I must have been 17 years old before I ever uttered the phrase “come here.” And I did so only to make myself understood to what I thought was a somewhat dense Northerner, a Long Islander who couldn’t understand basic English.
In my part of the world, in South Louisiana, for some reason or other, we never said, “come here.” Instead, we said, “come see.” Always and forever, with no confusions or misunderstanding.
Yet the very first time I said “come see” in Southampton, New York, in the fall of 1991, the response was — well, I don’t have to tell anyone who wasn’t raised in Louisiana what the response was.
Me: “Come see.”
Friend: “See what?”
Friend: “Come see what?”
Me: Pause. Thinking. “Uh. Come here?”
And thus I switched from “come see” to “come here.”
When it comes to Cajuns, everyone outside the state seems to focus on the accent.And that’s what I did before moving away to college. I focused on the accent, stomped it mostly into the ground. I tried not to flatten my a’s. I tried to actually pronounce the “th” sound rather than turning it into a “t” or a “d” depending on the situation — as in “Set and dem went to da store and bought some tick-sliced bacon. Tick, tick.” (Translation: Seth and them went to the store and bought some thick-sliced bacon. Thick, thick.)
But it never really occurred to me that when it comes to talking funny, people don’t just sound different, they speak differently, using different words to say the same things.
So, a list, of things people say in Cajun Louisiana. (Note: New Orleans is NOT Cajun Louisiana, but I don’t have time to get into that at the moment.)
Come see: Come here. Easy enough, I think. Whether or not something is going to be shown is irrelevant. So don’t be surprised if, after you cross a room or a street after hearing this from a Cajun, that he doesn’t actually show you anything. He might just have something to say that he didn’t want to shout across the way.
Get down: Exit a vehicle. If you’ve given me a ride after school to my mama’s house, I may ask you, “You gonna get down?” I’m not asking if the FM stereo is moving you in such a manner that you’d like to dance in a vigorous 1970s style. No, I’m asking if you’re going to get out and come in to the house.
Put up: To put away. If I were to say to you, “Put that book up,” I don’t mean to hold it in the air above your head. Rather, I mean you should put it where it belongs. Another example: “Help me put up them groceries.”
Make groceries: To go grocery shopping. “I’m gone to the Winn Dixie to make groceries.” To be honest, we did NOT say this growing up. The first instances I ever heard of this were from folks who came from the Mandeville area just north of New Orleans, so I hesitate to even include it in this list. But I’ve since heard some Cajuns saying it. I don’t know if they taught it to the YATs or caught it from them — or just found the phrase so damn excellent they decided to put it in the rotation.
Mais: Well then! Technically, this is a French word meaning but. BUT! In South Louisiana, especially among those who don’t speak Cajun French anymore, it’s basically become an interjection that more or less means “Well then” and is used to delight, shock, exasperation — any number of things. It’s almost like “dude” or “fuck” in its ability to morph into anything depending on situation, tone, delivery and other factors.
“Mais, I gotta go to the store, I guess.”
“I got us some Popeyes!” “Mais!”
“You stupid, yeah.” “Mais!”
“I broke my leg.” “Mais!”
When it comes to pronunciation, the word falls somewhere between may and meh.
Sha: The most common misspelling of the French word “cher.” It’s spelled this way because that’s the way it’s pronounced in Cajun country. The pronunciation of this word in no way resembles any pronunciation of it you’ve heard on TV or in the movies — or the pronunciation of the name of Sonny’s wife. Freeing it from the original pronunciation has also freed it from the confines of its original meaning, which was “dear” or “precious.” It can still mean that, but it also can mean something along the lines of “babe” or “hon” (but not in a skeevy pick-up way).
“Hey, cher, you wanna go to the drive-through daiquiri stand and get some Funky Monkeys?”
“Cher, you know I do.”
But one of it’s most common uses these days is as a substitute for “cute” or “awwww.”
Upon seeing a cute kitten video on YouTube: “Cher!”
And this is where the misspelling becomes better.
Upon seeing a really cute kitten video on YouTube: “Shaaaaaaaaaaa.”
In fact, the word is often coupled with “Aw.”
Upon seeing a ridiculously cute kitten video on YouTube: “Aw, shaaaaaaaaaa.”
Also useful for responding to babies.
Look, here’s my new baby. “Aw. Sha, tee baby.” (Translation: “Aw. Cher petite baby.”)
T (or tee): Little. Tiny. Short for petite, the French word meaning little. In fact, it’s usually redundantly packed with words that mean the same thing for effect. “Aw, t lil baby.” Or: “Look at that t tiny kitten.” Can also be used as a nickname, usually for boys, sometimes because they’re small, sometimes to distinguish them from a father with the same name. Hence, I’m T-Ken.
Tres (Tray): A common boy’s name in South Louisiana which has nothing in common with the actual legal name of the child. If Ken Junior would be T-Ken, then Ken the Third would be … Tres. Because tres means three. Obviously. UPDATE: This is obviously from Spanish, not French. Because three in French is trois. Don’t ask me how people in Louisiana decide these things.
Yall: A group of people. Yes, Cajuns use this word as well. I have strong feelings about it, some having to do with punctuation — I think it has become its own word and doesn’t need to signify a contraction. It’s such a useful, great word that it never occurred to me that the rest of the world didn’t use it. So even before I had the “come see” incident, there was the yall incident.
Me, standing on beach in Southampton: “Hey, yall wanna…”
Everyone else: “Pahahahahahahaha.”
Everyone else: “Yall!?! That’s so cute.”
Me: “Man. Fuck all of yall.”
Everyone else: “PAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.”
I also can’t stand the shoddy Northern writer’s insistence that we commonly use “yall” when speaking to a single person directly in front of us. Doesn’t happen. If I’m asking the person in front of me a question having to do with himself, I use the word “you.”
“Hey, you want to go fishing?”
If I’m asking the person in front of me a question about his family, then maybe I’ll use yall. “How yall doing?”
But instead of using “yall” in that case, I’m more likely to use a more apt phrase.
Ya mama and dem: Your mother and them. Your family. “How’s ya mama and dem doing?”
My mama, she … her: This isn’t a phrase or word with a definition as much as it is a confounding sentence structure that my fourth grade teacher all but had to beat out of us. (In truth, she resorted to the power of shame, encouraging the rest of the class to mock anyone using the phrasing. So if someone started a sentence, “My mama, she,” the rest of the class jumped in with, “Ooohhh, ‘my mama, she'” before the offender could even complete the sentence. Very effective!)
I’m assuming it’s some sort of hangover from French–a weird abuse of reflexive pronouns or something. It almost seems like whoever dreamed up this construction wanted the listener to be very clear who was doing what in these sentences.
“My mama, she went to the store, her.”
“Brian, he joined the Navy, him.”
That’s all I have at the moment. I’m sure my list is incomplete. If you’re from Louisiana and want to add your own in comments, go for it. If you’re from another part of the country and you have your own weird phrases, add those too.
Oh, yeah. I have a new novel out. Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears is set in Brooklyn and Louisiana and has plenty of funny talking going on. You can buy it online or, especially in the South, at an independent book store near you! In fact, the book is part of a #coderead promotion conducted by the Southern Independent Booksellers Association.
Oh, and while I have you. I’m running with Team in Training again this year to raise money to fight leukemia and lymphoma. Donate if you can!