the song prod­ucts of Tin Pan Alley. It is rea­son­able to assume that jive will find new avenues in such hith­er­to remote places as Aus­tralia, the South Pacif­ic, North Africa, Chi­na, Italy, France, Sici­ly, and inevitably Ger­many and wher­ev­er our Armed Forces may serve.

I don’t want to lend the impres­sion here that the many words con­tained in this edi­tion are the fig­ments of my imag­i­na­tion. They were gath­ered from every con­ceiv­able source. Many first saw the light of printer’s ink in Bil­ly Rowe’s wide­ly read col­umn “The Note­book,” in the Pitts­burgh Couri­er.

And now to enrich our vocab­u­lar­ies…



  • A hum­mer (n.): excep­tion­al­ly good. Ex., “Man, that boy is a hum­mer.”
  • Ain’t com­ing on that tab (v.): won’t accept the propo­si­tion. Usu­al­ly abbr. to “I ain’t com­ing.”
  • Alli­ga­tor (n.): jit­ter­bug.
  • Apple (n.): the big town, the main stem, Harlem.
  • Arm­strongs (n.): musi­cal notes in the upper reg­is­ter, high trum­pet notes.


  • Bar­be­cue (n.): the girl friend, a beau­ty.
  • Bar­rel­house (adj.): free and easy.
  • Bat­tle (n.): a very home­ly girl, a crone.
  • Beat (adj.): (1) tired, exhaust­ed. Ex., “You look beat” or “I feel beat.” (2) lack­ing any­thing. Ex, “I am beat for my cash”, “I am beat to my socks” (lack­ing every­thing).
  • Beat it out (v.): play it hot, empha­size the rhythm.
  • Beat up (adj.): sad, uncom­pli­men­ta­ry, tired.
  • Beat up the chops (or the gums) (v.): to talk, con­verse, be loqua­cious.
  • Beef (v.): to say, to state. Ex., “He beefed to me that, etc.”
  • Bible (n.): the gospel truth. Ex., “It’s the bible!”
  • Black (n.): night.
  • Black and tan (n.): dark and light col­ored folks. Not col­ored and white folks as erro­neous­ly assumed.
  • Blew their wigs (adj.): excit­ed with enthu­si­asm, gone crazy.
  • Blip (n.): some­thing very good. Ex., “That’s a blip”; “She’s a blip.”
  • Blow the top (v.): to be over­come with emo­tion (delight). Ex., “You’ll blow your top when you hear this one.”
  • Boo­gie-woo­gie (n.): har­mo­ny with accent­ed bass.
  • Boot (v.): to give. Ex., “Boot me that glove.”
  • Break it up (v.): to win applause, to stop the show.
  • Bree (n.): girl.
  • Bright (n.): day.
  • Bright­nin’ (n.): day­break.
  • Bring down ((1) n. (2) v.): (1) some­thing depress­ing. Ex., “That’s a bring down.” (2) Ex., “That brings me down.”
  • Bud­dy ghee (n.): fel­low.
  • Bust your conk (v.): apply your­self dili­gent­ly, break your neck.


  • Canary (n.): girl vocal­ist.
  • Capped (v.): out­done, sur­passed.
  • Cat (n.): musi­cian in swing band.
  • Chick (n.): girl.
  • Chime (n.): hour. Ex., “I got in at six chimes.”
  • Clam­bake (n.): ad lib ses­sion, every man for him­self, a jam ses­sion not in the groove.
  • Chirp (n.): female singer.
  • Cogs (n.): sun glass­es.
  • Col­lar (v.): to get, to obtain, to com­pre­hend. Ex., “I got­ta col­lar me some food”; “Do you col­lar this jive?”
  • Come again (v.): try it over, do bet­ter than you are doing, I don’t under­stand you.
  • Comes on like gang­busters (or like test pilot) (v.): plays, sings, or dances in a ter­rif­ic man­ner, par excel­lence in any depart­ment. Some­times abbr. to “That singer real­ly comes on!”
  • Cop (v.): to get, to obtain (see col­lar; knock).
  • Corny (adj.): old-fash­ioned, stale.
  • Creeps out like the shad­ow (v.): “comes on,” but in smooth, suave, sophis­ti­cat­ed man­ner.
  • Crumb crush­ers (n.): teeth.
  • Cub­by (n.): room, flat, home.
  • Cups (n.): sleep. Ex., “I got­ta catch some cups.”
  • Cut out (v.): to leave, to depart. Ex., “It’s time to cut out”; “I cut out from the joint in ear­ly bright.”
  • Cut rate (n.): a low, cheap per­son. Ex., “Don’t play me cut rate, Jack!”


