Dialect maps get surreal

« previous post | next post »

Everybody seems to enjoy sharing dialect maps displaying the boundaries of different American regionalisms. So it was only a matter of time before this enticing form of data visualization got satirized. On Twitter, Josh Cagan takes it in an absurdist direction.

Some background. As I detailed here back in 2013 ("About those dialect maps making the rounds…"), we had a burst of dialect-mania when Josh Katz, then a PhD student in statistics at North Carolina State University, created heat-map visualizations of regional variants. Katz originally based his maps on data collected in the early aughts as part of the Harvard Dialect Survey, conducted online by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. Using Vaux and Golder's questionnaire, Katz created his own online survey, ultimately collecting about 350,000 unique responses, and displayed the results using the data analysis software RStudio. (See: "Beyond 'Soda, Pop, or Coke': Regional Dialect Variation in the Continental US.")

Katz's heat maps first went viral in June 2013 when Walt Hickey reproduced them for Business Insider. (The BI article currently registers nearly 43 million views.) Katz went on to create a wildly popular dialect quiz for the New York Times, which turned into an even bigger viral sensation at the end of 2013. After an internship at the Times, Katz joined the paper's analytic journalism team, creating data visualizations for The Upshot. He also turned his heat maps into a book, published last year under the title Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk. (Full disclosure: I appeared with Katz at a book launch event.)

The latest flurry of interest in dialect maps is due to a piece that Katz created for the Reader's Digest site with some of the maps from his book: "Say These 9 Words, and We’ll Tell You Where You Grew Up." Those maps have been making the rounds on social media over the past week — sometimes with astonished reactions, such as this one from Elizabeth Minkel.

As for Cagan's spoof, he repurposed Katz's map for soda vs. pop vs. coke.

The nonsensical replacements in Cagan's map are reminiscent of a new strain of gibberish that's been popping up online, in which fast food logos get transmogrified.

The source of such twisted logos is Reddit, specifically the subreddit /r/sbubby. (See Know Your Meme for more background.) I wonder, can you get arpleparple at Applebapple's?


  1. Bill Benzon said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 6:26 am

    The "tennis shoes" map interests me. I grew up in Johnstown, PA, which seems to be on the border between "tennis shoes" and "sneakers". I remember both, but "gym shoes" as well. I'd probably call them "sneakers" these days; I live in Jersey City.

  2. Norman Smith said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 7:41 am

    I am surprised that the shoes map doesn't show the term I am most familiar with, "running shoes". Is there a difference that I am missing? FWIW, I live in Ottawa, Ontario.

  3. Nicole Rosen said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 8:43 am

    Norman – your version is eastern Canadian, or at least Ontarian. Here in the prairies we say 'runners', and although I spent 10+ years in Ontario, I was never able to switch to 'running shoes'.

  4. tony in san diego said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 9:54 am

    tennie runners

  5. Mara K said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 9:59 am

    I think I grew up at an inflection point between "tennis shoes", "sneakers", and "gym shoes." This was just outside the Chicago area, in a spot that's solidly in "tennis shoe" category on the map.

    FWIW, my Ontario-born partner uses "sneakers" and considers "tennis shoes" a subset of sneaker, the low-top canvas ones with rubber soles that you actually wear to play tennis.

  6. Michael said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 10:05 am

    Cagan's map is fun, but concerning the shoes map, growing up, I think I said gym shoes or tennis shoes (in the 50's in rural Maryland), but now I would say running shoes, or if I'm going to ask for them in a store, athletic shoes.
    Non sequitur, I haven't seen "aughts" used before as in the line above "data collected in the early aughts" I've only seen "in the 2000's"

  7. Keith Ivey said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 11:00 am

    The parody map reminds me of LiarTownUSA's Apple Cabin grocery circulars. (Warning: The site contains some not-safe-for-work content, though I think these particular posts are innocuous.)

  8. Ed Vanderpump said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 1:07 pm

    In the 2017 film "Baby Driver", set in Atlanta, isn't there some by-play with ordering Cokes or CoCola in Debora's Diner?

  9. Scott Mauldin said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 1:15 pm

    Being from Oklahoma, I feel like I am Divergent or something.

  10. Lazar said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 2:17 pm

    @Bill Benzon: I remember one episode of The Sopranos where Carmela says something to Tony about "tennis shoes". Since both characters are natives of northeastern NJ, would you consider that a mistake?

  11. Christy Goldfinch said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 2:47 pm

    A friend and I recently had a very confusing conversation regarding where to throw out non-recyclable items. Took a while to realize that her "trash can" and my "garbage can" referred to the same receptacle.

  12. Sniffnoy said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 2:51 pm

    The fast-food logos image is similar to an earlier one with foods: http://www.foodcrypt.com/wp-content/uploads/fewt.jpg

    This one is from at least 5 years ago, although I think it might be even older than that.

