Dialect Singing.

A reader writes:

I am asking for your help in finding the proper definition for the term, “dialect singing.” Last night, I rewatched The Prestige as a soporific without the desired effect and set to perusing write-ups of the film. The neurotransmitter cascade from rapid, casual trivia consumption flowed smoothly until it was blocked by “dialect singing,” a skill listed in the repertoire of a few vaudevillian era performers. I found it on the wiki page for the American magician, Chung Ling Soo.

It could have a very simple and obvious definition: the performer sings with an exaggerated regional accent. I’m not entirely convinced. After reading your post Singing in Nonsense, I feel like dialect singing is more closely related to Grammelot.

Anybody know anything about this vaudevillian skill?


  1. Perusing the instances of “dialect” in the August 1906 issue of Variety, I surmise it is a general attributive in vaudeville, typically applied to comedy; probably it went without saying that “dialect singing” was a species of comic singing.

    Sam W. Mylie, late comedian of the Chester Opera Company, presented some German dialect

    The Hebrew comedian is not as good as the average in his dialect

    Dixon and Anger depend a good deal upon the liquid rolling “It” of the German comedian. … The comedian is excellent in his dialect and the straight man comes up to specifications.

    Carson and Willard have a German dialect comedy sketch that gets into the old Weber and Fields class at times. Their bank and wheat market talk is exceptionally well done with the aid of a telephone.

    E. A. Clark, the German dialect comedian, has signed to go with Gus Hill’s “Around the Clock.”

    Jordan and Harvey, just returned from England, have a Hebrew dialect turn that gets away from the conventional.

    Murphy makes a German comedian away from the familiar type. He has a good dialect and makes his points with certainty. He was best in the opening burlesque, “A Temporary Husband,” by Charles Horwitz.

    John Hazzard in a monologue proved a pleasant surprise. … With a pleasing delivery, good presence and an uncommonly true negro dialect, Mr. Hazzard was liked.

    Carroll and Baker, the Hebrew dialect pair, are offering a dancing act with the talk and comedy makeup scratched. They dance fairly well and work hard, but without the dialect incidental the offering is rather light.

    Nora Bayes has worked out a seriocomic-dialect-singing act that furnishes an agreeable variation from the familiar type. Her burlesque Spanish dance was genuinely funny and scored strongly. Why she spends so much time poking fun at herself in verse is not entirely plain, nor is it in good form.

    Lillian Shaw, vocal dialect comedienne, good;

    Smith and Doylein, dialect comedy, scored

  2. to put it in as neutral terms as i can:

    “dialect” in the anglophone theater world – especially variety theater (vaudeville, burlesque, music-hall, etc.), but also the ‘legitimate’ theater – means performance that uses linguistic tools to place the role being portrayed in a specific social group. it can be used to describe material (“a dialect song”), a repertoire (“dialect acts”), or characters (“a dialect role”).

    it’s not necessarily comedic – sentimental acts and numbers have always been a core part of “dialect” performance, from “Swanee River” on down, as well as dance tunes and other genres. the term itself is more often used in comedy contexts, but that massively understates its reach and importance. similarly, the term isn’t often used about contemporary performance, but the form is alive and well, with Borat one of the most successful recent examples.

    it’s almost invariably racist and xenophobic, and generally also wildly misogynist (often in specifically racialized ways). the preferred targets (aside from black folks, who’ve been in the crosshairs the whole time) have changed over time, from 19thC german, swedish, and irish immigrants to turn-of-the-20thC jewish, chinese, and italian arrivals to (currently) various flavors of latinx, eastern european, and south & central asian folks. working-class subcultures of various kinds have also appeared, though i think that those versions (for example, the ones aimed at bowery b’hoys and cockneys) make a lot more sense when looked at as functioning by racializing their targets as a form of class antagonism.

    “dialect” performance is closely allied to blackface minstrelsy, which was a central part of the anglophone variety stage in the 19th and 20th centuries, though some try to distinguish the two by defining “dialect” work as targeting white (and potentially white) groups. it probably reached its peak of popularity during the period when minstrelsy and variety theater overlapped in the early 20th century, both feeding off and feeding into the popularity of the revived Ku Klux Klan and nativist movements.

  3. David Eddyshaw says


    It’s why you need that armey and flot.

  4. So Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney accent in Mary Poppins may be the heir to some kind of tradition.

    Incidentally, he apologised in 2017 for ‘inflicting most atrocious cockney accent in history of cinema’ (The Guardian).

  5. Well, rozele, even if most dialect acts were punching down for its own sake, there is a genre of performances by minorities lampooning their own dialect, which were enjoyed by audiences of those minorities, and perhaps even aimed at them. I’m thinking of Mickey Katz and of Joe Dolce (“Shaddap You Face”) right off the top of my head.

