Nathaniel Rich’s NYRB review (October 7, 2021 issue) of They Called Us River Rats: The Last Batture Settlement of New Orleans by Macon Fry opens with an amusing anecdote, a bit of historical geography, and a word new to me:

I’ve never met Macon Fry but I often meet his goats, Inky and Dinky. Every weekend—at least before Hurricane Ida shipped us on an all-expenses-unpaid vacation to Alabama—my young son and I take a bike path that begins at the corner of Audubon Park and follows the ridge of the levee upriver. The path is part of the Mississippi River Trail, which runs three thousand miles to Lake Itasca in Minnesota, but our destination is only two miles away. There, just past the US Army Corps of Engineers’ New Orleans headquarters, we reach what my son calls the “crazy houses.” Or as the local newspaper once put it, “A Queer Little City Built on the Batture, Where Society Is Divided, Where Queer Beings Live, and Where the Society for the Protection of Children Has Found Considerable Work to Do.”

All that remains of this bustling city are a dozen houses, half-swallowed by the thickets of willow trees that shadow the riverbank. This row of houses, or camps as they’re locally called, is the Southport colony, named after the bend of the Mississippi on which it is situated. The camps do not appear on Google Street View, because they are not visible from any street. They stand on stilts on the batture (rhymes with catcher), the riverside slope of the levee. When the Mississippi is low, the camps are surrounded by lush gardens, sloping yards, and the occasional kayak or propane tank. When the Mississippi crests, the homes appear to float on it—or in it. My son and I rarely see any of the residents but we always encounter Inky and Dinky, freely roaming the batture. He likes to imagine that they are the Billy Goats Gruff, and that among the willows, hiding beneath one of the rickety catwalks that lead to the shacks, lives a troll.

I offer Rich my deep gratitude for the parenthetical “rhymes with catcher,” because you would never learn that from standard lexicographical sources; OED (entry from 1887) has /baˈtjʊə/ (“A river- or sea-bed elevated to the surface”) and M-W \ba-ˈt(y)u̇r\, both reflecting the word’s origin in French. But New Orleans famously has its own way of saying things, as explained in the site How ta tawk rite: A Lexicon of New Orleans Terminology and Speech (the link, featured in my 2004 post, miraculously still works):

A few words on New Orleansese: in a city whose very name is pronounced in nearly 100 different ways by its citizens, all the way from the filigreed, nearly five-syllable “Nyoo Ahhlyins” to the monosyllabic grunt of “Nawln'”, it takes a very sensitive ear, not to mention years of practice, to pinpoint the incredible binds the native speaker encounters, those specific words where the slow tongue gives up and makes a leap of faith. For those who have never heard it, you must begin by imagining Brooklynese on Quaaludes.

As I said in that post:

I particularly direct your attention to the section “A guide to the pronunciation of local place names” (most of the way down the page), where you will learn the proper pronunciation of the street names Burgundy (bur-GUN-dee), Burthe (BYOOTH), Cadiz (KAY-diz), and the like.

Batture-rhymes-with-catcher fits right in.


  1. Batture is a French word, going centuries back, referring to shallow sea floor or the rocks thereon, or, per M-W, specifically “the alluvial land between a river at low-water stage and a levee — used especially of such land along the lower Mississippi river.” All agree that it comes from battre but I don’t understand the sematic connection with ‘striking’.

  2. This site says it refers to the land “beaten” by the river, for what that’s worth.

  3. looking at the development from the french to the M-W meaning to fry/rich’s gloss (“the riverside slope of the levee”), it seems like the connection would be “the rocks -> lowlands -> slopes that the water strikes when it rises”.

    [ninja’d by our host, but leaving this here anyhow]

  4. I was struck by the rather nice phrase ‘à fleur d’eau’ (right on the surface of the water) in the TLF’s definition. Not seen ‘fleur’ used in that figurative way before. (Good to learn ‘batture’ too, to be fair.)

  5. Stu Clayton says

    There are leventy-zillion French novels with À fleur de peau as title, or in a multílogy of that name. Avoir les nerfs à fleur de peau = “to be a bundle of nerves” = ein dünnes Nervenkostüm haben [this is ever so slightly jocular-mockular in German].

