National Radio, Traffic Reports, and Colloquialisms

One of my favorite radio stations is a nationally syndicated station based in Nashville. I listen to it on the drive home from work, and every now and then, they cut to a traffic report. This is basically what I heard yesterday:

Traffic is slow on the 5 near State Route 500 and again northbound on the 5 from Terwilliger through downtown. Southbound 5 is slow just south of the Interstate Bridge. Highway 26 eastbound is slow from Canyon to the 405.

And, like always, it made me facepalm. Because while I’m sure she was right about where traffic was slow, if someone had given the same report on a local station, it would sound like this:

Traffic is slow I-5 southbound near SR 500 and northbound from the curves to the Marquam Bridge. Sunset eastbound is slow to stop and go from the zoo through the tunnel.

Why’s that? Colloquialisms. We don’t say “the 5” here. It’s I-5. Washington State Routes are S-Rs. The Terwilliger curves are always called curves, and the “Terwilliger” part is unnecessary. Highway 26 is “the Sunset” by itself and “Sunset” with no “the” if followed by a direction.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the traffic report was followed by a weather report.

Tomorrow will be warmer, with a low of 38 and a high of 45. Don’t forget your umbrella because it will be raining off and on all day.

No. Just… no. Portlanders do not use umbrellas. Especially not for just a little rain. Like, it’s almost taboo to use them. Or you can use them, just don’t tell anyone, and let the people on the street think you’re a tourist.

Every time I listen to the station, I become painfully aware that the people giving local reports are not local themselves.

What’s this have to do with anything?

Writing, of course. And writing believable settings. Since my novel is set in Alaska, I’m going to have to talk to the family I have who lives there as I’m polishing. Research can show me the road that leads from Kenai to Anchorage, but the map won’t tell me what locals call it. Is the road they travel the Soldotna Highway? The 1? Something else entirely? I don’t know. I do know that being wrong will pull anyone familiar with Alaska straight out of the story, and have them facepalming at how wrong I am.

What sort of research do you do for your setting to make sure your colloquialisms are right? Have you ever talked to someone who was technically right about something, but they didn’t use your local word for it? What happened?


  1. I had heard Portlanders do not use umbrellas! Here in west Texas, we don’t complain about the wind or sand – and don’t grimace when we eat jalapenos. 🙂

  2. My current WIP (which is my first novel) is set in my hometown, so I’m not having this particular issue yet, but I do use a reference to “the 405” in LA and I’m always sensitive to people who don’t use “the” (mostly because I find that fascinating! In California I guess we get up close and personal with our freeway and highway names and leave off the labels.). I remember when I moved to Oregon to go to college and I said something about taking “the 5” to get there, and my neighbor across the hall (from Clackamas) said, “THE 5? You mean Interstate 5?” like it was the craziest thing she’d ever heard. Anyway, long story short, I love localisms. 🙂

    • My first novel was set in my hometown, too. Definitely easier that way. 🙂 It’s definitely weird to find people who refer to the same things so differently. I love your convo with your roommate! I probably would’ve considered it the craziest thing I’d ever heard, too, when I was a freshman. 🙂 (Go OSU!) And hooray for localisms!

  3. I love this. So my first novel (the one on sub) takes place on Long Island and in the city, so no problems there, but the one i’m writing now takes place in L.A. a lot and I’ve never been! I adore our QT friend Adriana aka catsnstuff! she’s an amazing person will be answering my L.A. questions when I get to those sections of the MS. I’ve had people ask me if I take the “lie” everywhere (they say it like the word) and I’m like “NOOO.” It’s said as if we’re spelling it out like “L” “I” “E” …We don’t say Long Island Expressway and we would never EVER say it like the word “lie” argh haha

    • Thanks! It’s funny how those kinds of things make us so unreasonably angry, isn’t it? Glad you have Adriana to help you with the next one! My cousin will probably be helping me with this one… or at least I’ll ask her. 🙂

  4. Ha! This is hilarious. And probably one of the best benefits to writing fantasy/sci-fi. You can make stuff up and not have to worry about localisms.

    Although my husband and I honeymooned in Alaska, so if I were you, I’d inform your husband you need to go there for some research. 😀 Just make sure it’s in the summer when it’s gorgeous!

    • I do really want to go there for research, but I also want the book done before summer. So that’s my main problem… 🙂 We’ll see though, right?

      I’m also terrible at making stuff up, so writing fantasy/sci-fi isn’t much easier than looking up localisms.

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