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Texas Shibboleths: Nine Hints on How to Sound Like a Local

By Edited Jun 16, 2014 0 0

The Lone Star State

State flag of Texas, the "lone star"
Credit: M. Glasgow / flickr.com

Ever thought you could improve on your state's official nickname?  For instance, Indiana is officially "The Hoosier State," but wouldn't "The Hoops State" be a better candidate?  Or California is the "Golden State," but wouldn't the "Wine State" be more appropriate? I think about this from time to time, especially on long road trips. Like Texas isn't "The Lone Star State," it's "The Historical Marker State," and Louisiana should be "The Roadkill State" instead of the "Pelican State," "Bayou State," "Sportsman's Paradise," or whatever they're calling it this month. You get the idea.

Well, years ago I decided that the official nickname of Texas should really be "The Shibboleth State." You know what a shibboleth is, right? No?, Well, the term is Biblical in origin, from Judges 12. The Hebrews were in yet another war with the Ephramites, but since people in the two tribes looked exactly alike the Hebrews needed a non-visual test to tell friend from foe at the Jordan River ford. Some bright guy came up with a password; one that the enemies couldn't pronounce right because a critical phoneme (shhhhhh...) wasn't in their language. That word was shibboleth, which meant an ear (or kernel) of corn. If the person crossing the river mispronounced the password "sibboleth," he (or she, I suppose) was wasted on the spot. Bloody bunch, those Biblical-era folk, eh?

Anyway, the word has found its way into modern usage[2], meaning a word, frequently a place name, that "furriners" pronounce differently from natives. I call Texas the "Shibboleth State" because there are so many place names in the Lone Star State that are "secret passwords"! If you pronounce the name wrong, then natives know you're not one of 'em, and you're liable to get slain on the spot. Well, maybe not slain... So I've compiled a list of some Texas places whose names are shibboleths, in hopes they might help you pass.

Bexar County

The Alamo
The city of San Antonio (which no Texan calls "San Antone," by the way) is the county seat of Bexar County, originally named after the Duke of the city of Béxar, Spain, now known as Béjar. San Antonio is probably most famous for its touristy Riverwalk, for the holy ground--to Texans, anyway--at the Alamo (right), and a string of Spanish missions south of town. That's not to mention some tall guys who wear Spurs. The county's name, however, isn't pronounced the way it looks: at first glance, it seems like you should say "BECKS-are" or, if you took Spanish in high school, maybe "BAY-harr." Nope: it's simply pronounced "BEAR" - like the grizzly. 

Buda

Buda Grocery and Grill
The little town south of Austin used to be a sleepy burg, but these days Austin, Buda and Kyle are all pretty much one continuous town. Buda is home to Jardine's, the food company that makes all those TexMex condiments sold in airport gift shops; and to Texas Hatters, the company that makes cowboy hats for country-western stars and the occasional blues god. The little railroad town used to have a hotel run by a widow (I've also heard two or three widows), and that's how it got its name[1]. The Spanish word for "widow" is viuda, pronounced more or less BYOO-dah. The locals pronouce it right--they just spell it wrong. So if you told people at SXSW last year that you were staying out at "Buddha," now you know why you collected all those smirks.

Burnet Road Sign, Austin
The Austin area may be home to more shibboleths than any other place in Texas. Among others are: Manor is pronounced MAY-ner; Burnet is pronounced BURN-it ("It's Burn-it, durn it: learn it!"); Coupland is pronounced as if it were Copeland, and the G in Elgin is hard, like the g in "gun." Don't ask me why...

DeLeon

Welcome to DeLeon
The town of DeLeon sits on the Leon River in north-central Texas, about 100 miles west-southwest of Fort Worth. Famed for its watermelons and peaches (and the cotton and peanuts also grown in the area), DeLeon is also just twelve miles from Dublin, the historic home of Dr. Pepper. Though the name looks like it should be pronounced the Spanish way, "day -LAY-own"; locals call it "DEE-lee-on." Go figure.

Historic Gruene Hall

Gruene Hall, New Braunfels, Texas
Credit: TexasExplorer98 / flickr.com

Gruene

The Gruene Historic District sits on the Guadalupe River (pronounced GWAD-uh-loop, by the by) in the town of New Braunfels. Yes, New Braunfels, also home to the Schlitterbahn (which you can see from I-35). As one might expect from the word schlitterbahn (and even braunfels, "brown rock"), things are pretty German around these parts. So maybe it shouldn't surprise you to learn that gruene is the German word for "green." And, since it is Texas, it also shouldn't surprise you that the locals perform an on-the-fly translation to pronounce the name of the old town: it's not GROO-nee, it's "green."