  • Dic­ty (adj.): high-class, nifty, smart.
  • Dig (v.): (1) meet. Ex., “I’ll plant you now and dig you lat­er.” (2) look, see. Ex., “Dig the chick on your left duke.” (3) com­pre­hend, under­stand. Ex., “Do you dig this jive?”
  • Dim (n.): evening.
  • Dime note (n.): ten-dol­lar bill.
  • Dog­house (n.): bass fid­dle.
  • Domi (n.): ordi­nary place to live in. Ex., “I live in a right­eous domi.”
  • Doss (n.): sleep. Ex., “I’m a lit­tle beat for my doss.”
  • Down with it (adj.): through with it.
  • Drape (n.): suit of clothes, dress, cos­tume.
  • Dream­ers (n.): bed cov­ers, blan­kets.
  • Dry-goods (n.): same as drape.
  • Duke (n.): hand, mitt.
  • Dutchess (n.): girl.


  • Ear­ly black (n.): evening
  • Ear­ly bright (n.): morn­ing.
  • Evil (adj.): in ill humor, in a nasty tem­per.


  • Fall out (v.): to be over­come with emo­tion. Ex., “The cats fell out when he took that solo.”
  • Fews and two (n.): mon­ey or cash in small quan­ti­ty.
  • Final (v.): to leave, to go home. Ex., “I finaled to my pad” (went to bed); “We copped a final” (went home).
  • Fine din­ner (n.): a good-look­ing girl.
  • Focus (v.): to look, to see.
  • Foxy (v.): shrewd.
  • Frame (n.): the body.
  • Fraughty issue (n.): a very sad mes­sage, a deplorable state of affairs.
  • Free­by (n.): no charge, gratis. Ex., “The meal was a free­by.”
  • Frisk­ing the whiskers (v.): what the cats do when they are warm­ing up for a swing ses­sion.
  • Frol­ic pad (n.): place of enter­tain­ment, the­ater, night­club.
  • From­by (adj.): a frompy queen is a bat­tle or faust.
  • Front (n.): a suit of clothes.
  • Fruit­ing (v.): fick­le, fool­ing around with no par­tic­u­lar object.
  • Fry (v.): to go to get hair straight­ened.


  • Gabriels (n.): trum­pet play­ers.
  • Gam­min’ (adj.): show­ing off, flir­ta­tious.
  • Gasser (n, adj.): sen­sa­tion­al. Ex., “When it comes to danc­ing, she’s a gasser.”
  • Gate (n.): a male per­son (a salu­ta­tion), abbr. for “gate-mouth.”
  • Get in there (excla­ma­tion.): go to work, get busy, make it hot, give all you’ve got.
  • Gimme some skin (v.): shake hands.
  • Glims (n.): the eyes.
  • Got your boots on: you know what it is all about, you are a hep cat, you are wise.
  • Got your glass­es on: you are ritzy or snooty, you fail to rec­og­nize your friends, you are up-stage.
  • Gravy (n.): prof­its.
  • Grease (v.): to eat.
  • Groovy (adj.): fine. Ex., “I feel groovy.”
  • Ground grip­pers (n.): new shoes.
  • Growl (n.): vibrant notes from a trum­pet.
  • Gut-buck­et (adj.): low-down music.
  • Guz­zlin’ foam (v.): drink­ing beer.


  • Hard (adj.): fine, good. Ex., “That’s a hard tie you’re wear­ing.”
  • Hard spiel (n.): inter­est­ing line of talk.
  • Have a ball (v.): to enjoy your­self, stage a cel­e­bra­tion. Ex., “I had myself a ball last night.”
  • Hep cat (n.): a guy who knows all the answers, under­stands jive.
  • Hide-beat­er (n.): a drum­mer (see skin-beat­er).
  • Hinc­ty (adj.): con­ceit­ed, snooty.
  • Hip (adj.): wise, sophis­ti­cat­ed, any­one with boots on. Ex., “She’s a hip chick.”
  • Home-cook­ing (n.): some­thing very din­ner (see fine din­ner).
  • Hot (adj.): musi­cal­ly tor­rid; before swing, tunes were hot or bands were hot.
  • Hype (n, v.): build up for a loan, woo­ing a girl, per­sua­sive talk.


  • Icky (n.): one who is not hip, a stu­pid per­son, can’t col­lar the jive.
  • Igg (v.): to ignore some­one. Ex., “Don’t igg me!)
  • In the groove (adj.): per­fect, no devi­a­tion, down the alley.


  • Jack (n.): name for all male friends (see gate; pops).
  • Jam ((1)n, (2)v.): (1) impro­vised swing music. Ex., “That’s swell jam.” (2) to play such music. Ex., “That cat sure­ly can jam.”
  • Jeff (n.): a pest, a bore, an icky.
  • Jel­ly (n.): any­thing free, on the house.
  • Jit­ter­bug (n.): a swing fan.
  • Jive (n.): Harlemese speech.
  • Joint is jump­ing: the place is live­ly, the club is leap­ing with fun.
  • Jumped in port (v.): arrived in town.


  • Kick (n.): a pock­et. Ex., “I’ve got five bucks in my kick.”
  • Kill me (v.): show me a good time, send me.
  • Killer-diller (n.): a great thrill.
  • Knock (v.): give. Ex., “Knock me a kiss.”
  • Kopaset­ic (adj.): absolute­ly okay, the tops.