  13. Lazar said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 2:57 pm

    @Sniffnoy: There's also a meme of giving silly distorted names to animals: "doge" is well established, and more recently there's "birb" and "snek".

  14. AntC said,

    July 15, 2017 @ 5:19 pm

    casual/sports footwear: Brits (of a certain age) say "plimmies"/'plimsolls" https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plimsoll_shoe

    Nowadays would be "trainers"/"training shoes".

  15. Joyce Melton said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 2:40 am

    The pop/soda/coke map seems off to me or maybe just chronologically out of sync. As a kid in the fifties and sixties, I lived in Southeast Missouri, Northwest Missouri and Southeastern CA. In Northwest MO, north of KC, it was pop. In CA it was soda but in Southeast MO, it was sody pop. Or coke in all three places as second choice.

  16. Robot Therapist said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 3:51 am

    AntC beat me to it. They're "trainers".

  17. Bill Benzon said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 5:02 am

    @Lazar: Until I saw the map just now I didn't know there was a distinct distribution to "sneakers" so I wouldn't have noticed "tennis shoes" in The Sopranos.

  18. Smut Clyde said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 6:22 am

    You people are all weird with your made-up names for 'sandshoes'.

  19. Emily said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 8:55 am

    More dialect map parodies here (warning: as the URL implies, there's some racist vocabulary):

  20. RP said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 9:54 am

    I always thought there was a distinction between "plimsolls" or "pumps", epitomised by the photo of the traditional school plimsolls on the Wikipedia page, and "trainers", which are much more varied in style and colour. I wouldn't think of them as being the same thing. When I grew up in the 80s, I had both a pair of pumps, which I wore for school PE lessons, and a pair of trainers, which I wore in my free time if I was playing outdoors.

    I thought the American term was "sneakers", so I am also surprised to learn that "tennis shoes" is so widespread. But this may be because "sneakers" is a distinct word, whereas "tennis shoes" can be understood compositionally and so isn't as distinctive or memorable.

  21. Barbara Partee said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 1:35 pm

    I've always liked the Russian word for sneakers/running shoes/etc — кроссовки (krossovki). The Russian Викисловарь (Wiktionary) says that's derived from krossovye tufli ("cross" shoes), where that adjective, derived from the stem -kross-, means cross-country. The -ov- forms the adjective base, and then the -k- turns it into a noun. Incidentally, there's debate on the internet about whether the singular of krossovki is krossovok (m.) or krossovka (f.) — I've never heard either.

  22. Bob Crossley said,

    July 16, 2017 @ 9:32 pm

    I'm British, "of a certain age" (62). and we always knew them as "sand shoes" as kids, as @Smut Clyde says. I was aware of "plimsolls" but thought it rather affected, and didn't hear "plimmies" until many years after leaving home from a Scouser who thought "plimsoll" was the ordinary word and "sand shoe" remarkably posh. This sort of sociogeography of words would be impossible to show on a simple heat map.

  23. ryan said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 12:22 am

    No one says Samba's?

  24. Rubrick said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 2:50 am

    Viz. shoes: I'm almost surprised they haven't become "Nikes" somewhere, a la Coke in the deep south.

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 17, 2017 @ 11:26 am

    To Rubrick's point, the wikipedia article on "plimsoll shoe" offers as AmEng synonyms "sneakers, tennis shoes or chucks (from the Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star brand)." I don't know that I've heard "chucks" myself, but as a way of indicating (via the most-well-known current example of the style) something like "you know, the style of 'sneakers' that default 'sneakers' looked like in the olden days until Adidas et al started flooding the US market with their exotic foreign designs circa the mid 1970's," I can certainly see the usefulness of "chucks" or maybe "converses."

    I think the average AmEng speaker would have no idea what "plimsolls" are and would not understand the Anglophile joke behind the name of the '80's rock band the Plimsouls (before I'd heard of that band I knew the early Jeff Beck Group song "Rock My Plimsoul," but I can't say I understood the footwear allusion when I first came across the song title).

  26. lee said,

    July 19, 2017 @ 12:26 am

    @Christy Goldfinch: “Garbage” and “trash” are quite different, though many people seem to use them interchangeably here in the US. “Garbage” refers to organic waste, such as food or used bathroom tissue.“Trash” refers to non-organic waste, such as car parts, bottles and cutlery or whatever you find lying around.

  27. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 20, 2017 @ 4:36 pm

    I would agree that plimsolls (pumps/gym shoes/sand shoes) were not the same as modern trainers. I believe things that look like old fashioned plimsolls are now called 'Converse' (which is a trade name, of course, but sued generically).

RSS feed for comments on this post