    (Mickey Katz is a guilty pleasure for me, but most cutesy-poo self-aimed modern Jewish American humor, the kind that uses “oy vey” at every opportunity, is vile.)

  6. Add (*shudder*) The Irish Rovers.

  7. Michael Hendry says

    Six comments so far and no one seems to have mentioned one of the more prominent classes of dialect humor in the U.S.: (white) southern/Appalachian. From Arkansas Traveler Jokes to Minnie Pearl to Hee Haw (some overlap there) to The Beverley Hillbillies to Jeff Foxworthy (“You might be a redneck” jokes), there is (or has been) an awful lot of it, mostly of course people “lampooning their own dialect”, sometimes in song, sometimes in prose.
    More recent songs sometimes mix traditional country & western and bluegrass themes with up-to-date pop psychology in amusing ways. Two examples: “Bouncin’ beer cans off the jukebox, / I’m a poster-boy for detox” (Dallas Wayne) and “I’m a recovering Pharisee” (Del McCoury).

  8. I discussed some famous American dialect comedians back here.

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    I am surprised no one has mentioned female impersonation or the idea that the appropriating dialect comedian may not be sexist, racist, etcetera and may be (a) expressing a side of himself that he feels freer to express in the disguise, (b) trying to expose (to ridicule or debate) or exorcise the sexist, racist etcetera sentiments or (c) both a and b. Sacha Baron-Cohen would be a case in point.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    By the 1960’s or thereabouts, a certain sort of diluted/mostly-assimilated “Comical Jewish Stage Dialect” just sounded, to Goyische-Americans lacking sophistication or insider knowledge, like “How Comedians Generically Talked/Sang.” So for example the 1963 novelty hit record “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” has various dialect features (the non-rhoticism evident in the title, the syntax in “I don’t want this should scare ya” etc.) that were characteristic of the speech of Tri-State-Area Ashkenazic-Americans of that generation, but I did not as a boy understand the song to be coded as Jewish. Which was I suppose naive of me.

    Showbiz legend (or at least survivor) Floyd (“Uncle Floyd”) Vivino frequently plays old novelty-dialect-humor records (at least of the Italian and Jewish varieties and maybe some other European ethnicities – he probably avoids the Comical Negro Stage Dialect ones if they go beyond the bounds of Cab Calloway’s repertoire) on his radio program “Garage Sale Music” (featuring the sort of weird old records you could have bought really cheap at garage sales back in the day), which currently airs Sundays from 9 am to noon eastern on WFDU-FM-Teaneck. I sometimes listen to it in the car while driving to or from church, but I think it’s probably also available livestreamed over the internet for those out of reach of WFDU’s transmitter.

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    PlasticPaddy: It may be naive to think that Sacha Baron-Cohen is critiquing bigotry rather than merely profiting from it. He is to some extent just repackaging “dumb Polack” jokes (still socially acceptable in my own childhood in the U.S.) as “dumb Kazakh” jokes and making a living doing it because the Anglophone world does not yet have a politically powerful “how dare you traffic in anti-Kazakh stereotypes” lobby. He also has that other movie that’s all flamboyant/swishy-homosexual stereotypes left over from 40 years previously that he largely got away with via some sort of Jedi mind trick convincing critics that he was meta-criticizing those attitudes or something.

    The genius, if you want to call it that, of the Ali G. character is having negative stereotypes about black people enacted by a character who is obviously not black. So (the plausible-denial cover story goes) he’s definitely not making fun of black people, he’s instead making fun of non-black chavs (and everyone can make fun of chavs, innit, because there’s no such thing as “punching down” when it comes to social class) who stereotype black people in a clueless-yet-positive way. Believe that if it makes you feel better, I suppose.

  12. @J.W. Brewer: That’s what my brother said about Ali G. I think, pragmatically, Sacha Baron-Cohen took advantage of a certain amount of ambiguity in who he was actually mocking, although I don’t really know enough to feel like I understand how the Ali G. shtick actually played in Britain, among the chavs and those who looked down on them. However, what I do definitely remember noticing when they came out was that on the season 2 DVDs, Baron-Cohen’s appearance was quite noticeably darker than was typical of how he appeared on the show.

  13. Dialect acts were very popular in the UK, but more with regional British dialects. Harry Lauder, George Formby, Gracie Fields, Stanley Holloway (I’m thinking of the Ramsbottoms and “Sam, Pick Up thy Musket”), etc. Apparently the Southwest was popular too. I’m not familiar with any performers, but there were songs like “Oh, we’m come up from Zummerzet, Where the zider apples grow”.

