Buffalo, NY isn’t always considered to be part of the Midwest, but in Belt Publishing‘s How To Speak Midwestern, author Edward McClelland defines the Midwest as the land west of Exit 41 on the New York State Thruway, east of the Missouri River, and north of the Ohio River. Yes, Buffalo can be classified as the Midwest and yes, Buffalonians have an accent along with their very own lingo and terminology.
The following is an excerpt from How To Speak Midwestern.
By Edward “Ted” McClelland
Accents are an important element of regional identity. And an important element of Midwestern identity is believing you don’t have an accent — that you speak a neutral brand of standardized English from which all other Americans deviate. When linguist Matthew Gordon was researching his doctoral thesis on the Northern Cities Vowel Shift at the University of Michigan, his subjects were perplexed by his interest in their accents, because, of course, there’s absolutely nothing exotic about Midwestern speech.
Every part of the United States has its own accent. The Midwest — defined, for the purposes of this book, as west of Exit 41 on the New York State Thruway, east of the Missouri River, and north of the Ohio River — has three distinct dialect regions, each formed by nineteenth-century migratory patterns. The Inland North — the lower Great Lakes from Buffalo to Milwaukee — was settled by Yankees from western New England who imported their flat, nasal speech to the Midwest. The Midland, which stretches from western Pennsylvania in a belt across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, coincides with the westward route of Scots-Irish who arrived in this country through Philadelphia and Baltimore, bringing with them such still-in-use terms as “jag” for thorn and “run” for creek. The North Central encompasses Upper Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, destinations for Germans and Scandinavians who transposed pronunciations and grammatical features from their native languages onto English. If you’ve ever heard an Iron Ranger from Minnesota say “Let’s go Dulut’,” you’ve heard the lack of prepositions or a th sound that mark Finnish at work in English.
Glossary Of Midwest Terms
The 190: Buffalonians refer to their highways by number, not name, and always prefix them with “the.” The 190 is a highway running along the Niagara River, out to the Falls. The 290 is a beltway around the city.
Beef on Weck: A sandwich consisting of soggy tissues of rare roast beef packed inside a Kummelweck — a Kaiser roll studded with pretzel salt and caraway seeds. Best served with horseradish sauce, which makes every mouthful sweet, salty, and pungent. Buffalo was once a big beer town, and beef on weck was popularized by German brewers looking to parch their customers.
Butter Lamb: A lamb sculpted in butter which decorates Easter tables in Catholic homes. According to the late Dorothy Malczewski, who introduced the Polish tradition to Buffalo, “[T]he Butter Lamb symbolizes the sacrifice of the Lamb of God in the Eucharist. The Malczewski Butter Lamb comes…with a red ‘alleluia’ flag signifying peace on earth, and a red ribbon signifying the Blood of Christ.”
Caz Creek: Cazenovia Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo River. Scajaquada Creek is known as Scaj Creek.
The Chip Strip: Chippewa Street in downtown Buffalo, once so sleazy that “I saw your mama on Chippewa Street” was a schoolyard insult; now an upscale entertainment district.
Elevator Alley: A stretch of grain elevators on the Buffalo River. Abandoned when the St. Lawrence Seaway allowed freighters to bypass Buffalo, the elevators have been embraced as a destination for kayak tours and screens for nighttime light shows.
Fastnacht: A flat, fried pastry sprinkled with cinnamon or sugar, served before Lent. A German version of the Polish packzi.
Garbage Plate: Traditionally, a base of home fries and macaroni salad, topped with red hots, a cheeseburger patty, mustard, horseradish sauce, and chili. The Garbage Plate originated at Nick Tahou Hots in Rochester, and is now served to late-night drunks all over western New York. Although the base is essential, a Garbage Plate can also be topped with sausage, eggs, steak, chicken tenders, haddock, and fried ham.
Genny: Genesee Cream Ale. Western New York’s hometown beer, brewed in Rochester. Also known as Genny Scream or Green Death, after the color of the can. “I’m Going Over the Border”: Going to Canada, usually to a casino or the “Canadian ballet,” one of the strip clubs in every Canadian border town. International day trippers may also say, “I’m crossing the bridge.”
McKinley’s Curse: On September 6, 1901, anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot William McKinley in the abdomen as the president shook hands inside the Temple of Music at Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition. Eight days later, McKinley died of his wound. At the time, Buffalo was the eighth largest city in the U.S., and was said to have the most millionaires. The city’s subsequent decline has been blamed on a curse deriving from the assassination. So has the failure of Buffalo sports teams to win a championship since the Bills’ 1965 AFL title.
Polish Patio: A screened-in garage for sitting out in the summer.
The Ralph: Ralph Wilson Stadium, home of the Bills.
Sponge Candy: Milk chocolate bites filled with caramelized sugar.
Texas Red Hot: A charcoal grilled hot dog, usually served with mustard, onions, and a special sauce concocted by the Greek who owns the joint.
Wings: The rest of the world knows them as Buffalo wings, but in Buffalo, they’re just wings. First served at the Anchor Bar on March 4, 1964, when bartender Dominic Bellisimo asked his mother to prepare a meal for his friends. She deep-fried chicken wings, an appendage of the bird that usually went into the stockpot, and basted them with a sweet sauce. Wings are best eaten with bleu cheese and celery.
“You’re Going to Father Baker’s!”: When Buffalo children of past generations misbehaved, they were threatened with consignment to a now-closed orphanage founded by Father Nelson Baker, the Catholic priest who also built Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna.
How To Speak Midwestern can be purchased through the Belt store here.
Edward “Ted” McClelland is the author of Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President and Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland. Ted’s writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Columbia Journalism Review, Salon, Slate, and the Nation. Ted will be at upcoming events:
June 10: Princeton Public Library, Princeton, Wisconsin, 1 p.m.
June 11: Printers Row Lit Fest, Chicago, Illinois, 10 a.m.-noon
June 13: Charlevoix Public Library, Charlevoix, Michigan, 6:30 p.m
June 17: Farmington Hills Public Library, Farmington Hills, Michigan, 11 a.m.
June 17: Ann Arbor Book Festival, Literati Bookstore, 124 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor, Michigan, 7 p.m.
July 18: Mentor Public Library, Mentor, Ohio
July 20: Mac’s Backs, Cleveland Heights, Ohio
July 21: Talking Leaves Books, Buffalo, New York