  6. J.W. Brewer says

    Of course now I’m wondering how they pronounce “catcher” way down yonder in New Orleans. It seems hazardous to assume that “rhymes with catcher” means “rhymes with the way that I pronounce catcher.”

  7. On the contrary, I’m quite sure that’s what it means. He’s not writing for locals, he’s writing for the general public. And as far as I know, there’s only one way to pronounce “catcher.” Though I’m not at all sure you’re being serious.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    Even leaving aside rhoticism, many dictionaries claim that a variant pronunciation of “catcher” with the TRAP vowel in the stressed syllable exists alongside the Obviously Correct Version with the DRESS vowel, although I can’t say I’ve personally noticed anyone uttering the former. This does make me realize that I don’t know the historical story re why “catch” (in what I think of as the standard pronunciation) rhymes with “fetch” and not with “latch” or “match” or “patch.” Although those don’t rhyme with “watch,” come to think of it …

    EDITED TO ADD: I would be somewhat less surprised if you told me the first syllable of “batture” was homophonous with “batch” than if you told me it was homophonous with (non-actual-English-word AFAIK) “betch,” but “batch” doesn’t rhyme with “catch” for me.

  9. “catch” (in what I think of as the standard pronunciation) rhymes with “fetch” … “batch” doesn’t rhyme with “catch” for me

    Curious. For me (Br.E.), “batch” does rhyme with “catch”.

    And “catch” is not homophonous with “ketch” — a type of sailing vessel. But I see there on the wikt, a) they’re cognates and b) ” compare the pronunciation /kɛtʃ/ of catch.” q.v. catch: ‘Noah Webster’s American Dictionary (1828) regards /kɛtʃ/ as the “popular or common pronunciation.”‘

    (etymologeek is again a shambles — missing the main sense of ‘çatch’ and of ‘ketch’, so failing in any etym for the sailing vessel.)

  10. “Catch” rhyming with “fetch” – that’s an eye-opener for me too. I rhyme it with match, latch etc. (TRAP), but now that you mention it, I can hear in my mind’s ear a particular Galway friend of mine pronouncing it /kɛtʃ/. He can hardly be the only one, but it hasn’t previously caught my attention.

    OED: “Brit. /katʃ/, U.S. /kɛtʃ/, /kætʃ/”

  11. Lars Mathiesen says

    FWIW, Danish ketsjer = ‘racquet’ (tennis or badminton) is obviously a loan from E catcher. But that could just be from TRAP,´ since we don’t really have that vowel in that context.

    (Borrowing racquet would have given a near homonym to raket = ‘rocket,’ but when has that last stopped anybody? Except if it set the boys sniggering).

  12. “batch” doesn’t rhyme with “catch” for me.

    Ah, then my “only one way” was sheer ignorance. Since those vowels are merged for me, I have no idea how you should pronounce “batture.”

    Also, looking at “batture” suddenly reminded me of Hausa Batūrē ‘white man,’ which we discussed back in 2008 (when DE was a mere shadow seen from afar).

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    @hat: Wait, you have a full merger of your DRESS vowel and your TRAP vowel? As opposed to just a different perspective from me and Noah Webster on which one “catch[er]” has?

  14. David Eddyshaw says


    Yes, I read it as Bature first off (not surprisingly.)

    WRT the link, I can’t remember where I got the Turan etymology from now, although I’m certain that it wasn’t my own invention. In hindsight, the commentators at that time were quite right to be dubious about it.

    There are quite a few exonyms of inscrutable origin in West Africa. I’ve still got no idea why the Kusaasi call the Hausa Zaŋgbεεd, for example. (It’s morphologically peculiar, too, as the word belongs to a noun class which is pretty consistently pejorative when applied to human beings, though AFAIK the Kusaasi don’t think any worse of the Hausa than of any other ethnic group.)

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    Separately, the wiktionary entry for “ketch,” mentioned by AntC, also has multiple examples (under Etymology 2) of “ketch” used as eye-dialect for “catch” by writers including C. Dickens and E. Wharton. Whether that is to indicate that the particular character has what the particular author’s assumed reader would consider a variant pronunciation or whether it’s just like “wuz” for “was” – intended to make a perfectly standard/expected pronunciation seem more rustic than it is — is not clear to me and may not be the same in all the examples.