    According to my father, there was an Australian comedian who had a career in Britain with an act consisting mostly of saying “I’m the man from Wagga Wagga”. I have not been able to find out more. Of course Barry Humphries did very well with his characters like Sir Les Patterson.

  14. PlasticPaddy says
  15. PlasticPaddy:

    That may be the one. Variety Bandbox was before I was born. I don’t remember Hancock’s Half Hour either, but it might have been on after I had to go to bed. They are still rerunning it on BBC4Extra, so I could catch up with it now if I wanted to, I suppose.

    He had rather more of a career than my father’s description, but I suppose my father didn’t really keep following him. I have seen some of his film roles, but I didn’t get the connection.

  16. how the Ali G. shtick actually played in Britain,

    This (ex) Brit found everything S B-C to be only acutely embarrassing, a sad commentary on a once-proud comedy tradition. OTOH there was Benny Hill … Does his West-country/ Mummerset simpleton count as ‘dialect humor?

    I have NZ friends who thought the first Borat movie non-stop lol. Hmm I’ve always entertained doubts about NZ humor.

  17. PlasticPaddy says

    I think it is the point of “New Comedians” to make the “bourgeois” audience uncomfortable and to stimulate or even portray violent emotions in order to provide a form of catharsis for those who do not like, or just want a break from, reality TV, torture porn, etc. The problem, as JWB seems to be saying, is that a small but significant part of the audience does not understand irony and is happy to embrace political incorrectness (although they may balk at embracing an overweight nude faux-Kazakh cameraman).

  18. I think Borat was Kazakh for a similar reason to Canadians being the villains in South Park, to ensure viewers had no relevant prejudices to interfere with the shows generic satire of prejudice

  19. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    Whatever the author may have intended, there’s a world of difference between making Canadians or Kazakhs the butt of your jokes.

    There may be some tradition of US jokes about Canadians being overly polite or things like that; but everyone knows Canada is a very wealthy country with enviable institutional quality. Its stereotypical citizen is also white, Anglosaxon and Protestant.

    Hardly anyone in Europe thinks about Kazazkhstan much, but it’s understood to be a poor country with questionable post-Soviet institutions. The racist angle is also hiding behind a thin veneer of plausible deniability. I’m skeptical Central Asians are considered white in Moscow, and even further west it’s no coincidence Borat sports a big black moustache and looks — shall we say, rather swarthy?

    For an equivalent of a Canadian target, you cannot pick Central Asia. Scandinavia would be more like it. Or the fancier pockets of the Alps. Why, those primitives in Liechtenstein haven’t even fully moved past feudalism! And yet Borat is not from Liechtenstein and couldn’t be — whereas I reckon the South Park villains could.

    Friends convinced me to watch both Borat movies, which I didn’t enjoy. I had the same impression about their alleged meta-satire as I had about Peter Wimsey novels, which I did enjoy. George Orwell put it best:

    It is, after all, a very ancient trick to write novels with a lord for a hero. Where Miss Sayers has shown more astuteness than most is in perceiving that you can carry that kind of thing off a great deal better if you pretend to treat it as a joke. By being, on the surface, a little ironical about Lord Peter Wimsey and his noble ancestors, she is enabled to lay on the snobbishness (‘his lordship’ etc.) much thicker than any overt snob would dare to do.

  20. David Eddyshaw says

    Sacha Baron Cohen’s intentions with his comic creations are evidently impeccably pure, and I can see no reason to doubt his own clearly expressed statements about it.

    Whether they have quite the effect he intends is another matter though. It reminds me of a very different (but also inspired) comic creation, Alf Garnett:


    I don’t like SBC’s work at all, myself, though for a quite different reason: the marked streak of cruelty in its mockery. This strikes me as something characteristic of a sort of Great Tradition of Brit comedy, going right through from Steptoe and Son to Dad’s Army and the horrible smug Ricky Gervais. I dislike all of it for the same reason, which probably just displays the immaturity of my taste in these things.

    (There is also a much preferable and much more enjoyable surreal streak to the Brit comedy tradition, happily.)

    I hereby claim a prize for being the first person ever to say that he doesn’t like Borat because it reminds him of Dad’s Army.

  21.  the horrible smug Ricky Gervais

    Thank you for saying that. I thought I was the only one to think so.

    I found the first (UK) series of ‘The Office’ unbearably cruel.

  22. Thank you for saying that. I thought I was the only one to think so.


  23. jack morava says

    (There is also a much preferable and much more enjoyable surreal streak to the Brit comedy tradition, happily.)