  • Lamp (v.): to see, to look at.
  • Land o’darkness (n.): Harlem.
  • Lane (n.): a male, usu­al­ly a non­pro­fes­sion­al.
  • Latch on (v.): grab, take hold, get wise to.
  • Lay some iron (v.): to tap dance. Ex., “Jack, you real­ly laid some iron that last show!”
  • Lay your rack­et (v.): to jive, to sell an idea, to pro­mote a propo­si­tion.
  • Lead sheet (n.): a top­coat.
  • Left raise (n.): left side. Ex., “Dig the chick on your left raise.”
  • Lick­ing the chops (v.): see frisk­ing the whiskers.
  • Licks (n.): hot musi­cal phras­es.
  • Lily whites (n.): bed sheets.
  • Line (n.): cost, price, mon­ey. Ex., “What is the line on this drape” (how much does this suit cost)? “Have you got the line in the mouse” (do you have the cash in your pock­et)? Also, in reply­ing, all fig­ures are dou­bled. Ex., “This drape is line forty” (this suit costs twen­ty dol­lars).
  • Lock up: to acquire some­thing exclu­sive­ly. Ex., “He’s got that chick locked up”; “I’m gonna lock up that deal.”


  • Main kick (n.): the stage.
  • Main on the hitch (n.): hus­band.
  • Main queen (n.): favorite girl friend, sweet­heart.
  • Man in gray (n.): the post­man.
  • Mash me a fin (com­mand.): Give me $5.
  • Mel­low (adj.): all right, fine. Ex., “That’s mel­low, Jack.”
  • Melt­ed out (adj.): broke.
  • Mess (n.): some­thing good. Ex., “That last drink was a mess.”
  • Meter (n.): quar­ter, twen­ty-five cents.
  • Mezz (n.): any­thing supreme, gen­uine. Ex., “this is real­ly the mezz.”
  • Mitt pound­ing (n.): applause.
  • Moo juice (n.): milk.
  • Mouse (n.): pock­et. Ex., “I’ve got a meter in the mouse.”
  • Mug­gin’ (v.): mak­ing ’em laugh, putting on the jive. “Mug­gin’ light­ly,” light stac­ca­to swing; “mug­gin’ heavy,” heavy stac­ca­to swing.
  • Mur­der (n.): some­thing excel­lent or ter­rif­ic. Ex., “That’s sol­id mur­der, gate!”


  • Neigho, pops: Noth­ing doing, pal.
  • Nick­lette (n.): auto­mat­ic phono­graph, music box.
  • Nick­el note (n.): five-dol­lar bill.
  • Nix out (v.): to elim­i­nate, get rid of. Ex., “I nixed that chick out last week”; “I nixed my gar­ments” (undressed).
  • Nod (n.): sleep. Ex., “I think I’l cop a nod.”


  • Ofay (n.): white per­son.
  • Off the cob (adj.): corny, out of date.
  • Off-time jive (n.): a sor­ry excuse, say­ing the wrong thing.
  • Orches­tra­tion (n.): an over­coat.
  • Out of the world (adj.): per­fect ren­di­tion. Ex., “That sax cho­rus was out of the world.”
  • Ow!: an excla­ma­tion with var­ied mean­ing. When a beau­ti­ful chick pass­es by, it’s “Ow!”; and when some­one pulls an awful pun, it’s also “Ow!”


  • Pad (n.): bed.
  • Peck­ing (n.): a dance intro­duced at the Cot­ton Club in 1937.
  • Peo­la (n.): a light per­son, almost white.
  • Pigeon (n.): a young girl.
  • Pops (n.): salu­ta­tion for all males (see gate; Jack).
  • Pounders (n.): police­men.


  • Queen (n.): a beau­ti­ful girl.


  • Rank (v.): to low­er.
  • Ready (adj.): 100 per cent in every way. Ex., “That fried chick­en was ready.”
  • Ride (v.): to swing, to keep per­fect tem­po in play­ing or singing.
  • Riff (n.): hot lick, musi­cal phrase.
  • Right­eous (adj.): splen­did, okay. Ex., “That was a right­eous queen I dug you with last black.”
  • Rock me (v.): send me, kill me, move me with rhythm.
  • Ruff (n.): quar­ter, twen­ty-five cents.
  • Rug cut­ter (n.): a very good dancer, an active jit­ter­bug.


