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Speaking Alaskan: Words Alaskans Say

How To Speak & Understand 
Alaskan English

A Guide To
"Alaskan Words, Slang & Jargon"

1. The "Lower 48"
In Alaska, the "Lower 48" means the contiguous American 48 states (excluding Hawaii.) Here's a sample sentence, using the term:  "There's that crazy newscaster again, pointing out the weather in the Lower 48 and completely ignoring Alaska!"

But, before Alaska became the 49th state in 1959, and was still just a U.S. Territory, oldtime Alaskans called the Lower 48 "The States." As in: "I'm heading out to the States on the next boat." 

Another term for the Lower 48 is "Outside." Here's a sample statement: "Joe runs a little rafting company in the Kenai. But in the winter, he and his family go Outside."

2. "Pop"
Alaskans drink a lot of soda. Or cola. Or soft drinks. While in Alaska, if you want anything along that line, you'll have to call it "pop." Sample sentence: "It's 70 degrees out there! I'm so hot I'm gonna buy me a cold pop out of that vending machine!"

3. "Termination Dust"
In the early fall, Alaskans look anxiously to the many mountains that surround them, for signs of oncoming winter. It's colder high up in the mountains, so when a late summer rainstorm sweeps through, it sometimes leaves a light, fine, powdery, flour-like spattering of early snow high in the hills. Nothing dense. Just a terrifying skiff of white. This is known as "termination dust." Usage: "Every time I go to the Alaska State Fair in Palmer, I always see that first termination dust on Pioneer Peak!"
A burning coil of pic on an Alaska porch.

4. "Pic"
Mosquitoes are common throughout Alaska in the summer. To combat them, Alaskans burn coils of something known as "Pic." You set the Pic up in a dish or pan, and place it by the open door. It's made of pyrethrum from marigolds, and is highly effective.

5. "Fishwheel"
The fishwheel is a homemade, wooden rotating device, attached to the shore of a river -- such as the Copper River. A form of waterhwheel, it is used by registered Alaskans to catch fish. The wheel scoops salmon out of the water. Fishwheels came to Alaska around 1915, and are thought to have originated, a long time ago, in China. They were used, on a much larger scale, on the west coast at one time. You can see fishwheels in action at Chitina.

A fishwheel in Chitina, Alaska, on the Copper River. 

6. "Alcan"
The Alcan is a shortened nickname for the Alaska Canada Highway, which was built 75 years ago, in a mad dash to have an actual road all the way to Alaska from the Lower 48, through Canada. The Alcan crosses the border, comes through Northway and Tok, and officially ends in Delta Junction Alaska. This road was built with the major assistance of black U.S. soldiers under dreadful conditions, in record time, as a military secret.

Alcan Highway display at Museum of the North on
the University of Alaska campus in Fairbanks. 

7. "Milepost Markers"
Alaska's few rural highways often followed old trails, or railroad tracks. A hundred years ago, there were roadhouses along all the trails. Their distances from each other were measured in walking miles. Everyone walking the trails -- or later by stagecoach -- was aware of exactly how many miles it was to the next resting spot. Sometimes, signs posting the number of miles to the next lodge were hammered on boards next to the trail. When actual roads were put in, this convention remained in place. "Milepost signs" were driven into the side of the road every mile. Even today, all rural Alaskans on the road system use the milepost system. Typically, someone might say: "I live at Mile 128 Richardson." One thing that has happened, though, is that with road straightening and construction, these mileposts are not accurate anymore, as miles are shaved off the highways. It's too difficult for highway crews to adjust every sign, though. So they stay in place, even when inaccurate. The milepost system has strengths and weaknesses, especially in regards to emergency services. For example, there are duplicate numbers on different highways: Mile 130 Richardson (for example) and Mile 130 Glenn. If the highway name is given wrongly to EMTs after an accident, they can end up in the wrong location. Also, estimating where you are when you call for help, on your cell phone, can be 5 to 10 miles off, if you didn't notice the last signpost before running off the road.

8. "Breakup"
In spring, the ice on rivers and lakes "breaks up." It often does it all at once, with river ice crashing up onto the banks. This is known as "breakup." The official start of the summer season.

Bunny boots, for sale on the Palmer-Wasilla Highway
in the late 1980's or early 1990's. 
9. "Bunny Boots"
These aviation boots, invented and used by the U.S. military, have been sold all over Alaska for years. Heavy, highly insulated – and capable of being filled with ice water yet still keeping your feet from freezing – "bunny boots" are huge and cumbersome. Yet, many longtime Alaskans swear by them. They are frequently sold as army surplus, and are also known as "Mickey Mouse" boots. Overall, there's nothing like them, though they are awkward to run in.

