Words and phrases take on a whole new meaning in New Orleans

Everyone who knows me is aware of how much of a huge nerd I am when it comes to words and vocabulary. In fact, a few weeks ago Shane and I saw some friends who I hadn’t seen in at least two years. The first thing we talked about was that we had to determine the person out of all of us who seemed to have picked up the most vocabulary words since our college years (I swear the rest of the evening was fun.)

Sometimes when I’m teaching my students German, (and back earlier this year when I was teaching Spanish), we have to take five minutes to do what I like to call “English class.” Today in class the word “auspicious” tumbled out of my mouth, and we had to have a discussion about its meaning and usage. I was thinking in my head how can you live without having a relationship with all these beautiful words with which I am so much in love? Pardon the hyperbole.

In any case, it doesn’t take a neurosurgeon to make the connection between my love of words and my love for learning other languages. Most people will say they learn other languages to facilitate cross-cultural communication, and while this is indeed the main reason I learn other languages, I rank in the smaller number of people who also say that they study foreign languages just because they love words. Does this make me a “logophile?”

Anyways imagine this logophile in New Orleans last week. My explorations in and around the city with my mom shed some light on some phrases we heard often during our touring:

1. “Joanie on a pony”

This one was the easy one to figure out. When asking for directions in the French Quarter, you will often get instructions based off of the location of the large golden Joan of Arc statue in the middle of Decatur Street. So, when you ask for directions to the French Market Cafe, one might say “right behind Joanie on a pony,” and if you ask for directions to Brad Pitt’s house in the French Quarter, you might hear “a few blocks left of Joanie on a pony,” and if you want to go to El Gato Negro (awesome Mexican food) to get a break from all the Cajun and Creole, you would hear “behind and to the left of Joanie on a pony.” You get the idea.

2. “Satchmo”

As our tour bus drove through the Storyville district, someone finally solved the mystery for me regarding why Louis Armstrong was called Satchmo. Our bus driver said that when he played his trumpet when he was younger, the older boys would steal his tips. So he would put all his coins in his mouth, even while he played, so Satchmo is short for “satchelmouth.” I’m glad that’s all cleared up for me now.

3. “What goes around comes around”

Great blue heron vs American alligator

On our 2.5 hour boat ride with Cajun Encounters Tours on the swamp in Slidell, LA, north across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans, Captain Ted let us in on the vendetta between herons and alligators.

Apparently great blue herons don’t see all that well. They love to hunt little alligator babies when the alligator mom leaves the nest unattended. The only way the heron can see the baby alligator in order to catch it is if the baby alligator makes any movements. As the heron approaches, the little alligator instinctively knows to keep still. Unfortunately, he must strain to keep from blinking. If little Ally blinks, he will surely be eaten, because the motion of his eye blinking will tip off Mr. Blue Heron.

What about the baby little Ally who manages to hold that eye wide open long enough for Mr. Blue Heron to get bored and saunter away? In not too much time, little Ally will soon be BIG Ally, and Ally will remember who stared him down in his nest. Ally will find Mr. Blue Heron hanging out in his own nest and will get him there once he is big enough. It was also at this point that Captain Ted mentioned the transparent eyelid the alligator eventually develops (like what some sharks have). So, if these guys get involved in a stare-down again, Ally won’t need to blink.

Not only is this a clear example of “what goes around comes around,” I can also imagine Big Ally saying to Mr. Blue Heron that “the tables have turned.”

4. “You got the shaft” or “You got shafted”

We visited St. Louis Cemetery, also with Cajun Encounters Tours. Haitians taught the people of New Orleans to bury their dead above ground, because Haitians knew what to do in places with high water tables.

In New Orleans the rich get this:

The poor get this:

The main difference is that wealthy people get to be buried amongst the remains of their own family members, while less wealthy people end up having their remains mixed up with strangers.

It gets so hot in the summer in New Orleans that a sort of “self-cremation” occurs to the corpse inside the family vault. The ashes and remains fall down to the bottom of the family vault, and if someone else dies, the body can be placed in the vault and the same process continues; family members’ ashes end up mixed together.

However, people with less money could not afford a vault for their own family. So, people get their bodies placed into the long wall. The self-cremation occurs, but when it’s time for the next dead body to be placed in the tomb, if the self-cremation of the previous body is not complete, a sort of hook or pole is used to push the person’s ashes and remains down the shaft towards the ground to make room for the new body. This would not happen in a family vault, where a family would wait long enough for the first body to decompose before including a new body. The tour guide said that the traditional waiting period for the wealthy for each body to break down is one year and one day.

In sum, if you’re poor, and your own dead body hasn’t broken itself down quickly enough, someone will poke you down with a hooked cane, and you’ll thereby get the shaft.

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