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North vs. South California Expressions (And Why to Watch What You Say)

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North vs. South California Expressions (And Why to Watch What You Say)

I feel oddly qualified to write about California expressions, not only because I hail from California, but because I’ve lived in both its Northern and Southern regions. More specifically, I grew up in the latter and went to college in the former. To be honest, I didn’t  notice too much of a difference between the two. In fact, I’d say there’s more that ties NorCal and SoCal together than drives them apart. But there are some stark differences when it comes to the way people speak. Indeed, with some NorCal- and SoCal-specific phrases, you definitely should not use them outside of their region of origin (unless you want to get yelled at)! Now, without further ado, let’s take a look at some California expressions. We’ll start with the good old North…

NorCal

1. “Hella”

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    This California expression is pretty infamous. I never heard it being used in Southern California, and when I started living in the North it came as a bit of a shock to me when I heard every other person dropping phrases like “yeah man, that was a hella cool class.” Even after four years in NorCal, I never reached the point where I felt comfortable using it myself. I just stuck to its synonyms, like “incredibly,” or “very.” These days “hella” and its little brother, “hecka,” are being used more and more often in SoCal, so I’d say soon enough they will become ubiquitous to all of California. Until that happens though, you’ll continue to receive stares of disapproval if you use this expression in Southern California. Even if you use this in NorCal, where it’s meant to be used, be prepared for an outburst of righteous indignation if a SoCal native hears you say it.

    2. “The City”

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      This means San Francisco, or SF. For people in the North, this is the only city that deserves being called The City. They aren’t talking about San Jose, Sacramento, Oakland, or anyplace like that. (Sorry, people from those cities.) If you are from Los Angeles and say you’re from “the city” when you’re up in NorCal, you’ll just be causing a whole lot of confusion. And don’t try to clarify what you meant, either, as that only makes it worse. (You’ll probably just receive a lecture about why LA is terrible compared to the Bay Area). Best not to reveal you’re from Los Angeles in the first place.

      3. “SoCal”

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        Growing up in Southern California, I rarely if ever heard people refer to the region we live in as “SoCal.” Instead we’d just say “California,” and clarify with “in the south” or “near LA” when asked. When I moved up North, I heard the term “SoCal” used far more often, which is a little bit ironic. Here’s an example: “Oh, look, these guys are hella weird. They’re probably from SoCal.” If you use “SoCal” while actually in SoCal, you’ll probably freak people out, since we all know where we are. The only reason to use such an abbreviation anyways is when speaking in reference to NorCal. But we rarely do that.

        4. “I’m stoked!”

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          While this is surely used in Southern California as well, especially near the beaches, I heard it all the time in NorCal. Is there a party going on? Well, then you’re stoked for it. About to go on a bike ride? Get stoked. Going to the beach? Stoked. It means “super extremely excited about doing something.” Seeing how long that phrase is, it’s no wonder it gets condensed down to “stoked” so often. Doing research, I found that many people said that “stoked” is a SoCal expression. Well, maybe it used to be, but it’s definitely become more of a “thing” up North now as far as I can tell.

          5. “420”

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            This, in the North,always refers to April 20th, the date on which all of the pot smokers up there gather and celebrate their collective addiction to marijuana. There are pot smokers in SoCal of course, especially where I live, but I never heard “420” used this way until I moved up North. Today it has become more ubiquitous across America, but I’d still say it’s very much a part of Northern California’s culture. If you say you’re celebrating 420 in SoCal, chances are you’ll receive several blank stares, and perhaps even be arrested, while up in Northern California you’ll probably get a few cheers and a couple high-fives.

            6. “Janky”

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              “Janky” means “performing below normal standards.” So if your iPhone is being slow and unresponsive, you’d say “Dang, my phone is being real janky today.” It’s not something I heard being used everyday in NorCal, though it definitely was used, especially compared to SoCal where I never heard it. I’d stick to using this phrase in Northern California, because elsewhere they might think you’re talking about an exotic new narcotic.

              SoCal

              1. “Like”

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                Like, did you know that us Southern Californians like to, like, use the word “like” in our sentences? Even when we, like, don’t need to? This isn’t a problem when writing, usually, but if you ever hear “like” interspersed between every other word, you’re likely talking to a person from SoCal. Don’t be fooled by stereotypes either: it isn’t just so-called valley girls who do this. I do it, and so does pretty much everyone I know who grew up in this region. Much like the North’s “hella,” our use of “like” is mostly subconscious and can’t really be controlled, so don’t get too mad at us!

                2. “NoCal”

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                  As you probably noticed, there’s an “r” missing from this. Or is there? When referring to Northern California in abbreviated form (which, I’ll remind you, we Southern Californians rarely do), we use “NoCal” instead of NorCal because it’s more derogatory. (No-Cal, get it?) And it’s about twice as fun to say. Just don’t say it up North because people will take it as a slight against their honor and start raving about all of the things wrong with Southern California. They might also pull out a cowbell or two and start ringing it in your face.

                  3. “Dude”

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                  fast-times

                    While this might seem like something everyone in California says, you’re far more likely to hear it as a term of endearment down South. Up North, I found that people would say “man” instead. Note that this phrase is unisex, meaning you don’t have to call a girl a “dudette,” whatever that is. They can be dudes, too! You can safely say “dude” in NorCal without attracting anyone’s fury, just don’t expect it to be said back to you.

                    4. “North-North California”

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                      We Southern Californians are keenly aware that what is typically known as NorCal (San Fransisco, Sacramento, and the like), is really just upper-central California geographically. So when we come across someone who lives in that strange land above Tahoe and below Oregon, we ask them, “So you live in North-North California? Basically Oregon right?” They usually bristle at this, either because they want to be affiliated with the hip and happening NorCal or don’t want to be associated with Oregon in any way. Fun fact: this area of California once petitioned to be its own state, Jefferson, but it never happened. Best to not bring up any of this to a “true” Northern Californian, lest you incur their wrath.

                      5. “There’s a Sigalert on the 405”

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                        The term “Sigalert” is practically inseparable from Southern California, mostly as a result of its huge Freeway infrastructure. A Sigalert is a warning from the Highway Patrol that a particular region of the Freeway is blocked off due to a crash, meaning that it’s unusable, leading to hours of rage-inducing traffic. It happens on a daily basis, and thus Southern Californians are always checking their TVs and radios for Sigalerts before they hit the road. Usually there’s a detour available, a result of there being so many gosh-darned Freeways everywhere. I should also point out one more distinction here, in that people in NorCal wouldn’t say “the 405.” Instead, they’ll say something like “take highway 17 to get to San Jose,” whereas a Southern California native would say “take the 17.” Also, I never heard “Sigalert” used up in NorCal, so save yourself some trouble and just call them “accidents” when you’re up there.

                        6. “The entertainment industry”

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                        hollywood

                          In Southern California, this always means that your job deals with Hollywood in some fashion, whether you work on a set, are an engineer of some sort, are a producer, an actor, and so on and so forth. Here’s a reminder though: say something like “I work in the entertainment industry” up in NorCal and people probably won’t even know what you’re referring to. You’ll need to clarify that you work in the show business, specifically the one related to Hollywood, or else their mind will wander, thinking about the many things a job based in “entertainment” could entail.

                          And lastly, a phrase to avoid like the plague…

                          “Cali”

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                            Northern and Southern Californians can come together on this one. Nobody, literally nobody living in California refers to their state as “Cali.” Use that word here and you might as well be holding up a giant sign that says “I’m from Pennsylvania!”

                            Featured photo credit: golden-gate-bridge-san-francisco / CC0 Public Domain via pixabay.com

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