  • Sad (adj.): very bad. Ex., “That was the sad­dest meal I ever col­lared.”
  • Sad­der than a map (adj.): ter­ri­ble. Ex., “That man is sad­der than a map.”
  • Salty (adj.): angry, ill-tem­pered.
  • Sam got you: you’ve been draft­ed into the army.
  • Send (v.): to arouse the emo­tions. (joy­ful). Ex., “That sends me!”
  • Set of sev­en brights (n.): one week.
  • Sharp (adj.): neat, smart, tricky. Ex., “That hat is sharp as a tack.”
  • Sig­ni­fy (v.): to declare your­self, to brag, to boast.
  • Skins (n.): drums.
  • Skin-beat­er (n.): drum­mer (see hide-beat­er).
  • Sky piece (n.): hat.
  • Slave (v.): to work, whether ardu­ous labor or not.
  • Slide your jib (v.): to talk freely.
  • Snatch­er (n.): detec­tive.
  • So help me: it’s the truth, that’s a fact.
  • Sol­id (adj.): great, swell, okay.
  • Sound­ed off (v.): began a pro­gram or con­ver­sa­tion.
  • Spoutin’ (v.): talk­ing too much.
  • Square (n.): an unhep per­son (see icky; Jeff).
  • Stache (v.): to file, to hide away, to secrete.
  • Stand one up (v.): to play one cheap, to assume one is a cut-rate.
  • To be stashed (v.): to stand or remain.
  • Susie‑Q (n.): a dance intro­duced at the Cot­ton Club in 1936.


  • Take it slow (v.): be care­ful.
  • Take off (v.): play a solo.
  • The man (n.): the law.
  • Threads (n.): suit, dress or cos­tume (see drape; dry-goods).
  • Tick (n.): minute, moment. Ex., “I’ll dig you in a few ticks.” Also, ticks are dou­bled in account­ing time, just as mon­ey is dou­bled in giv­ing “line.” Ex., “I finaled to the pad this ear­ly bright at tick twen­ty” (I got to bed this morn­ing at ten o’clock).
  • Tim­ber (n.): tooth­pick.
  • To drib­ble (v.): to stut­ter. Ex., “He talked in drib­bles.”
  • Togged to the bricks: dressed to kill, from head to toe.
  • Too much (adj.): term of high­est praise. Ex., “You are too much!”
  • Trick­er­a­tion (n.): strut­tin’ your stuff, mug­gin’ light­ly and polite­ly.
  • Tril­ly (v.): to leave, to depart. Ex., “Well, I guess I’ll tril­ly.”
  • Truck (v.): to go some­where. Ex., “I think I’ll truck on down to the gin­mill (bar).”
  • Truck­ing (n.): a dance intro­duced at the Cot­ton Club in 1933.
  • Twister to the slam­mer (n.): the key to the door.
  • Two cents (n.): two dol­lars.


  • Unhep (adj.): not wise to the jive, said of an icky, a Jeff, a square.


  • Vine (n.): a suit of clothes.
  • V‑8 (n.): a chick who spurns com­pa­ny, is inde­pen­dent, is not amenable.


  • What’s your sto­ry?: What do you want? What have you got to say for your­self? How are tricks? What excuse can you offer? Ex., “I don’t know what his sto­ry is.”
  • Whipped up (adj.): worn out, exhaust­ed, beat for your every­thing.
  • Wren (n.): a chick, a queen.
  • Wrong riff: the wrong thing said or done. Ex., “You’re com­ing up on the wrong riff.”


  • Yard­dog (n.): uncouth, bad­ly attired, unat­trac­tive male or female.
  • Yeah, man: an excla­ma­tion of assent.


  • Zoot (adj.): exag­ger­at­ed
  • Zoot suit (n.): the ulti­mate in clothes. The only total­ly and tru­ly Amer­i­can civil­ian suit.

That’s sol­id mur­der, gate!

If you’re not too beat, Jazz Night In Amer­i­ca builds on Calloway’s dic­tio­nary with some addi­tion­al vocab­u­lary in the video below. Watch it for the mean­ings of stank, ictus, swoop, and scoop, defined col­lec­tive­ly by drum­mer Ali Jack­son as the sort of col­lo­qui­alisms you use when you “don’t want every­one to know what you’re say­ing, but you want to express a point.”

Lis­ten to poet Lemn Sis­say’s BBC his­to­ry of Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dic­tio­nary here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Cab Calloway’s “Hep­ster Dic­tio­nary,” a 1939 Glos­sary of the Lin­go (the “Jive”) of the Harlem Renais­sance

One of the Great­est Dances Sequences Ever Cap­tured on Film Gets Restored in Col­or by AI: Watch the Clas­sic Scene from Stormy Weath­er

Cab Cal­loway Stars in “Min­nie the Moocher,” a Trip­py Bet­ty Boop Car­toon That’s Ranked as the 20th Great­est Car­toon of All Time (1932)

Watch a Sur­re­al 1933 Ani­ma­tion of Snow White, Fea­tur­ing Cab Cal­loway & Bet­ty Boop: It’s Ranked as the 19th Great­est Car­toon of All Time

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Sir Ian McKellen’s 1979 Master Class on Macbeth’s Final Monologue

If only we could have had a teacher as insight­ful as Sir Ian McK­ellen explain some Shake­speare to us at an impres­sion­able age.

Above, a 38-year-old McK­ellen breaks down Macbeth’s famous final solil­o­quy as part of a 1978 mas­ter class in Act­ing Shake­speare.

