Cultural Idioms In New Orleans

Here are some words used in New Orleans, or Southern Louisiana anyway, that are not used the same way in any other city or state in the nation. If ever you visit, you might have to get used to hearing these and others.

1. Neutral Grounds  – Now in New Orleans, most of the streets outside the French Quarter and the Marigny, where the streets are too narrow for such, are divided.  In fact, I had always heard that boulevards are divided, streets and lanes are not.  But by Jove, I have seen streets in this city that were divided, and  “boulevards” that are not.  So that bit of knowledge is non-applicable here.

However, what is in the middle of a divided street. In most of the country, it is a median….but not in New Orleans…here it is a Neutral Ground…this dates, as I have learned from one of the wars that were fought here…I want to say the French and Indian War, where the French were on one side, and the English were on the other.  The middle was a sort of “safe zone”.  

And the word usage lives on.

2. Madri Gras – This might as well be a national holiday as far as New Orleans is concerned.  In fact, a radio joke that you might hear is “you know you are from New Orleans if you thought till high school that Madri Gras really WAS a national holiday”. Stores close, no mail is delivered, and normal life comes to a standstill.  In fact, during the two weeks of carnival-like celebrations, you will often find malls closed, with the possible exception of the movie theater…..and if you go in one, as I did this last year, you will find beads laying in the bathroom on the floor and the sink area….obvious signs that a parade crowd has made use of the facilities.

3. Groceries – what does one say when they go to the grocery store? Well, in most places one would say “I am going to buy groceries”…Not so in our fair city. Here you go to “make groceries”.  Why?  I have no idea, never have asked why…..only guess I can come up with is some sort of idea that the food in the supermarket doesn’t become “groceries” till you put it in your shopping cart.  (shrug)

4. Turning Left – it is not unusual at all to have your GPS working, and be given the instruction to “turn left on Elysian Fields”….while driving down Elysian Fields.  Why would that happen?  What happens when you get such instructions, normally, is you turn left into a turn-off, at which point, the GPS instructs you to turn left again.  What has happened here?

You have made a U-turn…..which is the main way of turning left in this city…more frequently than the standard elsewhere, which is “just turn left”. Why??  Well that heralds back to the divided streets with “neutral grounds” again.  You can’t drive over a neutral ground so you have to go to a spot created for the purpose of turning left.  That often means you have to go back up to a block to get where you are headed.

Because our citizens are so fond of U-turns (which are actually illegal in many places including Nashville where I moved from, imagine), they often pass laws making left-hand turns at intersections illegal; one really REALLY has to read the signs.

So for example, you can be on one street, want to turn left onto another….but a sign says left turns are illegal.  Soooo, you have to turn right, find a U-turn opportunity, and use it to get headed in the direction you want to go in.  It USUALLY doesn’t take you more than a block or two out of your way.  

5. and then there are directions – most people who are not directionally challenged like I am like to know whether they are going North, South, East, or West.  Here you get “uptown” “downtown” “riverside” or “lakeside”.  The last two being relative either the Mississippi or Lake Pontchartrain (which covers quite a few miles…there is a 24-mile bridge across it at one point).

The streets rarely go in any two directions for the entirety….as many of the streets curve sometimes always in a semi-circle.  Usually to “hug” the riverbank or conversely, accommodate other streets and allow both streets to continue. There is one location that one must made a right turn to stay on the “same” street, and there are likely others than I am not remembering as I type this.

The river part of the situation is illustrated that while I live on what is called the West Bank of the Mississippi….it is actually south of the city…..because of the bends in the river. 

I find that I am no more confused by the “riverside, lakeside, uptown, downtown” directionals than I was by the “north, south, east and west” ones…..(sigh) Either way, good old GPS is my salvation.


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