Media Life: Go ahead. Don’t be ashamed to say ‘big rig,’ Auburn

Terminology for tractor-trailer is seldom used outside of region
By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Columnist
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Media Life and Gus Thomson can be reached at

or 530-852-0232. Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.

It was 20 years ago today, or thereabouts, when this reporter was chastised by a reader bristling with self-righteous indignation for daring to use the term “big rig.”

The annoyed reader pointed out that the correct term — and only acceptable one — is tractor-trailer.

Two decades later, this reporter has discovered that “big rig” is more than acceptable — but only in a very tight geographic region of the United States. And that region happens to include Placer County.

The information comes from a recently published book that crowd-sourced how regions of this land have differing pronunciations and terminologies — and then mapped out the information to show where exactly people say “mountain lion” (in the Midwest and California) and where they say “cougar” (Northern Washington State).

“Big rig,” as it turns out, is one of those hyper-local regionalisms, according to “Speaking American: A Visual Guide.”

“Not particularly common anywhere but almost unheard of outside of California, a rig or big rig is most common around Sacramento, San Francisco and parts of Los Angeles,” author Josh Katz concludes.

Throughout the Midwest, you may want to switch over to “semi” or “semi-truck” when making reference to your California big rig. If your audience is from the Northeast, choose “tractor-trailer” and they’ll understand what you’re talking about. In the Texas-Louisiana area, the term of preference is “eighteen wheeler.” But Floridians prefer “semi.”

How did Katz gather the statistics online for his informed observations? He developed a popular online quiz, with an initial 25 question asking how people pronounce words like “aunt” or “crayons,” and then allowed respondents to see on a U.S. map which areas had difference ways of saying them. He had more than 350,000 people take the quiz.

So when you next use the term yourself, realize that it just might be as foreign-sounding to your listener as if you called that big truck an “articulated lorry.” That’s what they call a “big rig” in Ireland.


Star burns bright

With the opening of the new DeWitt History Museum, North Auburn’s past as the location of a major state psychiatric facility from the 1940s to the 1970s is getting a fresh perspective. The museum is open noon to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays and admission is free. Location is 2895 Richardson Drive.

It’s also a reminder of the rich artistic legacy that was created at the hospital by outsider artist Martin Ramirez, a patient there from the late 1940s through his death in 1963.

Ramirez’ surreal works will be getting renewed attention in European art circles this coming June when the Outsider Art Fair, a staple of the winter season in New York, expands as a satellite fair during Art Basel in Switzerland. The Outsider Art Fair Basel will take place June 13 to 17 and will showcase collections from 25 dealers.

Ramirez and his art — produced with spit, scrounged paper, melted crayons, mashed potatoes and materials donated by DeWitt State Hospital staff — were most recently featured at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles this past fall. Fifty of his otherworldly creations were on display. The exhibit included a 17-foot scroll showing his journey from Jalisco, Mexico, in the 1920s with plans to work on California railroads to support his family. Instead, he ended up in mental institutions for much of the remainder of his life, diagnosed as a catatonic schizophrenic. But the genius shone through.

Today, he is widely recognized as one of the major 20th century artists of his genre, with works selling for as much as $270,000. The U.S. Postal Service recognized that greatness three years ago when a set of five stamps were issued showing Ramirez’s art.


KAHI poised

AM’s Voice of the Foothills will go live with its FM simulcast at FM 104.5 at noon on Thursday. KAHI’s move will allow the signal to go deeper and clearer for longer into South Placer. But plans are to stay put in Auburn, where the station has been based since the 1950s.

Expect a countdown on the AM side of things at 950 on your dial, plus a technical explanation starting at about 11:50 a.m. of what’s going to happen when they flip the switch from the KAHI transmitter.

KAHI is also inviting listeners to come on down to the studio on Lincoln Way in Downtown Auburn to be part of the historic moment and the ceremonial live countdown.

Media Life and Gus Thomson can be reached at or 530-852-0232. Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.