    Sincerely seconded. See Lewis Carroll, Goon Show, Lawrence Sterne, Richard Lester, etc ad libitum

  24. Relax! English political satire is alive and kicking (with terrible puns, of course). https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2022/oct/20/iceberg-lettuce-in-blonde-wig-outlasts-liz-truss

    Too cruel to green salad?

  25. The article omits the popular Leaf-vs-Romaine joke.

  26. ‘Romaine’ is little-used in Britain … ‘cos reasons

  27. I learned of this joke from reading Brits who wielded it and others who liked it. That’s education for you.

  28. David Marjanović says

    That’s how I learned the word romaine earlier today.

  29. WP:

    In North American English it is known as “romaine” lettuce and in British English the names “cos” lettuce and “romaine” lettuce are both used. Many dictionaries trace the word cos to the name of the Greek island of Cos, from which the lettuce was presumably introduced. Other authorities trace cos to the Arabic word for lettuce, khus خس [xus].

    The first mention of cos lettuce in English dates from the late 17th century in John Evelyn’s 1699 work Acetaria. A discourse of sallets.

    It apparently reached Western Europe via Rome, as it is called lattuga romana in Italian and laitue romaine in French, both meaning “Roman lettuce” – hence the name “romaine”, the common term in North America.

    The Kos etymology is from the OED. The Arabic one is from the Oxford Companion to Food.

    The readership here, unlike WP, does not think Romaine is used in BrE. Maybe it used to be? Surely the term didn’t come to AmE directly from Europe?

  30. The readership here, unlike WP, does not think Romaine is used in BrE.

    No, Y says “I learned of this joke from reading Brits who wielded it and others who liked it.” I think it’s a case of people who don’t use it generalizing their usage to their fellow countrymen.

  31. I did say that, didn’t I.

    But WP says it’s “used” in BrE. All I know is that the educated highbrows who post jokes about Truss know the word, and that the educated anybrows who post here know the word but say that it isn’t used.

  32. OED says “Chiefly U.S. in early use,” which suggests that in later use it’s spread to the mother country.

  33. Indeed. Romaine looks like a late 19th century American foo-foo gallicism.

    Cos is still a mystery. The OED entry hasn’t been updated recently.

  34. David Eddyshaw says

    I didn’t know “romaine”, myself, but I am not very lettuce-aware (as indeed I have previously confessed/boasted.)

  35. The earliest references to cos are in John Evelyn’s 1706 Silva, Or a Discourse of Forest-trees, “Coss-lettuce from Turkey” (here); Noel Chomel’s 1725 Dictionaire Oeconomique, Or, The Family Dictionary “Coss lettuces” (here), and Benjamin Townsend’s 1726 Der vollkommene Saamen-Händler, where “Coss Lettuce” appears in several places as a translation of German Lamm-Sallat (e.g. here). The Turkey reference might be the origin for the Kos etymology. For the Arabic etymology, the vowel change needs explanation.

  36. As far as Borat goes, it seems relevant that its British creator came up with the gag near the height of Eastern European immigration into the UK, and of not unrelated anti-immigrant sentiments; the character would have been a non-starter this decade, or in the 1990s. I’m sure he did mean to satirise racists, but unfortunately he did so by very much playing up to racist caricatures.

    I rather suspect that Eastern Europe in general and etymologically related Cossacks in particular have more specific resonances in the context of Baron Cohen’s Ashkenazi background, but others here are better positioned to comment on that.

  37. Here’s another guess: Borat came to be during the era when the former Eastern Bloc countries had just opened to tourism. They were no longer unknown, but were still considered exotically backwards. The Soviet-style paeans to potassium mining and the colorful antisemitism of the mythical Kazakhstan perhaps made more sense to western audiences than they would have ten or twenty years previously. In a very similar vein comes the Lonely Planet parody Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry.

  38. Yes, I agree (and I own and enjoy Molvanîa).

  39. Romaine looks like a late 19th century American foo-foo gallicism.

    Perhaps. I have learned a fair amount about romaine, but that does not extend to quite why it is called by a French name in America (and Canada, but that might be easier to understand). The rise of romaine in the U.S. is intimately connected with the rise of Caesar salad, a delicacy first sold by Caesar (more properly Cesare) Cardini, who first sold it in 1924 in his Tijuana restaurant, which he founded in order to be able to sell wine with dinner to discerning San Diegans who wanted to evade Prohibition. He did not, by the way, include anchovies in it, which he considered too strongly flavored, only Worcestershire sauce. Cardini probably knew the virtues, notably heat resistance, of Lactuca sativa var. longifolia from his home in Lake Maggiore, and it was readily available on the U.S.-Mexico border, where it had been planted by Spanish missionaries in the 16C.

