A Transplant’s Guide to Iowa Words and Phrases

Welcome to Iowa, where we like our corn sweet and our primary elections complicated. If you’re like me and moved here from outside of the Midwest, you might run across a term or concept you’re completely unfamiliar with. Never fear, dear Transplant. I’ve got you covered:

ANF – Acronym of “America Needs Farmers”. This phrase was publicized and put on University of Iowa football helmets by legendary Iowa football coach Hayden Fry (he has his own entry below) in 1985 as a response to the Farm Crisis in the 1980s. It has since been put on all manner of merch as a way to show awareness and support of Iowa farmers.

Butter Cow – A literal cow made of butter. This is an annual feature at the Iowa State Fair.

Caucus – What Iowa does instead of a presidential primary. It is a whole thing and takes a LONG time, thus many of the people who turn out for this event are VERY invested in their candidate. The Iowa Caucus is one of the first primaries in the USA, and therefore, has a pretty far-reaching influence. Also, the last one was a disaster.

A Cold Day – A day where temperatures are so cold that schools are closed. (Kind of like a snow day, but usually doesn’t include snow because it’s that freakin’ cold out).

Cornhole –  (sometimes just called “Bags”) This is that game where 2 two-person teams stand across from each other and try to throw beanbags into a hole cut into a slanted board. You’ve seen this, even if you didn’t know it was called “cornhole”.

Crick –  A creek. A small freshwater stream, especially used when discussing swimming.

The Dells – The Wisconsin Dells: land of sandy hills and a disproportionate amount of water parks. A popular vacation destination for Iowans.

Detasseling – A thing that has to happen to corn in the mid-summer so that it can grow. Also, this is a job that every middle/highschooler raised out in the country has had (and hated) at one point.

DTIC / Downtown – Downtown Iowa City, especially the ped mall (see entry below) area.

Finger lift/finger wave – Lifting one (or two, if you’re really excited) fingers off of your steering wheel (while driving) to greet and/or acknowledge the presence of another driver.

First Wednesday – The first Wednesday of every month is when the tornado/emergency sirens are tested at 10:00am. You will forget this and be startled by it every month.

Hawks – A common abbreviation of “Hawkeyes,” especially in the context of “Go, Hawks!”

Hayden Fry – He’s got a street, a statue, and his own Fest. In the land of no professional sports teams, college football is king, and Hayden Fry is also a king… okay, this metaphor doesn’t really work. Anyway, he coached Hawkeye football for 20 years and won a lot of games. He also rocked some statement eyewear. 

Highway – Basically any paved road that isn’t in a neighborhood or busy area. A two-lane road can be a highway as much as an interstate can be a highway. #believeinyourself

Kitty-corner – Diagonally across from something else, especially used to describe the position of buildings.

Kolache –[ kuh-lah-chee] A Czech filled pastry that is a lot like a danish. Popular in Cedar Rapids.

Maidrite – Also described as a “loose meat sandwich.” Basically a sloppy joe, but without the tomato-y sauce. This is supposedly Iowa’s official sandwich, but I’ve never actually met anyone who’s had one.

“No, yeah.”  – “Definitely, yes.”

Okoboji – A large lake that many people visit for summer vacations. Basically, the Iowa version of The Hamptons.

“Ope!” – A combination of surprise and apology that ranges in meaning from “Oh, sorry for this minor inconvenience,” to “My god! I’ve accidentally disfigured you horribly and am, accordingly, mortified by the prospect of spending the rest of my days reliving this nightmare!”

Padiddle – Something people yell when they see a car with a headlight out. They may or may not also punch the top of their own car. I have no etymological insights on this, but it’s a thing.

Ped mall – Pedestrian mall. Google maps calls it a “traffic-free shopping & restaurant hub,” and that description is good enough for me.

Pop – Soda

Puppy Chow  – Snack for humans consisting of Chex cereal, chocolate, peanut butter, and powdered sugar.

RAGBRAI – An annual non-competitive bicycle ride across the state of Iowa, usually during the hottest week of the year.

Ramp/Parking Ramp – Parking Garage

Rusty the Giant Sloth – The life-sized effigy of a giant sloth, and official Spokessloth of the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History (for real). His official responsibilities are listed as “Greets visitors and practices slothiness.” Freakin’ delightful.  Rusty is an example of megafauna that were once native to the area.

Sack – A plastic bag, especially a grocery bag.

Salad – Either a dish made primarily of leafy greens OR a jello/marshmallow-based dessert. Always clarify which when asked to bring one to a party.

Scotcheroo – A peanut butter/chocolate tray bake that contains neither scotch nor kangaroo.

“Sorry!” – A mild apology appropriate to any and all contexts, including and/or especially contexts where you didn’t actually do anything wrong. (See also: “Ope!”)

“Sweet corn” – Corn that people eat (as opposed to “corn,” generally, which can also mean “feed corn,” which is for livestock).

Walking taco – Refers to a bag of Doritos that has been cut open long-ways (although there is some controversy surrounding this point) and filled with ground beef, lettuce, tomato, and cheese. The contents are then eaten out of the bag with a fork. Better than it sounds.

“Welp.” – A multi-use statement that can be used to end conversations and social gatherings. Essentially, this is a shortened version of “Well, I don’t have anything else to say so… see you later.”

“Watch out for deer.” – An expression used when someone is departing a location/event. This serves to both warn the person about deer and express your deep love and concern for the person’s wellbeing.

The Writers’ Workshop – The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. One of the most prestigious writing programs in the world and one of the University of Iowa/Iowa City’s big claims to fame. The program boasts some seriously successful alumni who have sold a lot of books and won a lot of awards. It’s also the reason that Iowa City is a UNESCO City of Literature.

“Yeah, no.”  – “Absolutely not.”

“Yeah, no, yeah.” – “Regrettably, the answer is absolutely yes.”

“You’re fine.” – A common response to either “Sorry!” or “Ope!”, signifying that you were not harmed or upset by the actions of the apologizer.


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