He makes it clear ear­ly on that rely­ing on Iambic pen­tame­ter to con­vey the mean­ing of the verse will not cut it.

Instead, he calls upon actors to apply the pow­er of their intel­lect to every line, ana­lyz­ing metaphors and imagery, while also not­ing punc­tu­a­tion, word choice, and of course, the events lead­ing up to the speech.

In this way, he says, “the actor is the play­wright and the char­ac­ter simul­ta­ne­ous­ly.”

McK­ellen was, at the time, deeply immersed in Mac­beth, play­ing the title role oppo­site Judi Dench in a bare bones Roy­al Shake­speare Com­pa­ny pro­duc­tion that opened in the company’s Strat­ford stu­dio before trans­fer­ring to the West End. As McK­ellen recalled in a longer med­i­ta­tion on the trick­i­ness of stag­ing this par­tic­u­lar tragedy:

It was beau­ti­ful­ly done on the cheap in The Oth­er Place, the old tin hut along from the main the­atre. John Napi­er’s entire set cost £200 and the cos­tumes were a rag­bag of sec­ond-hand clothes. My uni­form jack­et had but­tons embossed with ‘Birm­ing­ham Fire Ser­vice’; my long, leather coat did­n’t fit, nor did Ban­quo’s so we had to wear them slung over the shoul­der; Judi Dench, as Lady Mac­beth, wore a dyed tea-tow­el on her head. Some­how it was mag­ic: and black mag­ic, too. A priest used to sit on the front row, when­ev­er he could scrounge a tick­et, hold­ing out his cru­ci­fix to pro­tect the cast from the evil we were rais­ing.

The New York Times raved about the pro­duc­tion, declar­ing McK­ellen “the best equipped British actor of his gen­er­a­tions:”

Mr. McK­el­len’s Mac­beth is wit­ty; not mere­ly the hor­ror but the absur­di­ty of his actions strikes him from the out­set, and he can regard his down­fall as an inex­orable joke. His wife pulls him along a road that he would trav­el any­way and he can allow him­self scru­ples, know­ing that she will be there to mop them up. Once her pro­sa­ic, lim­it­ed ambi­tion is achieved, she is of no more use to him and he shrugs her off; “she would have died here­after” is a moment of exas­per­a­tion that dares our laugh­ter.

What fuels him most is envy, reach­ing incred­u­lous­ly for­ward (“The seed of Ban­quo kings?”) and back­ward to col­or the despair of “Dun­can is in his grave.” The words, and the mind behind them, are ran­cid, and it is this mood that takes pos­ses­sion of his last scenes. Every­thing dis­gusts him, and his only rea­son for fight­ing to the death is that the thought of sub­jec­tion is the most dis­gust­ing of all.

McK­ellen begins his exam­i­na­tion of the text by not­ing how “she would have died here­after” sets up the final solil­o­quy’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with time, and its pas­sage.

Tomor­row, and tomor­row, and tomor­row,

Creeps in this pet­ty pace from day to day,

To the last syl­la­ble of record­ed time;

And all our yes­ter­days have light­ed fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief can­dle!

Life’s but a walk­ing shad­ow, a poor play­er,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Sig­ni­fy­ing noth­ing.

McK­ellen makes a true meal of  “out, out, brief can­dle”,  relat­ing it to Lady Macbeth’s final appear­ance, the fools pro­ceed­ing to their dusty death ear­li­er in the mono­logue, and Eliz­a­bethan stage light­ing.

He spec­u­lates that Shakespeare’s descrip­tion of life as a “poor play­er” was a delib­er­ate attempt by the play­wright to give the actor an inter­pre­tive hook they could relate to. In per­for­mance, the the­atri­cal metaphor should remind the audi­ence that they’re watch­ing a pre­tense even as they’re invest­ed in the character’s fate.

The pro­duc­tion’s suc­cess inspired direc­tor Trevor Nunn to film it. McK­ellen recalled that every­one was already so well acquaint­ed with the mate­r­i­al, it took just two weeks to get it in the can:

The claus­tro­pho­bia of the stage pro­duc­tion was exact­ly cap­tured. Trevor had used a sim­i­lar tech­nique with Antony and Cleopa­tra on the box. No one else should ever be allowed to tele­vise Shakespeare…There is so much I was proud of: dis­cov­er­ing how to play a solil­o­quy direct into the eyes of every­one in the audi­ence; mak­ing them laugh at Mac­beth’s gal­lows humor; work­ing along­side Judi Dench’s finest per­for­mance.

For more expert advice from McK­ellen, Patrick Stew­art, Ben Kings­ley and oth­er nota­bles, watch the RSC’s 9‑part Play­ing Shake­speare series here.

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and cre­ator, most recent­ly of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Who Decides What Words Get Into the Dictionary?

DICTIONARY, n. A malev­o­lent lit­er­ary device for cramp­ing the growth of a lan­guage and mak­ing it hard and inelas­tic. — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dic­tio­nary

Once upon a time, we were made to believe that words could nev­er acquire sticks and stones’ capac­i­ty to wound.

