Minnesota native Jen Watts is well aware of the state’s stereotypes. “Fargo” quotes, you betcha. But she was stumped when her 3-year-old son fell over, exclaimed “ope!” and then got back up and toddled on.
“I thought ‘that’s a really funny reaction to falling,’ and about a day later or so I bumped into something and made the same sound of ‘ope’ and I said ‘oh my gosh, he totally learned that from me,’ ” Watts said.
She started noticing the word more and more — from family members, from friends, even from strangers at Target. Ope was everywhere.
“It made me laugh … this must be a Minnesota thing that when we bump into something, lose something, whatever it may be, the response is ‘ope!’ ” Watts said.
But she wondered what ope is and where did it come from? That’s the latest question for Curious Minnesota, our community-driven reporting project fueled by questions from inquisitive readers.
It turns out the word isn’t exclusively Minnesotan because the Midwest in general seems to claim it. The Kansas City Star wrote a story on the phenomenon in 2017, and before that a radio station in Kalamazoo wrote a blog post calling it “The sound Michiganders make instead of saying ‘excuse me.’ ” The University of Kansas, the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Cubs have all posted about the word on Twitter.
Ope is defined as a Midwestern regionalism by Dictionary.com. The official term for the sound is an onomatopoeic nonword, a verbal instinct used in-the-moment. It’s lumped together with other gut reactions like “meh,” “aww” and Homer Simpson’s “d’oh!”
The popular Twitter account @IndignantMN — which has 12,700 followers — is dedicated to Minnesota appreciation and celebration. Naturally, ope holds a special place in the hearts of the two men who run it.
“The funny thing is it’s not really a word,” said one of the Indignant Minnesotans, who prefers anonymity. “Is someone saying oops? What does it come from?”
The search for more concrete, academic answers led us to Anatoly Liberman, a professor at the University of Minnesota who teaches courses on the history of language. In the past, ope was a shortened version of open.
“The word is very old in this form,” Liberman said. “Throughout the history of English, words ending in N used to lose their N.”
The professor suggested a variety of books on regionalisms and dialects found at the university’s Wilson Library. However the library search proved to be unfruitful, as the majority of books on regional dialects in the United States focused heavily on accents and pronunciation and barely mentioned the Midwest. The library’s various slang dictionaries weren’t any more helpful, as they didn’t even mention the region’s favorite word.
Ope first began popping up on Twitter around 2017, when several viral tweets called attention to the extremely polite phenomenon. In many ways, it’s as if one day the word fell from the sky into flyover country, budging its way into the heads and hearts of Midwesterners.
The Twitter account @Midwestern_Ope, which has almost 200,000 followers, took off around the same time as its namesake.
“It’s short, it’s simple, it’s effective,” said @Midwestern_Ope, who also asked for anonymity. “People get it. You don’t have to think about it, it just comes out.”
Watts, of Farmington, had no idea the word was such a routine part of her life and has no idea how long she’s been saying it. The two lifelong Minnesotans behind @IndignantMN don’t either, saying it’s “so automatic that I don’t think you’re really choosing to say it” and that they’ve probably been ope-ing since they learned to talk. It’s almost as if it’s an automatic reflex to any situation that could be vaguely construed as impolite.
@Midwestern_Ope characterized it as an earworm of a word, something that can’t be avoided once you’re made aware of its existence: “Once you point it out, you’re screwed. It’s over. There’s no going back.”
@IndignantMN theorized that the word perfectly complements the Minnesota Nice attitude, and the instinct to be unassuming and stay out of people’s way. He also suggested that because Minnesota is in the heart of the Midwest, it becomes a proxy for Midwestern culture.
“I think Minnesotans would claim it as their own even if it didn’t originate here,” he said.
Minnesota may not have a long, documented history with ope like it does with hot dish, but that doesn’t mean the whirlwind romance is any less passionate.
“I feel like people have taken ownership over it,” Watts said. “Maybe that’s why it’s grown in popularity. Now Minnesotans are prideful of the fact that we say ‘ope.’ It’s kind of like embracing all the other ways we [talk]: Minnesota Nice, ‘Duck Duck Gray Duck.’ It makes us who we are.”
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