    The salad became well-known to the denizens of Hollywoodland, but in the rest of the U.S., not so much; the only lettuce that would travel transcontinentally was iceberg (var. innominata, as far as I can make out), which combined the virtues of easy travel with those of tastelessness. Not until the mid-90s was the problem of transport overcome and iceberg pushed off its 95%-of-the-market that it had held since 1945.

    But still I don’t know why it’s romaine and not romana or romagna.

  40. Surely the term [romaine] didn’t come to AmE directly from Europe?

    Plenty of food terms came to AmE direct from Italian (especially), whereas Brits took the French term. (Granted, this doesn’t explain ‘cos’.)

    Courgettes vs zucchini. Brits (used to) use ‘aubergine’. I’m not too sure about ‘scallions’ but the word draws a blank in UK.

  41. The readership here, unlike WP, does not think Romaine is used in BrE. Maybe it used to be?

    I should warn my knowledge of BrE is frozen in time circa 1995 (when I abandoned the joke-of-a-place).

    So it’s far more likely I reflect what used-to-be, and that ‘romaine’ or ‘eggplant’ are new adoptions (from U.S. sitcoms/cookery shows?).

  42. PlasticPaddy says

    Scallion is in Bailey’s dictionary and has continued in use in Scotland and Ireland. The original sense seems to be an onion intermediate in appearance between (sprouting) onion and leek.

  43. Aubergine is still going strong in Ireland, but the demotic/authentic/racy-of-the-soil “scallion” is slowly losing ground to the metropolitan/West-Brit/genteel “spring onion”.

  44. I grew up with green onions, but switched to Gale’s scallions when we started going together.

  45. J.W. Brewer says

    The internet advises me that “scallion” came into Middle English in the 14th century, “from Anglo-French escalone, Old North French escalogne, or Old French eschaloigne, all from Vulgar Latin *escalonia.” The google n-gram viewer says that in AmEng “green onion” was slightly more common than “scallion” until the trendlines crossed in 2006. “Spring onion” is shown as a distant 3d in AmEng but the clear current market leader in BrEng.

    At this point in my life I use “scallion” (or more typically, passively understand it when instructed by my wife what to get at the grocery store) but I can’t remember what if anything I called it growing up, perhaps because I have no definite memory of my mother cooking things that included that particular vegetable as an ingredient or seeing it listed as an ingredient on restaurant menus.

  46. J.W. Brewer says

    Separately, I’m pretty sure that when I first encountered the title of Hawkwind’s “The Aubergine That Ate Rangoon” (recorded 1976) I had no idea whatsoever what an aubergine might be, speculated that it might be some obscure or science-fiction-invented carnivore, and was disappointed to eventually find out the truth. I suspect that at the time I was unfamiliar with the 1966 novelty hit record “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago,” which would have provided a useful hint. The Hawkwind number is an instrumental, so there are no lyrics that might enable one to guess the meaning from context.

  47. At this point in my life I use “scallion” (or more typically, passively understand it when instructed by my wife what to get at the grocery store) but I can’t remember what if anything I called it growing up, perhaps because I have no definite memory of my mother cooking things that included that particular vegetable as an ingredient or seeing it listed as an ingredient on restaurant menus.

    This describes my situation as well.

  48. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Danish has forårsløg but there were a brief period where it looked like springløg might take over. That would make sense if spring in the Anglo term meant something similar to ‘jump’ but I’ve always assumed it referred to the season. Eggplants are auberginer, no ifs or buts.

  49. German WP says:
    Die Winterzwiebel (Allium fistulosum, Syn.: A. altaicum, A. ceratophyllum, Cepa sissilis, C. ventricosa) ist eine Pflanzenart aus der Unterfamilie der Lauchgewächse (Allioideae). Sie wird auch Frühlings- oder Frühzwiebel, Lauchzwiebel, Jungzwiebel, Frühlingslauch, Zwiebelröhrl, Zwiebelröhrchen, Röhrenlauch, Schluppenzwiebel, Schlottenzwiebel, Schnittzwiebel, Ewige Zwiebel, Winterheckenzwiebel, Winterhecke, Weiße Florentiner, Grober Schnittlauch, Jakobslauch, Johannislauch, Fleischlauch, Hohllauch oder Schnattra genannt. Die grünen Blätter der Winterzwiebel werden Schlotten genannt, manchmal wird auch die ganze Winterzwiebel so bezeichnet
    Personally, I have seen the designations Lauchzwiebel and Frühlingszwiebel in the wild. I also have seen grüne Zwiebel, which WP doesn’t list. The latter is also the designation I use most, probably because the person I mostly discuss kitchen and garden matters with is my wife, and in Russian it’s зелёный лук.
    For the other frequently discussed vegetables, the German designations are Aubergine and Zucchini.