Talk about a max­im no longer worth the paper it was print­ed on!

Lan­guage is organ­ic. Def­i­n­i­tions, usage, and our response to par­tic­u­lar words evolve over time.

Lex­i­cog­ra­ph­er Ilan Sta­vans’ TED-Ed les­son, Who Decides What’s in the Dic­tio­nary?, rolls the clock back to 1604, when school­mas­ter Robert Caw­drey assem­bled the first Eng­lish lan­guage dic­tio­nary “for the ben­e­fit of Ladies, Gen­tle­women, and oth­er unskilled folk.”

Oth­er Eng­lish dic­tio­nar­ies soon fol­lowed, expand­ing on the 2,543 words Caw­drey had seen fit to include. His fel­low authors shared Caw­drey’s pre­scrip­tive goal of edu­cat­ing the rab­ble, to keep them from butcher­ing the high-mind­ed tongue the self-appoint­ed guardian con­sid­ered it his duty to pro­tect.

Word­smith Samuel John­son, the pri­ma­ry author of 1775’s mas­sive A Dic­tio­nary of the Eng­lish Lan­guage, described his mis­sion as one in which “the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of our lan­guage may be fixed, and its attain­ment facil­i­tat­ed; by which its puri­ty may be pre­served, its use ascer­tained, and its dura­tion length­ened.”

Lest we think John­son over­ly impressed with the impor­tance of his lofty mis­sion, he sub­mit­ted the fol­low­ing gen­tly self-mock­ing def­i­n­i­tion of Lex­i­cog­ra­ph­er:

A writer of dic­tio­nar­ies; a harm­less drudge that busies him­self in trac­ing the orig­i­nal, and detail­ing the sig­ni­fi­ca­tion of words.

150 years lat­er, Ambrose Bierce offered an oppos­ing view in his delight­ful­ly wicked dic­tio­nary:

LEXICOGRAPHER, n. A pesti­lent fel­low who, under the pre­tense of record­ing some par­tic­u­lar stage in the devel­op­ment of a lan­guage, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiff­en its flex­i­bil­i­ty and mech­a­nize its meth­ods.

Sta­vans points to broth­ers George and Charles Merriam’s acqui­si­tion of the rights to Noah Webster’s An Amer­i­can Dic­tio­nary of the Eng­lish Lan­guage (1828) as a moment when our con­cept of what a dic­tio­nary should be began to shift.

Web­ster, work­ing by him­self, set out to col­lect and doc­u­ment Eng­lish as it was used on these shores.

The Mer­ri­ams engaged a group of lan­guage experts to curate sub­se­quent edi­tions, strik­ing a blow for the idiom by includ­ing slang and region­al vari­ants.

A good start, though they exclud­ed any­thing they found unfit for the gen­er­al con­sump­tion at the time, includ­ing expres­sions born in the Black com­mu­ni­ty.

Their edi­to­ri­al­iz­ing was of a piece with pre­vail­ing views — see “wife.”

But humans, like lan­guage, evolve.

These days, lex­i­cog­ra­phers mon­i­tor the Inter­net for new words to be con­sid­ered for upcom­ing edi­tions, includ­ing pro­fan­i­ty and racial slurs.

If a word’s use is judged to be wide­spread, sus­tained and mean­ing­ful, in it goes… even though some might find it objec­tion­able, or even, yes, hurt­ful.

Sta­vans wraps his les­son up by draw­ing our atten­tion to Merriam-Webster’s tra­di­tion of anoint­ing one entry to Word of the Year, drawn from sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis of the words peo­ple look up in extreme­ly high num­bers.

“They” got the nod in 2019, a tes­ta­ment to how deeply non-bina­ry gen­der expres­sion has per­me­at­ed the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness and nation­al con­ver­sa­tion.

The run­ner up?


Care to guess which word 2020 placed in the dictionary’s path?

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

How a Word Enters the Dic­tio­nary: A Quick Primer

A Dic­tio­nary of Words Invent­ed to Name Emo­tions We All Feel, But Don’t Yet Have a Name For: Vemö­dalen, Son­der, Chrysal­ism & Much More

The Largest His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of Eng­lish Slang Now Free Online: Cov­ers 500 Years of the “Vul­gar Tongue”

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

A Tour of U.S. Accents: Bostonian, Philadelphese, Gullah Creole & Other Intriguing Dialects

You don’t have an accent — or rather, every­one has an accent, but we don’t notice our own, espe­cial­ly if we asso­ciate most­ly with peo­ple of sim­i­lar cul­tur­al back­grounds. For how­ev­er we might like to describe our­selves, the way we speak reveals who we are: as dialect coach Erik Singer puts it in the Wired video above, “Accent is iden­ti­ty.” Among the forces shap­ing that iden­ti­ty he names not just geog­ra­phy but socioe­co­nom­ic back­ground, gen­er­a­tion, eth­nic­i­ty and race, and oth­er “indi­vid­ual fac­tors.”  The result is that a large and var­ied con­ti­nent like North Amer­i­ca has giv­en rise to a wide vari­ety of accents in the Eng­lish lan­guage alone.

