St. Louis is known as the Gateway to the West, but when it comes to understanding the locals, it can feel like an impenetrable fortress of vocabulary words. From purposeful mispronunciations and secret shorthand to one very oddball question, these are the slang terms you should know before setting foot in the STL.
1. The Bootheel
Don’t assume locals are commenting on your shoes when they reference the Bootheel. This is actually the southeastern corner of the state that juts out right into Arkansas, and it gets its name because it looks like the heel of a boot on the rest of the state.
Looking at it on a map, you might wonder why this little tip is even included in the boundaries of Missouri. John Hardeman Walker, a landowner with an influential cattle-raising enterprise, can be thanked for this. When Congress received the first petition for Missouri to become a state in 1818, Walker lobbied for the 980-square-mile region that contained much of his property to make the cut.
One of the most hotly contested debates, particularly among local politicians pandering to their audiences, is how to pronounce the great state of Missouri—or is it Missourah? St. Louisans staunchly support the “misery” (no pun intended) style of pronunciation, while the southern half of the state tends to pronounce the last syllable as “ah.” Some are of the opinion that “Missouree” is used in cities, while “Missouruh” is mostly found in rural areas.
But a person’s preferred pronunciation might really come down to their age: “The ‘Missouruh’ pronunciation carries a degree of stigma as incorrect or at least old-fashioned,” University of Missouri associate professor Matthew Gordon told The New York Times. “So many young people may avoid it even if they come from families in which the older generations used that pronunciation.”
Outsiders might stick their nose up at the description of salty-velvety Provel, a white processed cheese product made by combining cheddar, Swiss, and provolone with preservatives and flavorings. Yet in St. Louis, diners will tell you this regional “not a real cheese” delicacy is the secret ingredient to some of their favorite fare, namely cracker-thin St. Louis-style pizza. Sample it at Imo’s, which is known for its “square beyond compare”—because they also buck tradition and cut their provel-topped pizza into squares instead of wedges.
4. and 5. Farty and Farty-Far
A key component of the St. Louis accent is to pronounce “o” sounds with “a” sounds. Visiting your mom sounds a lot like spending time with your maaahm, for instance. This quirk is perhaps most detectable when St. Louisans give directions. Highway 44 sounds like Highway “Farty-Far,” and although Highway 40 became Interstate 64 in 1988, St. Louisans—even those born after the name change—will forever refer to the route as Highway Farty.
A cards game anywhere else in the world might mean a round of poker, but within the STL city limits—and let’s face it, throughout all of Missouri—a Cards game means only one thing: Cardinals baseball. The 11-time World Series champions are beloved, win or lose, by their hometown fans, who likely have at least a half-dozen shirts, fleeces, and hats featuring a red bird perched atop a baseball bat in their closets.
7. Going to the Boat
St. Louis offers daily riverboat cruises along the Mississippi River as a popular excursion for tourists, but residents have probably never set foot on one. Yet many make a habit of going to “the boat,” which is code for going gambling. Missouri voters legalized riverboat casinos in 1992, and by 2000, the law had been changed to allow continuous docking [PDF], with cruising no longer required. Many casinos are now built on barges and are essentially buildings erected on the river.
Frenchmen Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau founded St. Louis in the 1760s, naming it for French King Louis IX—which explains why the city has so many French street names and neighborhoods. However, as non-French speakers settled in the area, most of these names came to be pronounced, ahem, differently. Gravois is the most notable example. Although it should sound like “grav-wah” by modern French standards, it’s instead pronounced “grav-oy.” Chouteau should be “shoe-toe,” but St. Louisians say “show-tow.” Carondelet, Florissant, Creve Coeur, Soulard, Laclede ... all mispronounced. Even St. Louis should technically be pronounced “san loo-ee.”
But before St. Louisans get a bad rap for language butchery, Webster University French Professor Lionell Cuille believes this might be a case of evolution: “Interestingly, in the 18th century, the pronunciation [of Gravois] was more like ‘way,’” he told NPR. “So even the French pronunciation has evolved since the 18th century in France. So maybe the original settlers would have pronounced it ‘grav-way’ … and now a modern French person would say ‘grav-wah.’”
Have you ever taken a ravioli, breaded it and deep-fried it, and then dipped it into marinara sauce? If so, you’ve enjoyed a delicious appetizer of toasted ravioli, which was created and popularized in St. Louis—namely at Mama Campisi’s and Charlie Gitto’s restaurants. Calling them by their colloquialism, T-ravs, is considered either in-the-know or deeply uncool, depending on whom you ask.
Call someone a hoosier anywhere outside of St. Louis, and it simply denotes that they hail from Indiana. In fact, it’s often a source of pride. But when St. Louisans are using it, hoosier is the ultimate insult, a derogatory term synonymous with country bumpkin.
Theories abound for how this word came to be an epithet of abuse, but local etymologists speculate it goes back to when local brewery Anheuser-Busch hired non-union workers from Indiana during a labor strike. And although it’s derogatory toward the recipient of the slur, hoosier has become enregistered—or connected to a manner of speaking—for the people of St. Louis, and inspires city pride. As sociolinguist Daniel Duncan (who was then a graduate student at New York University) wrote in a paper published in Names: A Journal of Onomastics in 2018, its usage “allows speakers to demonstrate localness while positioning themselves and St. Louis as cosmopolitan compared to the derided target” [PDF].
Think we’ve covered all the specific-to-St. Louis vernacular idiosyncrasies? Not even close. Consider the strange addition of an “r” sound to the word wash. Like with farty, this pronunciation, sometimes called the Intrusive R among dialect researchers, has persisted throughout St. Louis. Sadly for some (and perhaps a relief for others), warsh does appear to be dying out; it’s used mostly by older speakers.
12. St. Louis Bread Co.
A more recent addition to St. Louis slang comes by way of Panera Bread, a Missouri-based cafe company that began in 1987 with one St. Louis bakery but has since expanded to more than 2000 locations. With the growth, it changed its original name, St. Louis Bread Company, to the simpler Panera. This rebranding did not sit well with locals who pride themselves on having discovered the chain first, which might be why the company hasn’t updated its name on locations throughout St. Louis.
13. What high school did you go to?
Did St. Louis peak in high school? That might be the sense outsiders get when they discover the first question St. Louisans ask strangers—well before “what do you do?”—is “what high school did you go to?” It’s the socially acceptable way of asking what someone pays on their mortgage or what salary they earn: by discovering where someone went to high school, whether it’s Oakville, Ladue, or Nerinx, they can get a sense of where they grew up and make inferences on your identity and status.
Although some hold fast that the question—which is so infamous that the Missouri History Museum created an exhibit about it in 2016— is merely a way to discover connections, most use it as code. “Are you Catholic?” “Are your parents rich, or blue collar?” “Are you intelligent?” It may be four random years, but in St. Louis, it not necessarily accurately shapes how you’re perceived for the rest of your life (and not necessarily accurately).