  50. The Eggplant That Ate Chicago

    There’s also The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati. Midwest cities have it rough.

    I used to think scallions were chives, not green onions. In other words, fancy name = fancy onion.

  51. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Danish: løg, forårsløg, purløg, porre
    Swedish: lök, salladslök, gräslök, purjolök
    English: onion, scallions, chives, leek

    If there’s an explanation beyond “things became this way,” I don’t know it.

  52. My casual impression is that the term cos used to be common but that romaine has more or less replaced it in British supermarkets. Here’s some evidence, from seeing what is currently available on major UK supermarket websites. Sainsbury’s and Waitrose advertise romaine and cos lettuces as separate items. They look similar but the lettuces labelled as romaine appear possibly bigger. Tesco, Morrisons, Aldi, Asda and the Co-op however are all selling romaine lettuce only of the two.

  53. Lars, what about spring onions?

  54. Add “shallot” to the mix, as it is reportedly used in some places for scallions/green onions (the ones that are pencil-shaped and sold in bunches); I’ve never seen that myself, but AHD and DARE say so. The more common use of “shallot” is for the kind of onion that looks like a large clove of garlic, but with milder flavor.

    Separated by a Common Language covered scallions/green onions/spring onions in 2007 and shallots in 2014; comments on those posts and the big list of vegetables (2008) confirm what’s been said above about “scallions” being used in the US, Ireland, and Scotland, but not England. Or at least, not in southern England; one commenter said “my north-east English mother was delighted when she visited me in New York and found that Americans used the word ‘scallion’. This was the term she’d grown up with in Sunderland, and always used.”

    Personally, I usually see “scallions” in (AmE) cookbooks and cooking magazines, but “green onions” in the supermarket. Probably the first time I saw “scallions” was in a Chinese restaurant in Boston.

  55. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    @Y: I was operating on the assumption that spring onions and scallions are the same. If they are not, I think that forårsløg and salladslök are spring onions and I don’t know what scallions are.

    And reading that SbaCL post, let me add that shallots are skalotteløg in Danish. I smell phonological nativization of German Schalotten.

  56. Spring onions have a bulb (red or white), which is smaller than regular onions, about 5 cm. I’ve seen them but never eaten them.
    Green onions, aka scallions, are cylindrical all the way down, i.e. they don’t bulb out.
    Chives are much thinner than green onions.

  57. John Cowan says

    A. fistulosum‘s common name is Welsh onion, where Welsh means ‘foreign’.

  58. David Eddyshaw says

    Ha ha ha! A natural mistake! there are so many foreigners here that you mistook me for one!


  59. I learned the word scallions from “Pigs in Space!” (Note that that sketch also appears to begin with a bit of ad libbing by Jim Henson and Frank Oz.)

    Ultimately, there does not seem to be any completely standardized nomenclature for the members of the genus Allium. There are hundreds of species,* and there are canonical representatives of the types onion,** garlic, leek, and perhaps others; however, there are lots of other types that may be classified with the main ones, or may range into the gaps. The different types are fascinating but inevitably confusing as well. (I found myself wondering, when I reread The Tombs of Atuan with my daughter, exactly what kind of “wild onions” they were harvesting around the tombs.)

    * Seriously, check out the Wikipedia article for the genus.

    ** I found*** that my usual (idiosyncratic) conventions for which words are italicized versus placed in quotes were not sufficiently developed to address this case. I had to made a snap decision.

    *** This was initially, “I find…”; however, by the time I completed the sentence, I had made the necessary decision, and the present tense was no longer operative.

  60. Ha ha ha! A natural mistake! there are so many foreigners here that you mistook me for one!

    At the 3:50 mark.

  61. Seagoon:
    I turned to meet this accomplished linguist. He was a thin man aglow with lurgi. He wore a white linen suit so cunningly tailored that it left his hands and face naked.

  62. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    Probably the first time I saw “scallions” was in a Chinese restaurant in Boston.

    Are you saying that restaurants anywhere else serve green onion pancakes?!?

    I tried making scallion pancake once, but after a few substitutions too many I had a thin scallion frittata. Not a disagreeable dish, actually.

  63. January First-of-May says

    I think I learned the word “scallions” from the xkcd bracket; the bracket was actually set up (by fans) as a series of Twitter polls, and IIRC the scallions made it into the semifinal.

    I’ve encountered the word a few times later but I don’t think I ever quite internalized which kind of vegetable they were. TIL it’s apparently the same as Russian зелёный лук “green onion”.

  64. Are you saying that restaurants anywhere else serve green onion pancakes?!?

    I’m now in the land of chong-with-everything: steamed pork dumplings with more chong than pork in the filling.