In the video Singer and four oth­er spe­cial­ist lan­guage experts demon­strate a great many of these North Amer­i­can accents, iden­ti­fy­ing the most dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics of each. The clas­sic Boston accent, for exam­ple, is “non-rhot­ic,” refer­ring to the drop­ping of “R” sounds that make pos­si­ble such clas­sic phras­es as “pahk yah cah in Havahd Yard.” It dif­fers in many ways from those com­mon in places like Rhode Island and New York City, rel­a­tive­ly close togeth­er though all three areas may seem: the diver­si­ty of accents on the U.S. east coast ver­sus its more recent­ly set­tled west coast under­scores the fact that region­al accents need time, usu­al­ly a mat­ter of gen­er­a­tion upon gen­er­a­tion, to emerge.

The way Philadel­phi­ans talk illus­trates what Singer calls “the ‘on’ line,” north of which most pro­nounce “on” as if it rhymes with “don,” and south of which — Philly and below — most pro­nounce “on” as if rhymes with “dawn.” You don’t even have to cross the Penn­syl­va­nia bor­der to find anoth­er unique accent. Only in Pitts­burgh do peo­ple “smooth the ‘mouth’ dipthong,” a dipthong being a syl­la­ble com­posed of two dis­tinct vow­els — here, the “ou” in “mouth” — the “smooth­ing out” of which turns it into a sin­gle (and to non-Pitts­burghers, unusu­al-sound­ing) vow­el.

By the end of these 20 min­utes, Singer and his crew have made it only as far as the “Piney Woods Belt” of the Amer­i­can south, whose accents bring to many of our minds the voice of Scar­lett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois. They’ve also touched on such lin­guis­tic curiosi­ties as Gul­lah cre­ole; the Eliz­a­bethan inflec­tion of Ocra­coke Island, North Car­oli­na,” pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture; and in some ways the most curi­ous of all, the broad­ly des­ig­nat­ed “gen­er­al Amer­i­can” speech that has emerged in recent decades. This is only the first video of a series [update: it’s now avail­able below], so keep an eye on Wired’s Youtube chan­nel for the next install­ment of the lin­guis­tic jour­ney — and keep an ear out for all the sub­tle vari­eties of Eng­lish you can catch in the mean­time.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Map­ping the Dif­fer­ences in How Amer­i­cans Speak Eng­lish: A Geo­graph­ic Look at Words, Accents & Dialects

A Brief Tour of British & Irish Accents: 14 Ways to Speak Eng­lish in 84 Sec­onds

One Woman, 17 British Accents

The Speech Accent Archive: The Eng­lish Accents of Peo­ple Who Speak 341 Dif­fer­ent Lan­guages

Meet the Amer­i­cans Who Speak with Eliz­a­bethan Eng­lish Accents: An Intro­duc­tion to the “Hoi Toi­ders” from Ocra­coke, North Car­oli­na

Why Do Peo­ple Talk Fun­ny in Old Movies?, or The Ori­gin of the Mid-Atlantic Accent

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Mapping the Differences in How Americans Speak English: A Geographic Look at Words, Accents & Dialects

In the 2005 PBS doc­u­men­tary series Do You Speak Amer­i­can? jour­nal­ist Robert Mac­Neil trav­eled from fabled “sea to shin­ing sea” to explore the mys­ter­ies of Amer­i­can Eng­lish. Among the many ques­tions he addressed at the time was the wide­spread idea that mass media is “homog­e­niz­ing Amer­i­can lan­guage or mak­ing us all talk the same.” Mac­Neil, and the lin­guists he inter­viewed, found that this wasn’t true, but what accounts for the mis­per­cep­tion?

One rea­son we may have been inclined to think so is that region­al accents seemed to dis­ap­pear from tele­vi­sion and oth­er media, as the coun­try became more sub­ur­ban, and mid­dle class white Amer­i­cans dis­tanced them­selves from their immi­grant roots and from African Amer­i­cans and work­ing-class South­ern­ers. Aside from sev­er­al broad eth­nic stereo­types, many of which also fad­ed dur­ing the Civ­il Rights era, the more-or-less authen­tic region­al accents on TV seemed few­er and few­er.

A rush of media in recent decades, how­ev­er, from Far­go to The Sopra­nos, has rein­tro­duced Amer­i­cans to the region­al vari­eties of their lan­guage. At the same time, pop­u­lar treat­ment of lin­guis­tics, like MacNeil’s doc­u­men­tary, have intro­duced us to the tools researchers use to study the diver­si­ty of dif­fer­ence in Amer­i­can Eng­lish. Those dif­fer­ences can be mea­sured, for exam­ple, in whether peo­ple pro­nounce “R” sounds in words like “car,” a char­ac­ter­is­tic lin­guists call “rhotic­i­ty.”

