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A Downstate Illinois Dictionary

South of Chicago, Illinoisans speak with a distinctive Midland accent and a lexicon all their own. Visit armed with the local lingo.

“Chili mac”   Photo: iStock

“Anymore, you can’t trust any of those politicians in Worshington.”

That’s not a direct quote from my former neighbor in Decatur, where I lived in the mid-’90s, but it could have been. Downstaters talk differently from Chicagoans. Our accent, which is known as Inland North, has more in common with the Great Lakes cities of Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee than it does with Decatur, Peoria or Charleston.

Downstate, folks speak with a Midland accent, which is also heard in southern Indiana, southern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, the regions from which Central Illinois was settled. They noticed I wasn’t from around there. “You talk just like them people Up North,” one Decaturite told me.

Former Gov. Jim Edgar, who grew up in Charleston, has a pretty solid Midland accent, although if he ever said “worsh,” he cut it out when he was campaigning for statewide office.

The Midland accent has its roots in the port cities of the mid-Atlantic, particularly Philadelphia, which was a debarkation point for Scots-Irish immigrants fleeing religious conflicts in Ulster, a province in the north of Ireland, in the early 18th Century. By the time they arrived in the United States, most of the coastal land had been claimed. So they moved inland, following Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap to the Ohio River, and later, the National Road from Cumberland, Maryland to what’s now Vandalia, Illinois. That turnpike was completed in the 1830s, the same decade the Black Hawk War cleared the Upper Midwest for colonization.

To this day, traces of Northern Irish speech can be heard in the Lower Midwest. The construction of needs without a past participle — as in “that needs washed” (or “that needs worshed”) — goes back to Ulster. So does the word “run” for a small stream. Turkey Run, a state park in central Indiana, is an example.

Some other common characteristics of Midland speech:

Intrusive “r”: You can hear people say “worsh” for “wash” or call the nation’s capital “Worshington” from Pittsburgh to St. Louis. However, like many regional idiosyncrasies, the intrusive “r” has been disappearing as outsiders comment on it.

St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon, born in 1939, talks about his team playing the “Worshington Nationals.” My stepmother, who grew up in Granite City, still says “worsh.” But it’s rare among speakers born after World War II.

Why did “r” intrude on “wash”? One theory is that at one time, Midland speakers pronounced the “ah” sound like “o” (“wosh"). Older Philadelphians, for example, still say “wooter” for “water.” The similarity to the “o” in “or” may have made it seem logical to insert that second letter, for “worsh.”

Positive anymore: Among most English speakers, “anymore” denotes something that’s no longer happening. As in, “Oh, that store’s not open anymore.”

In the Midlands, however, it can indicate continuing action. Like this: “Anymore, there’s so much traffic you can hardly drive there.” In this sentence, “anymore” is similar to “nowadays.” Like many other Midland features, the usage originated in Northern Ireland, and can still be heard there.

Fronted “o”: Among heavily accented Midland speakers, the word “no” sounds like “nao,” and “ozone” like “aozaone.” This pronunciation is shared with their distant cousins in Philadelphia and Baltimore, the cities from which the Midland accent derives.

“All the” + comparative: “Is that all the better they can do?” or “Is that all the bigger they can get?” are classic Midland locutions.

“I” vs. “E": I’ve also heard Downstaters talk about drinking “melk” and pronounce the state’s name as “Ellinois.” I have no explanation for this tendency to confuse the “i” and “e” sounds.

In addition to a distinctive accent, Downstate Illinois also has its own colorful lexicon. Here are some terms you may find handy while visiting — say, at the State Fair in Springfield this week.

“American Bottom”

A fertile floodplain on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, from Alton to Kaskaskia. The region got its name after the War of Independence, when Americans began colonizing the area and wanted to distinguish themselves from the Spanish territory across the river.

“Below the Hill”

The Metro East cities west of the ridge that forms the American Bottom, including East St. Louis.

“Burgoo”

A pioneer stew originally made with squirrel, venison, and whatever vegetables the prairie’s first European settlers could grow. Every October, Utica holds a Burgoo Festival, at which volunteers spend all day over a wood fire, mixing a concoction of beef, carrots, potatoes, hominy, celery, tomatoes, cabbage, onions, and peppers. (It’s still legal to kill a squirrel and eat it, but not to serve it to someone else.)

“Carbondalay”

Faux-pretentious pronunciation of Carbondale, home to Southern Illinois University, where a lot of Chicago-area students are studying 300 miles from home. Like calling Target “Tar-zhay.”

“Cheese Toastie”

A grilled cheese sandwich.

“Chili mac”

Chili served over spaghetti or macaroni. Sometimes spelled “Chilli mac” to correspond with the first four letters of “Illinois.”

“Eff County”

Effingham County, in Central Illinois.

“Horseshoe”

An open-faced sandwich of ham, turkey, or hamburger on two slices of toast, covered with French fries and smothered in cheese sauce. Invented in Springfield, and second only to Abraham Lincoln as a local icon.

“La Guiannee”

A French New Year’s Eve celebration observed in Prairie du Rocher since 1722, when the Mississippi Valley was part of a French empire that formed a great crescent from Quebec to New Orleans. A few hours before midnight, carolers begin traveling from house to house, singing and fiddling a traditional French begging song, accepting refreshments – often alcoholic – from those they serenade. La Guiannee originated in medieval France, and Prairie du Rocher is the only American city with a continuous observance dating back to the colonial era.

“Little Egypt”

Southern Illinois, below I-70. Towns include Thebes, Karnak, and Cairo (pronounced KAY-ro). Southern Illinois University’s mascot is the Saluki, an Egyptian dog breed; its student newspaper is the Daily Egyptian.

The book Legends and Lore of Southern Illinois claims the region got its name after a hard frost in 1831 forced northern Illinois farmers to travel south to buy feed for their livestock. Like the sons of Jacob in the Bible, they were said to be “going down to Egypt for corn.” Other theories say it’s because the land around the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers resembles the Nile Delta.

“Shampoo Banana”

Champaign-Urbana, the twin cities that contain the University of Illinois campus.

“The Smell of Money”

The odor of roasting corn and soybeans that emanates from the A.E. Staley and Archer Daniels Midland plants in Decatur. Mention it to a native and they’ll respond, “That smells like a paycheck to people who work there,” then expect you to stop noticing it.

“Springpatch”

Springfield, to the colony of politicians, lobbyists, and journalists who descend on the state capital for legislative sessions. Sometimes shortened to “The Patch.”

“T-town”

Teutopolis, a small town in Eff County.

“Will It Play in Peoria?”

Illinois reflects the nation’s demographics more closely than any state, and no city embodies that averageness more than Peoria. The phrase “Will it play in Peoria?” originated with vaudeville performers who saw Peorians as an ideal test audience for shows. It was popularized by Groucho Marx. Peoria’s proverbial Middle Americanness was later put to use by corporate marketers, who tested Pampers, the McRib sandwich, and New Coke there before selling the products nationally.

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