5 New Orleans Phrases Every Visitor Needs to Know

Photo by Mark Morgan

How to speak like a local in New Orleans

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New Orleans is proud of its diverse heritage, reflected in its language and culture. We were ruled by France and Spain before the Louisiana Purchase made us part of the USA. So there are New Orleans phrases in common usage here that outsiders may not understand. In fact, we often assume everyone knows them. Not true though.

New Orleans Phrases

Neutral Ground

The neutral ground is the large grassy strip found in the middle of larger thoroughfares, known to most other Americans as medians. Most New Orleanians don’t know why we call this the neutral ground. We just do. The history actually goes back to when most citizens here were of Spanish or French heritage (or both) but the Americans were moving in. Canal Street (downtown) was the dividing line between where most English and most non-English speaking people lived, the “neutral” ground. Eventually the term was transferred to all similar spaces, and 200 years later it has stuck.

The Neutral Ground is also the name of a coffee house best known for its local music scene. Its laid back atmosphere and open mic nights make it more like visiting a friend’s home than a cafe.

Po-Boy Dressed

This is a conglomeration of two different terms. A po-boy is a sandwich made on French bread, the local equivalent to a submarine sandwich, a hoagie, or a grinder. The term po-boy originated during a streetcar conductor strike in the 1920’s. People brought sandwiches to the “poor boys” who were out of work. Today po-boys are quite common throughout New Orleans, with almost everyone having a preferred type and a favorite place to get it. When you order your po-boy you will likely be asked if you want it “dressed.” This does not refer to salad dressing. “Dressed” means basically “with everything” or “the works.” Generally speaking dressed means lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and mayo but some places may include ketchup, mustard, or onions. If there’s something you don’t want tack it on the end. (“I’d like an oyster po-boy dressed – no mayo.”) If you only want specific things you specify. (“I’d like a ham and cheese po-boy, lettuce and mustard only.”) But unless you have food allergies get your po-boy dressed, as God, and the chef, intended it. One of the best places to get a po-boy is Parkway Bakery and Tavern. Try the roast beef with extra gravy, dressed. 


Lagniappe basically means a little bit extra for free. This is like that 13th doughnut in a baker’s dozen. A farmer having a good season may add a few extra peaches to your bushel “as lagniappe.” Or if you had to wait an extra long time for your po-boy, a kind owner may throw in some french fries “for a little lagniappe.” The word comes from the Spanish term “la yapa” which means something for free or a tip. It is indicative of the friendly, giving name of New Orleanians that a special term for this persists to this day.

One good place to seek that lagniappe extra doughnut is Baker’s Dozen. Opened in 1993 in Jefferson (just outside of New Orleans) Baker’s Dozen has an assortment of traditional and unique pastries to please any palate.

The many meanings of the word “pass”

A newcomer once told me a story from when he first moved here. A friend said to him “I might pass by your house later today.” He told me at the time he wondered if his friend was going to pass by his house why he wouldn’t stop and say hello. The French verb “passer” has various uses. One use is like the English: to approach a thing and keep going. (“Let that streetcar pass before turning left here.”) Used another way it can mean to go somewhere to do something. (“I’m going to pass by the store on the way home.”) An entirely different usage can mean to spend. (“Come on over and pass a good time.”) Again, we have no idea that this may be confusing to others. This is just the way we talk.

For delicious taste of French culture pass by Le Croissant d’Or Patisserie for croissants and other French pastries as well as some cafe au lait. (Just be sure to stop and go inside.)

Laissez le bon temps roule!

A New Orleanian who doesn’t know a word of French will know what this phrase means. This is a Cajun expression, pronounced “lay-zay le bonn tawmp roolay” and it means “Let the good times roll.” We love to have a good time here and can turn almost anything into a party. It is fitting, therefore, that our most enduring French phrase be this one.

A good place to let the good times roll is Le Bon Temps Roule Bar and Sandwich Shop on Magazine St. A favorite among locals, it was opened in 1979 and has live music, free oysters on Fridays, and a Tuesday trivia night.

So come on down and pass a good time with us. Laissez le bon temps roule!


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