In the past cen­tu­ry, Ben Traw­ick-Smith of Dialect Blog writes, “Amer­i­can and British atti­tudes toward non-rhotic­i­ty diverged. Where r‑lessness was once a pres­tige fea­ture in both coun­tries,” rep­re­sent­ing in the South­ern planter class and Boston Brah­mins in the U.S., for exam­ple, “it is a mark­er of work­ing-class or ver­nac­u­lar speech in 21st-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca (typ­i­cal of the broad­est New York City, Boston and African Amer­i­can Ver­nac­u­lar Eng­lish­es).” In the short film at the top, you can hear sev­er­al vari­eties of rhot­ic and non-rhot­ic Amer­i­can Eng­lish in the mouths of speak­ers from 6 regions around the coun­try.

Pre­sent­ed by lin­guist Hen­ry Smith, Jr. the 1958 doc­u­men­tary details the pho­net­ic dif­fer­ences of each speak­er’s pro­nun­ci­a­tions. Lin­guists use cer­tain words to test for a vernacular’s pho­net­ic qual­i­ties, words like “water” and “oil,” which you can hear fur­ther up in a far more recent video, pro­nounced by speak­ers from dif­fer­ent states around the U.S. Region­al speech is also mea­sured by the choice of words we use to talk about the same thing, with one of the most promi­nent exam­ples in the U.S. being “Soda vs. Pop vs. Coke.” In the Atlantic video just above, see how those dif­fer­ent words break down accord­ing to region, and learn a bit more about the “at least 10 dis­tinct dialects of Eng­lish” spo­ken in the U.S.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

A Brief Tour of British & Irish Accents: 14 Ways to Speak Eng­lish in 84 Sec­onds

What Eng­lish Would Sound Like If It Was Pro­nounced Pho­net­i­cal­ly

The Speech Accent Archive: The Eng­lish Accents of Peo­ple Who Speak 341 Dif­fer­ent Lan­guages

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Meet the Americans Who Speak with Elizabethan English Accents: An Introduction to the “Hoi Toiders” from Ocracoke, North Carolina

I remem­ber sit­ting in on a con­ver­sa­tion with some old timers in the British vil­lage my par­ents grew up in, and one man remem­bered a time, very ear­ly on in the 20th cen­tu­ry, where vil­lages were so iso­lat­ed you could tell where some­body was from in a radius of about 20 miles. That doesn’t exist so much these days, as radio, tele­vi­sion, and now the inter­net expos­es us more and more to accents at an ear­ly age.

So that’s why I found the above footage so fas­ci­nat­ing. Tak­en from a doc­u­men­tary on region­al accents (pos­si­bly this one) from the North Car­oli­na coast, I could hear a bit of that East Anglia accent from my grandparents…but then a few words that sound­ed like Som­er­set or Devon in the south-west of England…and then some straight up south­ern Amer­i­can twang. And that was in one sen­tence! What’s going on here?

Iso­la­tion, that’s what. The island of Ocra­coke has over the cen­turies devel­oped its own dialect, “Hoi Toide” (as in “high tide”), that is also the name for a way of life. Even now, it takes a boat to reach the island–ferries only start­ed arriv­ing in 1957–and back in the 18th cen­tu­ry it was a refuge for pirates.

One of them, William Howard, pur­chased the island in 1759 for £105, after King George I par­doned all pirates. Ocra­coke, its name already a bas­tardiza­tion of a Native Amer­i­can word, became a fish­ing com­mu­ni­ty, a mix of Eng­lish, Scot­tish, and Irish set­tlers, natives, and pirates. The result­ing mish-mash of bor­rowed and made-up words, along with pirate slang, make Hoi Toide one of the few Amer­i­can dialects not iden­ti­fied as Amer­i­can, as it also has its own pecu­liar gram­mar.

With a pop­u­la­tion of just over 900, Ocra­coke has its own pace to life, which does attract tourists try­ing to get away from it all. As this BBC arti­cle points out:

Instead of cin­e­mas, there are out­door the­atre groups. Local teashops, spice mar­kets and oth­er fam­i­ly-owned stores take the place of chain super­mar­kets. Cars are allowed on the 16 mile-long island, but most peo­ple just park them and walk every­where. The island’s chil­dren all attend one school, while res­i­dents work as every­thing from fish­er­men to brew­ery own­ers to wood­work­ers.

Mod­ern life is threat­en­ing the dialect, inevitably so, even as the com­mu­ni­ty remains close-knit. By all accounts it will be gone in a few more gen­er­a­tions, so let’s cel­e­brate this par­tic­u­lar­ly Amer­i­can brogue, born out of neces­si­ty, indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, and most impor­tant­ly, a love­ly melt­ing pot.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Shakespeare’s Eng­lish Sound­ed Like, and How We Know It

The Speech Accent Archive: The Eng­lish Accents of Peo­ple Who Speak 341 Dif­fer­ent Lan­guages

Why Do Peo­ple Talk Fun­ny in Old Movies?, or The Ori­gin of the Mid-Atlantic Accent

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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