Midwestern politeness is a real thing. Just as coastal visitors are surprised by the expanse of Lake Michigan (“It looks like an ocean!”), so too are they tickled, or infuriated, by our manners. Our hesitation to take up space paradoxically takes up more space on the train; morning coffee stops can take eons with the barista’s cordial, genuine banter with each customer. As Chicago native John Mulaney jokes in his recent stand-up special Kid Gorgeous, “My wife said that walking around with me is like walking around with someone who’s running for the mayor of nothing.”
And generations of polite Midwesterners have honed down its pervasive variations into a single, all-purpose word: “Ope!” It’s an onomatopoeia of our Midwestern deference. Love it or hate it, spend enough time in the middle of the country and you’ll start ope-ing your way through everyday life. It’s something, as a Chicago native, I didn’t really even notice I did until ope jokes started making the rounds on Twitter last fall.
This magical, monosyllabic exclamation applies to a whole slew of circumstances: Accidentally pulling on a push door; trying to flag down a waiter; realizing you were served the wrong dish; hearing a mildly juicy piece of gossip; realizing a car is coming when you’re about to cross the street; thanking someone for opening a door for you; feeling the first drops of rain. “Ope!” works for all of ‘em. It’s a way to announce your presence in the most passive, non-intrusive way possible. We’re too kind to say “Excuse me”—that can come off as pushy, right? Plus, given our near-sociopathic tendency to chat up strangers, any word longer than “ope” might get us unintentionally roped into conversation.
Honestly, ope is barely a word, and more of a guttural reaction; it almost sounds like a tiny heave. It effectively translates to, “I don’t mean to bother you or anyone around me, ever, but I’ve noticed…” Ope is less of a word, and more of a reflex. It can communicate excitement or awkwardness or surprise or an apology or even urgency. It’s an interruption in the most discreet way possible. Where the Italians have prego as their linguistically fluid go-to word, we have ope.
In all likelihood, ope is a derivation of “oops.” According to linguist Ben Zimmer, “oops” comes from “whoops,” which comes from “ups-a-daisy.” The first known printed example of “oops” was in a cartoon caption in the Washington Post in 1922, while Jonathan Swift wrote “up-a-dazy” in a letter in 1711. Which is to say, the inclination to communicate that we know we made a mistake has been part of the English language since at least the 18th century.
But we Midwesterners are so damn polite that we need to do more than just admit we made a mistake. “Ope” feels, somehow, like it’s a degree below “oops.” It’s not quite admitting a mistake, but more so admitting a (very) minor social infraction. An infraction that, let’s get real, non-Midwesterners wouldn’t even register, like brushing shoulders with someone in a tight aisle of the supermarket. We need a word that addresses the most inconsequential of social breaches. We need ope.
Plus, “Oops!” sounds childish, right? “Ope” allows us to retain our childish deference to authority, for better or for worse, without that pesky, lingering s-sound. It’s so subtle, merely an embroidered flower on the vast tapestry of Midwestern social graces. I’m a grown-ass adult, and I’m going to somehow feel like the fact that it started raining is somehow my fault, thank you very much.