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TUPPER: South Dakota's words, meanings and whatnot

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opinion Mitchell,South Dakota 57301
The Daily Republic
TUPPER: South Dakota's words, meanings and whatnot
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

We recently received a South Dakota-tailored news release about the fifth edition of the Dictionary of American Regional English.

In the lead paragraph of the release, somebody tried to cleverly string together all of the South Dakota-specific words in a few sentences:


"Look at that soak -- he's kaput after his night of debauchery. You might have to put him in an Irish buggy before going out in the waterspout to take him home, kitty-corner from the train station. If you rubber on his phone call, you'll hear he's due to catch a flyer there tomorrow."

According to the researchers at the University of Wisconsin who compiled the dictionary, that's the kind of thing you might hear somebody say in South Dakota.

I'm with them on "soak," "kitty-corner" and, to a lesser extent, even "kaput," all of which I've heard used that way during my 30-plus years of being a South Dakotan. But their linguistic train careens off the track with some of those other words. Irish buggy? Waterspout? Rubber? Flyer? I'm not sure I've ever heard anybody in South Dakota use those words in those ways.

So, I've begun compiling my own South Dakota dictionary. I grew up in a rural area that was western enough to be influenced by cowboy culture, and I'm therefore not sure the words and phrases I've assembled will make much sense to people east of the James River.

With that warning out of the way, here's what I've come up with so far. If it needs a title, maybe I'll call it the "Dictionary of Central and Western South Dakota English."

Crick: Preferred pronunciation of "creek." Example: There's a little crick that winds through our place.

Dinner: If you use this word to invite a rural South Dakotan to an evening meal, they'll show up six hours early. In rural South Dakota, "lunch" is "dinner" and "dinner" is "supper."

Drouth (pronounced "drowth"): The word used by survivors of the Great Depression and some other old-timers to describe a period of prolonged dryness. Example: The drouth was so bad, we had grasshoppers the size of gophers. Sadly, use of this word has nearly been replaced by the much less colorful-sounding "drought."

Fer: Preferred pronunciation of "for." Example: What can I do ya fer?

Head: An extra word that, for reasons not entirely known, is usually used when referencing a number of livestock. Example: We've got 20 head of cattle. This is perhaps a distinction between the number of hooves and heads in a herd. Yet no one ever says "we've got 80 hooves of cattle," so it would stand to reason that saying "20" would be sufficient. Still, "20 head" is the norm.

Hills, The: Always and without fail, this is understood as a reference to the Black Hills. Example: We're going to The Hills for a weekend.

Hot beef: Rather then merely describing the temperature of beef, the phrase "Hot Beef" is used to describe a particular dish consisting of roast-beef sandwiches smothered in gravy and accompanied by mashed potatoes. This dish is consumed most often for dinner (which means lunch) at small-town restaurants, and especially at cafes attached to livestock auction barns.

Hunnert: In many areas west of The River (see entry below) and even in some areas near The River, this is the correct pronunciation of "hundred." Example: There's a hunnert head of cattle down by the crick.

Kattywampus (also kattycorner or kittycorner): This word is often used when giving directions, to indicate that one thing is located in a diagonal direction from another thing. Example: Our house is just kattywampus from the grain elevator. It can also mean askew: I was trying to fix the tractor, and I got all kattywampus.

Oil: A commonly used description of an asphalt road. Example: Just take the county oil for three miles and then turn west.

Old girl: An adjective used to describe aged cows, mares, farm equipment, vehicles and women. Example: That old girl has pertinear had it. (Yes, "pertinear." See next entry.)

Pertinear (pronounced "pert-ih-near"): A combination of pretty and near, used to indicate the close proximity of one thing to another or the near completion of a task. Question: Are we there yet? Answer: Pertinear.

Pot: An acceptably shortened reference to a potbelly semitrailer, the lower deck of which hangs down like a potbelly. Example: I need a pot to haul these cattle.

River, The: In most of South Dakota, references to "The River" are typically understood to mean the Missouri River. Question: Where are you gonna fish? Answer: The River.

Salty: Often used as a begrudging compliment, in reference to an adversary's toughness. Example: That Mitchell basketball team is pretty salty.

Warsh: The preferred pronunciation of "wash" among many of the cowboys, farmers and rural-raised people of the state. Example: I need to warsh my truck before I go to town. The pronunciation is consistent in other word constructions, including references to the state of Washington. Example: I have to drive clear out to Warshington for a wedding.

Whatnot: An acceptable and often-used substitute for etcetera. Question: What's in that drawer? Answer: Oh, you know, scissors, tape, the phone book, and whatnot.

You guys: The South Dakota equivalent of the Southern "y'all" and the western Pennsylvanian "yuns," used in reference to a group of people. Example: What are you guys doin' today? (Note: The possessive form is "guyses." Example: Is that you guyses' truck?)