Learn the Local Lingo
Alaska is unique in every way – it even has its own vocabulary. We offer you a guide to some of Alaska language tips, the state’s ancient and recent words and sayings known only to those who inhabit Alaska. Study these Alaska terms and you just might convince the locals that you are a true “sourdough.”
Alcan: The Alaska Highway, also “Alaska-Canadian Highway,” or “Al-Can Highway,” runs from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska via Whitehorse, Yukon. It is 1,523 miles, or 2,451 kilometers, long. Also see: Pave Your Own Path On Alaska’s Highways.
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Aurora Borealis: The official Alaska term for northern lights, which are visible for more than half the year in the far north. The University of Alaska-Fairbanks houses a research center dedicated to studying the phenomenon which is caused by magnetic particles from the sun as they hit the earth’s atmosphere. Also see Stargazing in Alaska.
Blanket Toss: The blanket toss is now conducted as entertainment, but it didn’t originate that way. The Inupiaq hunter would be tossed in the air, enabling him to see across the horizon to hunt game. Now thirty or more Inupiaq gather in a circle, holding the edges of a large skin made from walrus hides, and toss someone into the air as high as possible. The person being tossed throws gifts into the crowd and loses a turn when he or she loses his or her balance. The object: to maintain balance and return to the blanket without falling over. This is one of many games played during the course of a 10-day celebration of Inuit culture.
Break Up: The spring melting season is a season unto itself. The rivers thaw and begin to flow again, carrying huge chunks of ice down river. The ice “break up” is accompanied by days of celebration as Alaska emerges from long winter nights.
Cache: A small shed-like building on stilts where furriers and hunters kept their goods.
Cheechako: The term for someone who is new to the country. A “tenderfoot” or “green horn.”
Combat Fishing Alaska features the most salmon-rich fishing streams in the world. Opening day is so eagerly anticipated that hundreds of anglers will line the banks of the river, shoulder-to-shoulder, casting for fish, hence the Alaska phrase ‘combat fishing.’ The trick is to actually hook a salmon and not a fellow salmon fisherman.
Denali: Literally translating to the “High One” or the “Great One,” Denali is the name given to the massive peak previously known as Mt. McKinley. Congress officially changed the name of Mt. McKinley National Park to Denali National Park in the Alaska Lands Act in 1980.
Eskimo Ice Cream: The fat of a seal, caribou or fish that is whipped to a creamy texture and mixed with chopped meat or berries. It’s actually quite yummy!
Native Alaska Terms
Mukluks Mukluks are a soft boot made of caribou or sealskin and typically worn by the Inuit people.
Ice Fog: The term for what occurs when water vapor meets bitter cold air that can’t hold any more water in 10 seconds or less. Water cooled that fast forms tiny ice particles. Collectively, millions of these particles take form as ice fog, the cotton candy-like clouds that hang over Alaska’s roads.
Ice Worms: Ice worms are real. They live in pools of water and crawl around between ice crystals near the glacier surface. Ice worms have been observed to move around in the ice at depths near two meters. Even in the Alaska Range, the glacial ice at that depth can remain near freezing and so can provide at least a marginal ice worm habitat.
Iditarod: Known as the “The Last Great Race on Earth” from Anchorage, in south central Alaska, to Nome on the western Bering Sea coast, each team of 12 to 16 dogs and their musher covers over 1,150 miles in 10 to 17 days.
Lower 48: Alaska’s residents refer to the continental United States as the lower 48.
Mukluks: Mukluks are a soft boot made of caribou or sealskin and typically worn by the Inuit.
Muktuk: An Eskimo delicacy consisting of the skin and attached layer of whale blubber. It can be eaten dried or cooked, but usually consumed raw.
Mushing: The game of sled dog racing.
Muskeg: Swamp or bog composed of layers of decomposing plant life. Often found in tundra regions.
Noseeums: Tiny winged insects (a form of small gnat) that is nearly invisible. The bug packs a nasty bite slightly less bothersome than a bear chewing your leg off.
Outside: Anywhere outside the state, but is generally the term Alaskans use for the continental 48 states. When a local goes on vacation, they are headed “outside.”
Permanent Fund: A state savings account created by constitutional amendment that requires at least 25 percent of Alaska’s royalties from oil to be set aside, with only the interest earnings available for spending. Permanent residents receive a yearly dividend check.
Sourdough: The name originally came from the Gold Rush of 1898 era when prospectors and other wanderers carried a lump of fermented starter dough for making bread in a pouch around their neck. The fermented dough was kept close the body to stay warm. A sourdough pouch hanging around a miner’s neck was a clear sign of experience in survival. The term came to be associated with an old timer or someone who has been in the north country a long time.
Termination Dust: The construction workers during the building boom in the 1940s called the snowfall each year “termination dust” because it meant the end of their jobs would be terminated for the season. Now, it is used to refer to the first snowfall signaling the end of the summer season.
Totems: Totem poles are known as silent storytellers, depicting figures that were relevant to a specific Native tribe.
Tundra: The word comes from the Finnish word meaning “barren or treeless land.” Most of the tundra on the planet exists in the Northern Hemisphere in a belt along the Arctic Ocean.
Ulu: The native people of northern Alaska invented this knife centuries ago. It is used for hunting, fishing, skinning, filleting and every other imaginable domestic cutting need by the Inuit people. Nowadays, replicas can be purchased at any souvenir shop in Alaska.
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Now that you know the lingo, you’re ready to navigate your way around the Last Frontier without looking like a Cheechako. Browse Princess vacations and Alaska excursions and start planning your trip to Alaska today. Want to learn more fun facts about Alaska first? Check out our Alaska travel blog for the inside scoop on special events, fascinating historical facts and off-the-beaten-path journeys.