How Texans Talked       

Texans have a distinctive way of talking. Back in the 1950s, Bagby Atwood, a native Texan and linguistics professor at the University of Texas, began to wonder what made the Texan vocabulary different from the rest of the country.

So he devised a questionnaire and sent his research assistants out in all directions from Austin. They were instructed to find people ranging in age from twenty to over eighty, who had spent their entire lives in one locale, and ask them what they called certain things.

It was an ambitious project, but Professor Atwood had a new weapon in the quest for understanding.

The International Business Machines Model 402 Accounting Machine.

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This modern marvel weighed over a ton and did something frowned upon in Las Vegas. It counted cards. Or, more accurately, holes in cards.

The answers provided by Texas talkers were punched into IBM’s proprietary cards. One answer per card. Over eighty thousand cards in all.

The cards were run through the machine, and the machine attached numbers to words and regions in which they had originated.

Those raw numbers were then deftly converted to percentages by the Professor using his trusty Perigraph circular slide-rule, and the secrets of the Texan vocabulary were revealed.

English, as spoken by Texans, consisted of:

8% Northern Words (originating in New England, New York, northern New Jersey and the northern third of Pennsylvania.)

32% Midland Words (originating in the southern two-thirds of Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, West Virginia, western Maryland, and the western portions of Virginia and North Carolina.)

59% Southern Words (originating in the eastern portions of Virginia and North Carolina, South Carolina, southern Delaware and southern Maryland.)

The last 1% was a smattering of Spanish borrowings from the ranch country, German borrowings that came in through German settlement in the Hill Country, and some Louisiana usages that had crossed the Sabine.

In examining the changes in word distribution by age group, Professor Atwood observed that Texan English was becoming less Northern, less Southern and more Midlander over time.

He also observed that Spanish ranching and topographical vocabulary was pushing out English words. This phenomenon was moving eastward from the ranch country.

As much as Texans resist homogenization with the rest of the country, it has certainly been happening to some extent with the way we talk in the half century since Professor Atwood published his findings. We can thank TV and radio for that.

I thought it might be fun to see what people were calling certain things back in the fifties, and compare it to what we call them today.

Ready to play?

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What do you call your parents?

After WWII, most Texans called her Mama and him Papa. Among the older folks, about half used Ma and Pa. Less than 10% called their mother Mom, while roughly 15% each used Dad and Daddy for their fathers.

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What do you call these?

Most Texans at the time of the study used the Southern word: goobers.

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What do you call a place some distance off?

A large majority of Texans said yonder or over yonder. Professor Atwood noted it was “neither archaic, nor characteristic of the uneducated.” About 25% of people interviewed used there or over there.

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What do you call this?

This was known throughout Texas as Light Bread, which was the nearly universal term in the South and southern Midlands. Only a handful of Texans reported calling it White Bread.

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What do you call the item covering the mattress?

Bedspread was gaining ground, but the archaic Counterpin or Counter Pane were still in widest use across Texas.

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What do you call these drinks?

Outsiders make fun of us today for calling them all Coke, but the genericization of the brand name had not occurred when the survey was taken. The most common terms then were Soda (or sody) Pop and Soda (or sody) Water. Both were given with about equal frequency, but Soda Water was more prevalent in East Texas.

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What do you call this animal?

The majority of Texans were calling it a Polecat back then, but Skunk, a Northern word, was gaining ground.

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What do you call this structure?

The general term back then was Horse Lot (or just Lot) if it was used for horses and Cow Pen or Lot if it contained bovines. Those terms were retreating eastward as the Spanish Corral was quickly gaining ground.

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What do you call these?

The term in general use was Roastin’ Ear (sometimes pronounced ROASnear.) Corn on the Cob was a newer term, most commonly used by better educated informants.

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What do you call this place?

The most prevalent colloquial term was Calaboose, with Hoosegow a distant second. They were followed by followed Jug, Jail and Clink.

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What do you call this?

A large majority of Texans back then used the Southern term Pulley Bone, but Wishbone was starting to gain traction with the younger crowed. A gentleman I spoke to at the Dairy Queen said he never heard the term Wishbone until after World War II.

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What do you call this facility?

Privy was by far the most common term with Outhouse a distant second, followed closely by Toilet, then Backhouse. Texans had some fun with the names they gave it. They also reported calling it Congress, The Federal Building, Post Office and Sugar Bowl.

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