    Chong yobi (pancakes) are tricky: everywhere outside Taiwan, and even mostly within, there’s far too much batter, too oily and fried until biscuit consistency. Only a chain of stalls in Fengjia market Taichung gets them right: thin frittata is a good start; break an egg on to it on the griddle; spread the egg around evenly, but don’t go so far as scrambling; lashings of fine-chopped chong, again only softly cooked; roll it up and into a greaseproof tube for eating.

  65. @January First-of-May: My main memory of that xkcd bracket was that it seemed like cheating to have Donnie Wahlberg and Mark Wahlberg paired off. Maybe Randall didn’t know they have the same surname because they’re actually brothers?

  66. David Marjanović says

    …I once read Caesar salad was invented in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas…

    For the Arabic etymology, the vowel change needs explanation.

    Not if the خ is uvular. (In my limited experience it always is.)

    combined the virtues of easy travel with those of tastelessness

    Taste is completely beside the point. Lettuce is eaten for its opioids (which you can also get from fresh bread crust) and as a vehicle for vinegar (to which some people, like half my family, have a bizarre addiction).

    Personally, I have seen the designations Lauchzwiebel and Frühlingszwiebel in the wild.

    I’m used to Jungzwiebel, followed by Frühlingszwiebel. The supermarkets here in Berlin say Lauchzwiebel, and the mensa decorates things with Schluppen – it took me years to figure out what that meant! The rest of the list was unknown to me.

    For the other frequently discussed vegetables, the German designations are Aubergine

    Traditionally Melanzani in Austria, though that could be moribund, I wouldn’t know.

    I used to think scallions were chives, not green onions.

    They’re used instead of chives in Chinese cuisine; I suppose chives are unknown in China.

    Spring onions have a bulb (red or white), which is smaller than regular onions, about 5 cm. I’ve seen them but never eaten them.
    Green onions, aka scallions, are cylindrical all the way down, i.e. they don’t bulb out.

    The bulb sizes of the Lauchzwiebeln I buy vary widely, apparently with the seasons. Are you sure these are different kinds and not just different ontogenetic stages? I’ve always assumed they’re simply onions that have grown out, as implied by Jungzwiebel “young onion”, or indeed by “spring onion” as an onion that sprouts after the winter.

    Anyway, ramson soup (Allium ursinum). *Homeric drool*

  67. You might be right about spring onions. California (still, for now) being California, spring onions are available here year-round.

    Oh, and there are garlic scapes (tasty, not usually available in stores) and ramps (I’m not sure if I’ve seen them in person. I guess these are the same as ramson?)

  68. Stu Clayton says

    Anyway, ramson soup (Allium ursinum). *Homeric drool*


    This was the scenic background where I was first introduced to ramson season, near Celle. 50 years ago.

  69. Y: Spring onions have a bulb (red or white), which is smaller than regular onions, about 5 cm. … Green onions, aka scallions, are cylindrical all the way down

    American foodies make this distinction now, but it hasn’t always been generally made. DARE has an entry for “spring onion”, labeled “scattered, but chiefly South, Midland” and defined as “green onion”; under “green onion” there’s a list of synonyms:

    also greentail onion, green-top: A young or small-bulbed onion, usu eaten raw. chiefly west of Appalachians
    Also called cow onion, fresh onion, Jacob’s onion, pull onion, salad onion, scallion, scunnion, seed onion, shallot, spring onion, stick-up onion, summer onion

    In England, usually the “spring onion” is cylindrical all the way down, as shown in the pictures at Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary and Oxford Learner’s Dictionary and in English cookbooks. OED (2017):

    spring onion n. any of various varieties of onion which do not form bulbs (also called scallion) or are harvested as young plants before the bulb has fully developed.

    No region label, but I think it needs one. It should be “chiefly English” and possibly “US regional” and maybe other countries.

  70. Trond Engen says


    (I tried to find a photo with ramsons in the pots, but no luck.)

  71. Australia’s classification of onions seems to be like England’s in most states, according to Onions Australia, but NSW goes its own way. This onions-shallots page from Wiffens grocery in Canberra helpfully provides pictures showing that:

    NSW “eschallot” = US/UK/rest of Australia “shallot” (shaped like garlic)
    NSW “shallot” = US “green onion/scallion” = England/rest of Australia “spring onion”
    NSW “spring onion” = long green leaves but also small bulb

    Australians, please clarify if I’ve got any of that wrong.

  72. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    According to sites, A. tricoccum can be called both ramps and ramson in the US; being New World, it has no conventional name in Danish. A. ursinum is ramsløg in Danish, and just like in Celle there is a week or two in spring when the beech forests reek garlickly. (There is conflicting data about where and by whom it may or may not be called ramps, but ramson looks pretty secure for that species).

