For all of my life, I’ve lived in a small, rural town in the American Midwest. Like anyone who lives in an isolated community for long enough, I never noticed the small quirks in my speech that are unique to where I’m from. It wasn’t until I moved to the East Coast for college that I realized I even had an accent. When you live for long enough in a place where only one culture and dialect reign supreme, the line between how you speak and how everyone else in the country speaks becomes blurred. You might forget that not everyone calls soda “pop,” or you might not even realize that it has another name at all.
A certain word pervades essentially every Midwesterner’s vocabulary, scarcely existing outside of the region. It’s such a natural part of our dialect that some people don’t even notice they say it until someone points it out. That word is “ope.”
Ope is a very powerful word. Pronounced like a short “o” followed by a quick closing of the mouth, it’s more of a sound than a proper word. Grammatically, it’s an interjection. Ope is used on all sorts of occasions. Just saw your friend? “Ope, how are ya?” Just found your keys? “Ope, there they are.” Accidentally bumped into someone? “Ope, sorry ‘bout that.”
The last example is notable enough to warrant special attention. Ope is often described as an indication of surprise, but I would argue that it’s more accurately a sign of acknowledgment. When almost running into someone, we’re certainly surprised, but that isn’t the main thing we want to convey to them. Rather, if we’re going to speak at all, we want to acknowledge what happened, and possibly apologize.
This is the true power of ope. The sound provides us with something that we can say when we want to acknowledge something but remain neutral towards it. The problem with other interjections is that they usually bring with them some kind of emotion. When said after encountering something, “oh” can sometimes imply disappointment, “ah” might mean a new understanding was reached, and “ugh” could mean disgust. Meanwhile, “ope” brings no other baggage besides surprise. It’s the perfect filler word.
Most Midwesterners don’t give a second thought to ope when they utter it. Being such a natural sound learned in youth, no one realizes just how much they say it until it’s brought up by someone unfamiliar with the sound. Despite its frequency in speech, ope almost never appears in writing. I didn’t recognize the word when I first saw it written out, even though I say the word every day.
There’s a connection between ope and the Midwestern culture of apology. Midwesterners tend to say “sorry” in many more situations than other English speakers would. The word is used so often that it’s devolved from a formal apology into just another filler word. A Midwestern could be breathing the same air as you and still say “sorry” for taking up the space. Just like with ope, Midwesterners don’t realize nearly how much they say this word. Though it may appear that a Midwesterner is fervently apologizing for every little thing all of the time, for the most part, it’s just fluff. They don’t really think they’ve done something wrong. In fact, Midwesterners are trained to respond to “ope, sorry” with “you’re fine” or “no worries” almost immediately.
In the Midwestern dialect, “ope” and “sorry” accomplish nearly nothing in conversation, and that’s why they’re so charming to me. They serve almost no purpose besides acknowledging who or what you’re speaking to, and yet, we still say them all the time. People still say “ope, sorry” when they run into someone because they want to be polite, even if the words themselves carry no meaning. Words that exist only to execute a social function — being polite — are undoubtedly interesting. With “ope” and “sorry,” Midwestern English can boast its own brand of untranslatable words. Without them, surely, the Midwest would not seem nearly as friendly a place as the rest of the country thinks it to be.
~ Pat Mallory `26