How to Sound Like a Local in Tampa

Jay MacDonald
October 26, 2017
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Whether you’re relocating to Florida’s Tampa Bay area, heading down to vacay at some of the world’s best beaches or merely passing through on your way to a cruise, prepare to be immersed in a variety of cultures, each staking its own claim to one of the Sunshine State’s oldest and funkiest destinations.

Somehow this heady mix of Midwestern transplants, senior snowbirds, polyglot college students, Indian Bollywood fans, Celtic pub crawlers, Spring Break rappers and the descendants of Caribbean rumrunners and cigar makers all roll Tampa Bay into one exotic stogie well worth savoring.

To best sample the cockeyed bonhomie of the Bay Area, it’s best to avoid being labeled a tourist, the one group considered both a bane and a blessing in this esoteric land. How to do that? First, avoid crazy hats; in fact, avoid all hats, period. Then bone up on these Tampa directionals, pronunciations and shorthands.


Bay vs. beach

Quick geography lesson: Tampa and St. Petersburg (locally, “St. Pete”), Florida’s third- and fourth-largest cities respectively, stare across Tampa Bay at each other. As a result, while each features miles of “bayfront” parks, condos and beach living, when locals head to “the beach,” they’re referring to the western, sunset-facing shores of the 35-mile-long offshore barrier island that lies between the parentheses of Clearwater Beach to the north and Pass-A-Grille to the south. Locals boat on the bay and go to the beach.


Tourist Test #1: Ybor City

Located northeast of downtown Tampa, the village of Ybor City was founded in the 1880s by cigar manufacturers (anyone remember “Have a Tampa?”) and immigrant stogie-rollers from Cuba, Spain and Italy. Today, while a few cigar boutiques remain, the ‘hood named after cigar king Vicente Martinez Ybor sleeps by day and parties all night as the hottest club spot for University of South Florida students. To pass the local test, pronounce it EE-bohr; never WHY-bohr or EYE-bohr.

Dali and Chihuly

No, it’s not a local law firm; just the shorthand for two popular St. Pete art museums. The Dali Museum features 96 oils by the surrealist master Salvador Dali, housed in a building inspired by his works. The Dale Chihuly installation at the Morean Arts Center features large-scale glassworks by the world-renown wizard of wow, as well as a glass studio and hot shop.


Tourist Test #2: Café Cubano

When visiting Ybor City, you must try a Cuban coffee. It’s the law, I think. And if you order it as such, you’re golden. However, if the menu features its Spanish name, Café Cubano, be sure to pronounce it coo-BAH-noh, not Q-BAH-noh. In fact, it’s best to adopt the Spanish coo- on touchdown for all things Cuban: Cuba, pan Cubano, Cuba Libre, etc.

T-shirt towns

The mispronunciation of two Tampa-area towns has been so widespread as to spawn t-shirts in their honor. The enterprising vendors in Lutz, where “Edward Scissorhands” was filmed, came up with, “Lutz rhymes with boots,” while the wags in the Scots settlement of Dunedin still sell their popular “Where the hell is Doon-din?” apparel line (you’ll want to pronounce it duhn-EE-dihn).

Tourist Test #3: Bealls

This popular clothing and home goods store and its outlets are widely used and often mispronounced by Tampa newcomers. ‘Ring the bells’ is correct; Ally McBeal’s is not.


Pinellas County

Encompassing the peninsula between Tampa and the Gulf of Mexico, Pinellas County was named after the Spanish phrase “punta pinal” or “point of pines.” You’ll hear natives pronounce it PIE-nehl-iss rather than the more common PIH-nehl-iss. Personally, I just stopped asking.

Bonus round

Depending on wither you wander, you may unwittingly swerve into one of Tampa’s nearby tongue-twister towns. Here’s how to pretend you’re local in Thonotosassa (thuh-NOH-ta-SAHS-ah), Osceola (AH-see-OH-lah) and my personal fav (join with me now), Wimauma (WHY-MOMMA?).

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