  16. @hat: Wait, you have a full merger of your DRESS vowel and your TRAP vowel? As opposed to just a different perspective from me and Noah Webster on which one “catch[er]” has?

    Sorry, I meant the latter.

  17. I have the TRAP vowel in “catcher”, I doubt it’s a New England feature though, could it be Mid-Atlantic?

    I also, when I think about it, have the TRAP vowel in the verb “to catch” and the noun “catch” (“he made a great catch”) but the DRESS vowel in “play a game of catch” (which my lizard brain tells me to spell “ketch” as if it were a different word).

  18. John Cowan says

    For me all these words are TRAP and none of them (except ketch, of course) are DRESS.

  19. M-W online has \ˈkach, ˈkech\, but for every other -atch word I checked it has only the first vowel. The Dictionary of American Regional English has the spellings ketch (going back to 1815) and cotch (going back to 1795). Examples of both come from New England, Mid-Atlantic and Appalachia, and occassionally further south. There’s a mention of a New Hampshire caitch from the 1600s.

  20. i’m with JC et al. i hear the ɛ versions as a (can i call it reduced?) variant of an æ standard. i do produce it, inconsistently, but i think only in some kinds of informal registers (where “what’d you catch?” is something like /wʌdʒʌ kɛtʃ/).

    to my new-england/new-york-city ear, “catch” with ɛ in deliberate / formal speech usually* sounds like a certain kind of posh fake-anglicism, in the so-called ‘mid-atlantic’ mode that i’d call prep-school-WASP or (to folks from my hometown) tory row affectation.

    * outside of the context of some specific dialects which i can’t describe as a group in a coherent way.

  21. David Marjanović says

    There are quite a few exonyms of inscrutable origin in West Africa. I’ve still got no idea why the Kusaasi call the Hausa Zaŋgbεεd, for example.

    The East Balts call the Germans some sort of *vākē-, and nobody knows how they got that idea. The footnote offers “Possibly from the name of the Scandinavian Vagoth tribe or a Baltic word meaning ‘speak’ or ‘war cry'”, and the text says the same in a few more words; elsewhere I’ve seen a vague assertion that it ought to be related to a word for “west” in some unclear way.

    merger of your DRESS vowel and your TRAP vowel

    BTW, I’ve repeatedly heard assorted Americans turn DRESS into TRAP when /s/ or /k/ follows (and I’m sure that list is not exhaustive). Never a full merger, though, except from Schwarzenegger (and he did it in the other direction, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have it anymore).

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    Possibly from the name of the Scandinavian Vagoth tribe

    The Kusaasi have a few ethnonyms of the “Greek”/”allemand” pars pro toto type as well, for example Bim, which I was specifically told means all Moba and not just the Bemba moiety, and Baris, which is similarly the word for all the Bisa and not just the Bareka subgroup. The matter is complicated by the fact that none of the ethnonyms for local groups seems to have any discernable “meaning” or discoverable etymology (including Kʋsaas), unlike place names, which are mostly transparent.

    But I don’t know of any Hausaphone group calling themselves anything like Zaŋgbεεd. Other Western Oti-Volta languages use cognate words, too.

    Simiis “Fulɓe” probably has something to do with “Muslim/Islam” (it’s Silmiisi in Mooré}; the etymon actually means “European” in some WOV languages, but that’s probably by analogy with the notably paler coloration of the nomadic cattle-raising Fulɓe compared with most locals.

  23. CEPD has only the TRAP vowel for catch whereas LPD has both pronunciations, but the one with the DRESS vowel is accompanied by the icon indicating a “pronunciation variant that is not considered correct. These variants are included because of the fact that they are in widespread use.” (p. XX)

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    I suppose it’s possible but not certain that in deliberate/formal speech I might switch vowels and pronounce “catch” as /kætʃ/ if it were for some reasons being emphasized, on the same sort of basis as I might pronounce “the” homophonously with “thee.” But for “catcher” even more than “catch” I have difficulty imagining a situation where I would use the word with emphasis in markedly deliberate/formal speech. I don’t give scripted academic presentations on baseball. But it’s also possible that my speech would fall into the incoherent group of dialects that would strike rozele as non-fake/non-posh?