Bunny Boots.

10. "The Bush"
Every time the Brown Family on the reality TV show "Alaska Bush People" talks about "the bush" in their sojourn in the Copper Valley, they're living a lie. The Copper Valley is not "in the bush." It is on the road system. "Bush" means "off the road." "Rural Alaska" means "on the road." The Brown Family set up their "wilderness lifestyle" within a stone's throw of a local bar and pizza joint on the Richardson Highway, near Copper Center – while ostensibly living a life in the wilds. The actual "bush" in Alaska is any place that is well of the road system, and inaccessible by car. So the Browns were never "Alaska Bush People."

11. "The PFD"
The Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend is a yearly payment made to all Alaska residents. It's often around $1,000 or so, and stems from Alaska's oil economy. It does seem like a lot. But living in Alaska is really expensive. Even living in rural Alaska, where gas is far more expensive than in the Lower 48. Where fuel costs are both very high and winters can reach minus 60 degrees - driving expenses are even higher.  Basic groceries, sold in small stores and are super expensive. The PFD is a great thing. But it's not a good enough reason for moving to Alaska. The other costs far outweigh the PFD's well-appreciated benefits. In rural Alaska, most PFD's are used for essentials, such as groceries. So, in a sense, this PFD, like the usage in the Lower 48, actually IS a "Personal Flotation Device."

12. "Village"
Although you may look at a place like Talkeetna, and think: "That's pretty small. It looks like a village..." Talkeetna is not an Alaskan village. It's an Alaskan "town." Within the state, "village" is a term that specifically applies to predominately Native American communities. Talkeetna is not a Native American community. In some cases, the specific homes that are used by Native Americans (frequently clustered) are considered "the village." But the surrounding community, which is not Native, can share a village name. Here's an example: "Gakona Village" -- which includes mainly the Native Americans of the Gakona area. But, the surrounding area is also known as "Gakona" -- without the added term "Village". It includes mainly non-Native Americans. In Alaska, the term "village" is loosely tied to the classifications set down by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, which maintains lists of federally recognized "American Tribal Entities". That tribal list, in Alaska. usually ties into a "village." Most Native Villages in Alaska are not on the road system, but in what is called "The Bush." The group of non-Bush, roadside Native American villages includes: Cantwell, Cheesh-Na (or Chistochina), Chickaloon, Chitina, Circle, Dot Lake, Eagle, Eklutna, Gakona, Gulkana, Healy Lake, Kenaitze, Kluti Kaah (or Copper Center), Knik, Mentasta, Nenana, Ninilchik, Northway, Tanacross, Tazlina, and Tetlin.  All of these villages are Athabascan, because the core Alaska road system only covers Athabascan territory.

13. "Mudflats"
Anchorage is a triangle that juts out into Cook Inlet, backed at its base by the Chugach Mountains. The town is called "Anchorage" because it was a safe place to anchor incoming small ships, full of people headed for the gold fields. They anchored near the outgoing waters of a small stream that miners dubbed "Ship Creek." Today, Ship Creek flows through downtown Anchorage, and is an urban salmon fishing stream. Unlike many places in Alaska, and elsewhere, Anchorage's coastal waters are not welcoming beaches. They are what are known as "mudflats." And they're dangerous. Mudflats are essentially a very close cousin of quicksand. They are what is known as "colloidal." That means that its made of particles of sand, suspended in water. A typical colloid you can make in your kitchen can be made by mixing cornstarch with water. You can stir it up, and it's liquid -- and then all of a sudden, it becomes hard. That's what the mudflats do. The mudflats can harden up, all of a sudden, around an unsuspecting fisherman's leg, holding the fisherman solidly in the mud. If this happens out along the shore, and the tide comes in, you can be easily drowned. For this reason, there are signs along the Mudflats by the Seward Highway, warning you to stay off. You can also, unfortunately, have the very same thing happen to you if you wade into the shallow waters of Ship Creek, which is also muddy. Nowadays, emergency medical personnel are trained to come and get you out of the Mudflats, using boards and special suction devices. But, Ship Creek is a busy place, and watching you being extricated from the mud is an interesting sight for nearby gawkers, who like to share their pictures with the world.

Emergency personnel, on two separate occasions, rescue hapless wanderers in the most public manner from the Anchorage Mudflats. (KTUU TV & Anchorage Daily News)

14. "Alpenglow"

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