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John Oldani on St. Louis folklore and lingo

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon - Whether you “warsh” or wash, drink “sodie” or soda, or take highway “farty” or forty, every St. Louisan can relate to the city’s quirky way of speaking.

John Oldani’s new book, “St. Lou-isms: Lingo, Lore, and the Lighter side of Life in the Gateway City,” uncovers all the weird vocabulary, phrases and old tales that nearly every St. Louis native knows.

Oldani claims to be the city’s unofficial ambassador according to the Oldani Connection. Known as Dr. Jack to his students, he was a professor for 30 years, primarily at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville where he taught American studies. He was inducted into the Great Professor Hall of Fame and was awarded the Professor Excellence Award on three occasions. He had a syndicated newspaper column, American Folksay, and spent many years as a commentator on KMOX radio. Oldani also wrote for "Johnny Cash's American Folklore," a nationally syndicated radio show produced by the late country singer that is still being broadcast in parts of the country. His previous books include "Passing It On: The Folklore of St. Louis — Its Traditions, Superstitions, Rituals and Folk Beliefs," "You Did What in the Ditch?: Folklore of the American Quilter" and "Sweetness Preserved: The Story of the Crown Candy Kitchen."

Oldani is a true St. Louis native. The only time he left St. Louis was when he was a visiting professor at three other universities. "It’s the very reason why I’m writing. It’s my muse," said Oldani of the Gateway City. "I’m the unofficial ambassador of St. Louis because the St. Louis folklore has never been collected. It’s my mission to make sure it’s collected and not lost forever." He’s collected over 200,000 different folk texts related to the region south of St. Louis and is now trying to put meaning behind it.

Oldani defines folklore as "the oral tradition that circulates among a folk culture in traditional, anonymous ways and that reflect that culture." He said that it has a scientific basis and one can even get a PhD in it. "It explains their culture as nothing else can do," he said, "This lore is all what defines us."

The new book discusses the new folklore, saying that senior citizens "have folklore developing based upon what the younger people do," said Oldani. Having visited senior-citizen residences all over the area, he discovered that senior citizens have their own texting code. "The old stuff is based on the new stuff, and it’s becoming aided by technology more than the other stuff was." Also, he said, the new folklore reflects gender changes, such a blond-men jokes in battle-of-the-sexes exchanges. "The women are getting even because now there’s equality," said Oldani.

Local college students are also joining in, and Oldani has a chapter on academic lore. "There are games — ping pong or quarters or alcohol involved. There are pick-up lines, there are fraternity/sorority hazing things," he said. "If you’re not a college student, you wouldn’t understand some of the words they say. I don’t, so they have to explain them to me."

Personal identity is one of the main aspects of folklore, and what defines us more than our family? Oldani said, "Every lore has its own family to identify it." When he has guests over for dinner his family uses the phrase "FHB," meaning “Family, hold back, let the guests eat first." "The guests don’t know what it means," he said. "The point is that we have an identity that can sprout in any direction with all these different tentacles and can be extended depending on the group we’re in."

Oldani said that folklore is used to validate, integrate, compensate and educate. "It’s important because it reflects the culture the way nothing else can do."