    rozele’s comment BTW reminds me of the recurring possibility of confusion between “Mid-Atlantic” in the sense of a somewhat affected/posh British-influenced accent used by Hollywood figures and/or rich Americans of former years (Katherine Hepburn, Thurston Howell III etc.) and “Middle Atlantic” in the sense of “accents/dialects traditionally characteristic of the parts of the U.S. near Philadelphia and Baltimore, on the seaboard end of the so-called Midland accent belt.” To add to the confusion, Wm. Labov has apparently used “Mid-Atlantic” to mean the latter rather than the former. I have none of the former but a certain amount of the latter in my speech.

  25. PlasticPaddy says

    Is this related?
    Zangbeto is a term in Gun language which means “Men of the night” or “Night-watchmen”.

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    @ulr: there’s that deprecated use of the passive voice as a way of being vague about agency. “[N]ot considered correct” by whom? It strikes me based on some of the other dictionary cites above plus some googling that the /kɛtʃ/ alternative might perhaps more fairly be labeled non-standard in a U.K. context than in a U.S. one. I have some degree of practical experience hearing American teachers, busybodies, and suchlike self-appointed authority figures condemning what they perceive of as common “incorrect” pronunciations and I can’t recall having noticed /kɛtʃ/ for “catch” as making their list of variants to peeve about.

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    Kambʋmis “Ashanti” is another mysterious one; the first bit might be connected with “Akan” in some way, I suppose. (Bʋmis means “donkeys”, a fact notable to actual Kusaal speakers, but I suspect that that’s pure coincidence really.)

    For historical reasons the Dagomba call their own warrior clan Kambunsi “Ashanti.” They’re descended from actual Ashanti musketeers recruited by the Dagomba when they were fighting off Ashanti empire-building, who were given Dagomba wives and granted clan status. If you can’t beat ’em, get some of your own.


    (re “Zangbeto”)

    It looks similar, but the group in question don’t seem to have any connexion with the Hausa, and it’s a long way away. A lot of nightwatchmen actually are Hausa in southern Nigeria, but this group seem altogether different.

    The formal resemblance is partly fortuitous, too: the -d is actually a plural noun class suffix; “Hausa person” (singular) is Zaŋgbεog (and the language is Zaŋgbεεl.)

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    Actually, on reflection, the form thing isn’t a showstopper at all: loanwords typically get shoehorned into the class system by analogy. With ethnonyms, for example, Nasaara “European person”, which is ultimately from the Arabic for “Christians”, forms the language name Nasaal “English/French.”

    If the original borrowed word did in fact end in do/to or de/te, it would explain why Zaŋgbεεd unexpectedly belongs to a class that usually only contains human-reference words like “coward” and “idiot.” It would have been taken as a plural in that class by formal analogy.

    Still can’t see much of a link between the pious Muslim merchants of northern Ghana and Voodoo guardians of the night, though.

  29. @DM: I’ve repeatedly heard assorted Americans turn DRESS into TRAP when /s/ or /k/ follows

    I’m not sure if it’s the same phenomenon, but I live with someone who speaks with a noticeably lowered DRESS vowel, but not quite merging with TRAP. I haven’t paid attention to the environment in which this occurs, and have assumed it’s unconditioned by environment, but I’ll listen and report.

  30. John Cowan says

    I’ve repeatedly heard assorted Americans turn DRESS into TRAP when /s/ or /k/ follows

    Well, since dress is such a word, that would certainly make a balls of the whole Wellsian lexical set label system.

  31. J.W. Brewer says

    One sometimes sees “yass” as an eye-dialect written representation of some speakers’ purported emphatic pronunciation of “yes,” which (if accurate) would indeed be an instance of a pre-sigmatic DRESS->TRAP shift. I think the contexts I’ve seen this in suggest it’s an AAVEism, but I haven’t been taking notes and I’m not sure I’ve actually heard it (such that it registered, at least) as opposed to just inferred it from seeing the eye-dialect spelling.

  32. I seem to recall W.C. Fields said “Yass, yass.”

Speak Your Mind