If you've ever seen the John Travolta movie "Michael," by the way, you've seen the inside of Gruene Hall, the oldest continuously-active dance hall in Texas. It's the venue where Travolta goes boot-scootin' with the local gals[3] (though they never showed him lined up at one of the troughs in the men's room).

Humble

Downtown Humble
Once a small town in the pines northeast of Houston, Humble is now pretty much a close-in suburb. Back in the early years of the twentieth century, Humble was an oil boomtown sitting on top of the then-largest oilfield in the United States. The largest of the local oil wildcatting companies, Humble Oil and Refining Company, eventually became Esso and then Exxon, and is now Exxon Mobil. The oil fields around town are long since played out these days, but the city now serves as the east-side gateway to Houston's gigantic Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH). Oh, yeah, and for the record, the initial H in the town's name is silent: it's pronounced "UM-ble."

Mexia

Mexia, Texas, native, the late Anna Nicole Smith
Anna Nicole Smith's home town (you remember Anna Nicole, a Kardashian before there were Kardashians?) is a little burg pretty much in the middle of the state, south of Dallas. Believe it or not, the town is named after a Hispanic general from the Republic of Texas Army, José Antonio Mexía (the accent on the i got lost along the way). The town's name is so often mispronounced by non-locals that they've adopted the motto, "A great place, no matter how you pronounce it." SO how do you pronounce "Mexia"? Obviously, not "MEX-ee-uh." Texans in the know call the town "muh-HAY-uh." The town may be the only double-shibboleth in the state, though, because true locals supposedly call their hometown "muh-HAIR."

Palestine

Texas State Railroad train pulls into Palestine
No, sir, Yassir ain't here. The town of Palestine in northeast Texas, about 30 miles southwest of Tyler, is the northern terminus of the Texas State Railroad and the county seat of Anderson County. The town was named for Palestine, Illinois; but apparently the name suffered some vowel drift: locals do not pronounce it like the Palestine of the Holy Land, whose final syllable rhymes with "fine." No, they're Texans: the final syllable rhymes with "bean":  it's "PAL-us-teen" to the locals who swarm into adjoining Henderson County to buy beer in the only wet county for miles around...

Pedernales Falls State Park

Pedernales Falls
Credit: Larry D. Moore

The Pedernales River drops amid limestone cliffs, chutes and pools at Pedernales Falls State Park near Johnson CIty, Texas.

Pedernales River

The Spanish word for flint is pedernal (plural pedernales), which bequesthed its name to a river flowing through the ranch where LBJ's family lived when he was a child. The ranch and surrounding property are now part of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. Downstream fifteen or twenty miles, the Pedernales River runs through a set of chutes and pools in an area that's been set aside by Texas as the Pedernales Falls State Park. Given that the word's already "funny-looking," it should come as no surprise that locals have managed to mangle the Spanish pronunciation - but how they came up with purd-en-AL-iss is beyond me!

San Jacinto

San Jacinto Monument, near Houston
No doubt about it, the name "San Jacinto" brings a tear to the eye of many native Texans: fought on April 21, 1836, the Battle of San Jacinto was the decisive battle in the war for Texas independence. Texian troops commanded by General Sam Houston routed Santa Anna and his Mexican army in the skirmish fought on the banks of the San Jacinto River, south of present-day Houston. According to legend, the battle lasted just 18 minutes, perhaps a blessing for modern-day re-enacters 

Most Texans probably aren't aware that San Jacinto is Spanish for Saint Hyacinth - and not a one of them will ever let that J sound like an H: it'll never be "san ha-SEEN-toe"; the J will always be given the English pronunciation, as in Jackson or Joseph: san juh-SIN-toe.

There's More...

...but trying to capture all the Texas shibboleths in one place is probably a hopeless task (there's also Refugio, Falfurrias, Waxahachie, Lamesa, and a slew of others). So use this as a guideline: if the place name looks Spanish, it's probably pronounced "wrong" (for Spanish speakers, anyway) -- see Mexia. Confusing the matter, however, is that some Spanish words are pronounced right, though they're spelled wrong (see Buda).

A good practice is to just mumble the name if you're not certain...

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Bibliography

  1. "Buda, Texas Travel Guide." Buda, Texas Travel Guide. 10/05/2013 <Web >
  2. Suzanne Kemmer "The Story of the Shibboleth." Words in English: The Story of the Shibboleth. 10/05/2013 <Web >
  3. "Gruene, Texas - Fun Things to See & Do." Texas Outside.com | Gruene, Texas - Fun Things to See & Do. 10/05/2013 <Web >

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