Pittsburgh Dialect

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Wed Oct 18 19:17:34 UTC 2000

>"Rift" = "belch"/"burp" [verb]  (I don't recall encountering this.)

Many Pittsburghers apparently regard this as a repulsive vulgar word.
Still, they use it far more than 'burp' or 'belch', I think. I remember one
occasion when a colleague, a man with an advanced degree, a native
Pittsburgher, remarked upon someone's public belch; he called it 'barfing'.
I've never heard 'barf' = 'belch' here or elsewhere except this one time. I
speculate that he was used to 'rift' but didn't want to say it, and
couldn't remember 'burp'. Ask a Pittsburgher whether he tends to rift after
drinking beer, say; he'll answer "Yes" (or maybe "No"); ask almost anyone
else, and he'll respond "What?" The OED lists the noun 'rift' = 'belch'
(Scottish and northern dialects).

>"Jumbo" = "bologna [sausage]"  (Nor this.)

My first encounter with this: In 1989, new to the area, I ordered a ham
salad sandwich at a cafeteria. It tasted strange. It looked strange. I
asked the server about it; she said, "Oh, we make all our ham salad with
jumbo." I asked, "What's jumbo? [maybe elephant meat?]" She said, "You
know, bologna." [Ah, now I see: the big sausage is labeled "jumbo
bologna"!] "No ham?" "No ham." I pointed out that ham salad must contain
ham; the next time the cafeteria offered bologna salad, the sign said
"jumbo salad". And "jumbo sandwich" = "bologna sandwich" rather than "large
sandwich". Often both words are used: 'jumbo bologna' -- so perhaps 'jumbo'
alone is not recognized by everyone even here. But still the cafeteria
advertises "jumbo salad"!

>"Rett up"/"redd up" = "clean up"/"tidy up".  (My wife remembers
>"granny" particularly as saying this.)
>"Nebby" = "nosy".  (The family said "neb-nose".)

Pittsburghers are very aware that these are quaint regionalisms. Still they
are not uncommon in spontaneous speech. There is also "neb" [verb] =
"intrude"/"be nosy".

>"Ignorant" = "rude"/"impolite" [specifically distinct from "lacking in
>knowledge"] [seems to be fully accepted without cognizance of its regional
>nature!]  (I recall hearing this in Maine, in the sense of "ignorant
>of the standards of proper behavior.")

I think that's how it's understood, but I've never heard it in an expanded
form such as "ignorant of common courtesy". "Ignorant" just plain = "rude".
What the Pittsburghers use to mean "ignorant" I'm not sure -- maybe "dumb".
I think I've encountered 'borderline' expressions elsewhere, where
"ignorant" = "crude"/"uncultured", perhaps verging on "impolite", but the
way the word is used here -- EXACTLY = "rude"/"impolite" in normal speech
(not invective) -- is not like what I've heard (or read) elsewhere. E.g.,
if I hear on TV "the President made a very ignorant statement about
Pittsburgh" I might picture him saying that Pittsburgh is known for its
fine orange groves, or that Pittsburgh is larger than Chicago, or something
like that ... but spoken by a Pittsburgher, this would mean that he had
said something insulting or offensive (not necessarily something untrue or
unperceptive!) -- maybe that Pittsburgh is dirty or ugly, or that
Pittsburghers are uncultured. Another example: "He's so ignorant! Every day
he tells a new dirty ethnic joke!" [If he knows so many jokes, he's not all
THAT ignorant ....]

Another lexical item (I don't know how widespread, but I've heard it only
in Pittsburgh): commonly "pap" (rhymes with "cap") = "grandfather" (and
absolutely not "father"). This apparently is a contraction of "grandpap",
which is heard also (but less often). Much less frequently, I've heard
"gram" [I think that's what I heard] for "grandmother": thus "Gram and Pap"
= "Grandma and Grandpa". "Pap" is used in address: "Hi, Pap!" = "Hi,
Grandpa!" [Seems very odd to me: 'pap' ought to mean 'father'.]

Of course, many Pittsburghers show varying tendencies toward a more
standard US English -- many of them in all registers. My children --
schooled entirely in the Pittsburgh area -- seem to be virtually
Pittsburghism-free: they won't even let me get away with "This needs fixed"!

BTW, Pittsburgh is no dirtier than other cities, and IMHO it's not
particularly ugly.

-- Doug Wilson

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