I was in my cab to the Amtrak station in Pittsburgh when I was reminded of a peculiar linguistic habit I’ve noticed away from places I call home. There are words which people who are not from places use, because they believe they are used in those places. My cab driver in PIttsburgh asked where I was from in “Cali”. A friend’s Mom corrected her daughter, saying women in the Gulf don’t wear burkas, they wear “burnooses.” Another friend’s Dad asked about the weather in “‘frisco”.
It is not that I haven’t heard these words in the many places I call home. They are simply the wrong words to use if you are trying to pass as someone from a given area.
At home, San Francisco is The City, or maybe SF. But because San Francisco is really just a collection of neighborhoods, it would be more accurate if I said “I’m going up to attend a convention at Moscone” or “I’m visiting the Mission” rather than “I’m going up to the city tonight” (and always better than saying “I am traveling to ‘frisco tonight.”) The word “burka” is a pet peeve of mine, because it describes a particular clothing style which is widely uncommon in the Arab and Muslim worlds. It would be like saying “thong” instead of underwear, or “wife-beater” instead of t-shirt. Not only is it the wrong word for what people are actually wearing, it’s an icky word
Using the correct vocabulary gives the speaker access to people who understand the culture by showing themselves not to be ignorant. Someone who tries to use slang they are not familiar with runs the risk of sounding ill-informed and desperate for acceptance.
This of course does not stop me from talking about “yinzers” in Pittsburgh or saying our tool-chest looks “Steampunk”* because it’s top box is has two sturdy hammers and a lug-wrench, and its lower compartment contains a set of fine screw-drivers, an ether-net cable, and a few yards of lace hemming. Because even though I don’t understand all the connotations of either word, I can only learn them by using them in sentences, and watching people’s faces to see whether I got it right.
*I was accused of making this word up today at my internship. I used it to describe the locks in a nearby building that look old, use Roman numerals, but are electronic locks). Here is a video about the Steampunk movement:
[Vizzini has just cut the rope The Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing up]
Vizzini: HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE.
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.