  73. Ramps and ramsons were the topic of a whole thread here, linking to a Language Log post. It goes back to PIE — read all about it!

  74. @DM I suppose chives are unknown in China.

    What’s known is in English called ‘garlic chives’. The garlicness repels some of the pests – especially slugs.

  75. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    @ktschwarz, thanks. I hadn’t found the Hattery in 2013, at least I didn’t read it so thoroughly. I do remember seeing the “ET ALIA ALLIA” wordplay when later comments woke it up, but rarely to mention actual Allium sp.. In the other hand I may have given up on LL comments and/or VM already by then.

    Also both the OP and most of the commenters in that old LL thread seem to insist that A. ursinum are called ramps in the UK. Never mind that VM thinks he got A. tricoccum at Coop in Swarthmore. I’m not less confused now.

  76. January First-of-May says

    For the other frequently discussed vegetables, the German designations are Aubergine

    Traditionally Melanzani in Austria, though that could be moribund, I wouldn’t know.

    Incidentally, it might look surprising, but those two names are actually cognate! (Previously on LH.)

  77. Traditionally Melanzani in Austria, though that could be moribund, I wouldn’t know.

    Still the preferred term in Vienna. Arguably less moribund in daily speech than Erdapfel. Kartoffel are more common in the pan-DACh fast food chains young people seem to frequent than Aubergine are.

  78. I’m now in the land of chong-with-everything

    Live update from Fengjia market: the chong yobi are as delicious as ever. Still only 2 stalls. This is a taste sensation that could take over the world (?)

  79. You’re breakin’ my heart! Enjoy it for all of us…

  80. Giacomo Ponzetto: lots of Chinese dishes have scallions, but yes, it was a scallion pancake. It may have stuck in my mind because the menu called it “scallions pie”, violating that rule that Pinker loves that forbids “rats-eater”. Probably due to non-native English, in this case.

  81. Lars Mathiesen said (October 29): “According to sites, A. tricoccum can be called both ramps and ramson in the US”

    Many sites repeat that claim (often copying from each other), but in actual use “ramson(s)” seems to be vanishingly rare for the American kind, it’s generally “ramps”. The Dictionary of American Regional English has plenty of quotes for “ramp(s)” and nothing for “ramson(s)”.

  82. … ah, OK, here’s one that DARE missed: there’s an annual “Feast of the Ramson” in Richwood, West Virginia (for the 83rd year in 2022), though they too say “ramps” everywhere on their page except in the name of the event. Many more Appalachian communities hold ramp festivals and ramp conventions.

  83. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard of scallions – the REALLY Scottish name for such things is syboes.

  84. Thanks Jen, I must have misread the comments at Separated by a Common Language; on rechecking, they agree with you that scallion is not used in Scotland and syboe is, or at least has been until recently, though spring onion is encroaching.

    Syboe aka sybow, sybie, etc. is Scottish enough to get a Scottish-pronunciation audio clip at the OED. From French, appearing in England as cibol or chibol (obsolete?) and in Wales as jibbons (apparently loaned from English into Welsh and then back into Welsh English). One comment at Separated by a Common Language says it’s “from the Auld Alliance”, I don’t know how seriously to take that. Ultimately from Latin cēpulla < cēpa ‘onion’ and thus sharing a source with English chive and German Zwiebel; the Latin word is of unknown origin, not PIE, possibly a substrate loanword.

  85. Lars Mathiesen (October 30): “both the OP and most of the commenters in that old LL thread seem to insist that A. ursinum are called ramps in the UK.”

    Huh? No, they don’t. Victor Mair is specifically describing ramps from Pennsylvania and said nothing about A. ursinum. In the LL comments I see only one such claim, from Ray Girvan, who wrote: “According to the OED, Allium tricoccum is the US meaning [of ramps], and the UK usage refers to a related species not so far mentioned, Allium ursinum.” That was a slight misquote, since the OED actually labels that sense as “Now English regional (northern), Scottish, and Irish English,” i.e. not in Standard England-English. All the other comments there discuss names of A. ursinum in other languages, or call it “ramsons” or “bears leek” in English.

    Lars: “Never mind that VM thinks he got A. tricoccum at Coop in Swarthmore.”

    Yes, that’s the New World species (as you said above, October 29), so I don’t get what you’re saying.

  86. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I assumed that VM was in the UK. Having COOP and a Swarthmore in the US is cheating. (He does mention going to a noodle bar in South Philadelphia a bit later, but I didn’t notice that the first time around).

Speak Your Mind