Accessibility links

Breaking News

How 'The Thing' Has Entered the Language of People in New Orleans

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: the language of Hurricane Katrina.

RS: Debra Howell is an artist who has lived in New Orleans on and off since the late 1960s. She says she never evacuated for a hurricane before in her life. Last August she waited until the last hours before the storm hit to leave.

AA: Her neighborhood was lucky. Debra Howell was back in her house by the end of October.

DEBRA HOWELL: "We had wind damage around here, but we had very little flooding. The floodwaters from the levee breeches reached about three blocks away ... and stopped as they approached the river. I'm part of what they refer to as the 'Sliver by the River,' the area that didn't flood from the levee breeches."

AA: "So now when you and your neighbors and your friends talk about the storm and the effects and so forth, let us in a little bit on what influence Katrina has had on the language, the local language in New Orleans."

DEBRA HOWELL: "There's a local columnist at the Times-Picayune newspaper named Chris Rose and he has coined this phrase 'The Thing.' He will not refer to Katrina by name, and he always calls it The Thing, and a lot of people have picked up that habit.

"A lot of people are very -- they infuse the word Katrina with so much venom that it's almost hard to say. And people who are named Katrina have been using their middle names, for example. I adopted a little dog who was a stray living in City Park on her own, and the thing I remember the most frequent comment being was, 'Whatever you do, don't name her Katrina.' That name has just taken on such a world of significance.

"People have other things, people talk about 'Katrina brain.' Everybody here suffers from short-term memory loss and it just seems universal. And of course it's one of the first signs, or first, um ... "

AA: "Of shock."

RS: "Of shock."

DEBRA HOWELL: "Of post-traumatic stress disorder, otherwise known as PTSD which everybody refers to. And, you know, people laugh about it, but it is just sort of universally referred to as Katrina brain or a Katrina moment. No more senior moments, it's all Katrina moments."

RS: "So what are some other words that describe your situation, unique to New Orleans and the hurricane."

DEBRA HOWELL: "Well, let's see. 'Pre-K' and 'post-K,' which have nothing to do with school."

AA: "Kindergarten, yeah."

DEBRA HOWELL: "Yeah, nothing to do with kindergarten whatsoever. Everything is pretty much pre-K and post-K, and the acronyms for the 'New New Orleans,' N-U-N-O. You see that written a lot, as a short term for New New Orleans."

RS: "N-U-N -- "


RS: "-O, right. NUNO."

AA: "For a city that's often known as NOLA, for New Orleans Louisiana, right?"


AA: "N-O-L-A. So you talked earlier about how the term Katrina is often infused with a lot of anger and bitterness, and that's certainly understandable. I'm curious, are there other terms that have developed, maybe more humor or humorous or ironic or kind of ... "

DEBRA HOWELL: "Well, funny, a perfect example of that is we just had the Tennessee Williams literary festival this past weekend, which is an annual thing, and part of the festival every year -- y'all might already know about this -- part of the festival every year is a Stella shouting contest. Somebody stands on a balcony and people in the street, one at a time, compete over the best shout of 'Stella.'"

AA: "As if they're Marlon Brando -- "

DEBRA HOWELL: "As if they're Marlon Brando [in 'A Streetcar Named Desire.']"

MARLON BRANDO: "Hey Stella!!"

DEBRA HOWELL: "And it's a contest, and it's a very popular contest, lots of people go to watch. This year the winner surprised everybody. This middle-aged man got up there, looked like he was going to do the regular thing, and he shouted 'FEMA!! [laughter] FEMA!!' And oh my god, it was hysterical -- and he won.'"

AA: "FEMA, for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, much criticized around New Orleans."

DEBRA HOWELL: "Very, very much so. And he just infused the word with all the hopelessness it deserved."

RS: Debra Howell is a self-employed printmaker and photographer in New Orleans.

AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is And you can download all of our segments for free at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.