New book tells story behind ‘Utahisms’ — and shows that some of them aren’t so odd after all. (But lots of them are still a bit strange.)
“Sluffing” school, saying you “fill” sick, the particular pronunciation of “t” in “mountain”: many will recognize these peculiarities of Utah speech, but are any of them truly exclusive to Utah?
BYU linguistics professor David Eddington sorts fact from fiction regarding these “Utah” terms in his recently published Utahisms: Unique Expressions, Inventions, Place Names & More. A choose-your-own-adventure ramble through the quirks of Utah’s language and history, the book tells the backstory behind many things thought to make Utah special, from odd place names like Tooele and La Verkin to Utahns’ penchant for fry sauce and funeral potatoes.
Others’ confidence about the state’s uniqueness first piqued the linguist’s interest in the topic. “People will say, ‘Oh yeah, in Utah people do this, that or the other thing,’ but it’s actually really hard to find something that is distinctly ‘Utah,’” Eddington said.
Take the aforementioned “mountain,” for example. Many believe Utahns are singular for pronouncing the “t” in words like “mountain” by making a closure in the throat, a sound linguists call a “glottal stop.” However, people in states as far-flung as Indiana, Vermont and New Mexico have a similar pronunciation. The real difference lies in what happens after the glottal stop.
“Standard American English pronunciation for ‘mountain’ is ‘moun’n,’” Eddington explained. “We call it a nasal release because the air flows out of your nose after the glottal-stopped ‘t.’ What people are cluing into when they think Utahns say ‘mountain’ funny is that Utahns use an oral release, where the air flows through their mouths after the glottal stop, for ‘moun’un.’”
In the book, Eddington does detail a few things that are unique to Utah’s culture. For instance, only Utahns use the term “scones” to describe fry bread and say “sluff school” instead of “skip school.”
But in his research, for which he surveyed 1,700 Utahns about their vocabulary and speech patterns, Eddington found that Utah is less unusual than many think. He believes this makes Utah interesting in a different way, since the commonalities between Utah’s supposed oddities and those of other places offer glimpses into the state’s history.
The term “potato bug” is one such quirk.
“Those gray bugs that live under rocks and turn into a ball when you touch them, most people call them ‘roly-polies’ or ‘pill bugs,’ but many Utahns call them ‘potato bugs,’” Eddington said. “There are two other places you’ll find them called ‘potato bugs,’ off the southern shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. And that’s where Palmyra and Kirtland are located, so the term was probably brought here by the early pioneers.”
Utah expressions like “for cool” or “for cute” (which are now becoming rarer) can also be heard in Minnesota and Iowa. “What do Utah, Minnesota and Iowa have in common? Huge numbers of Scandinavian immigrants,” Eddington said. “Utah has one of the largest numbers of people with Danish ancestry. In Scandinavian languages, they use interjections like ‘for beautiful!’ instead of ‘how beautiful!’”
Other examples of ancestral influence on Utahns’ language include the pronunciation of the southern Utah town Hurricane as “Hur-ah-kun” (which reflects the Utah pioneers’ British origins) and the dying pronunciation of Spanish Fork as Spanish “Fark” (a trace of Irish that is also common in the Northeastern U.S.). Curious-sounding Utah place names also reflect the region’s Native American roots. For instance, while its unusual spelling remains a mystery, “Tooele” derives from the Goshute word for “black bear.”
And “Utah” itself? “I’ve heard that it’s a Ute word meaning ‘top of the mountains’ and all sorts of things,” Eddington said. “But it’s not a Ute word at all. The best evidence we have is that the Spaniards asked the Pueblos what they called the Native Americans from a particular area, and the Pueblos just said something that sounded to the Spaniards like, ‘Utah,’ meaning ‘the people over there.’ It’s fascinating to learn where a lot of these things really come from.”
Utahisms was released by Arcadia Publishing and The History Press in July 2022.