In Houston, where I’m from, you go out to Katy, up to Conroe, down to Galveston, and over to Baytown or Beaumont.

In the Texan dialect, there are different prepositions for every ordinal direction on a map: up and down are north and south, and out and over are west and east, respectively.

What’s interesting is that in my use of them, these Texan prepositions expire once you get a certain distance from your point of origin, about 100 miles. Especially out and over: A Houstonian would never say he or she was going “over to New Orleans” or “out to San Antonio” or Austin, but they very well might say they were going up to Dallas or down to Corpus or the Valley. There’s a sort of middling sweet spot that requires an intensifier — “She lives way out in Brookshire” or “That DPS office is way over in Crosby” are commonly heard, but once you get past a drive of more than one or two hours, the latitudinal laws no longer apply, whereas the longitudinal ones still prevail. (And state lines seem to erase these dictates — I’ve never heard a Houstonian say they were going “over to Louisiana,” even though the border is only about 100 miles away and you have to go over a bridge to get there.)

That “way” as a modifier is usually deployed in exasperated tones, as in “I can’t believe they are having their wedding way down in Alvin,” or “Why do we have to go way up to The Woodlands to see Elton John?” If some place is at the very boundary of these designations, one might lapse into full-on tantrum mode and say “Why do we have to go all the way out to bum**** Sealy for this party?”  But rule still only applies to drives of about an hour or so. Nobody ever says they are going “way out to Austin” to attend SXSW or Austin City Limits, just as no Austinite would go “way over to Houston” to catch a Texans game. (And why would any Austinite want to do a fool thing like that, anyway?)

Those have been the cardinal rules for me. Other Texans have different views. One variance was that of the late Texas Christian University English professor, rhetorician, and author James W. Corder, who had this to say in Yonder: Life on the Far Side of Change, his 1992 blend of personal essays and meditations on contemporary history:

I had long before noticed that I customarily referred to places in the north as up: I’d go up to Chicago, New York or Denton. Places to the South always seemed to be down: I’d go down to Houston or Austin or Cleburne. If I referred to places to the east, they were over: one goes over to Vicksburg or Atlanta or Dallas. And it seemed to me that if one goes to the west, it’s always out: I go out to Santa Fe or Los Angeles or Muleshoe. That seemed to settle things. If north is up and south is down and east is over and west is out, then it’s pretty clear where the center of things is: I’m it. The Great Divide runs up my chest, and everything is located from wherever I happen to be standing. If I were in Houston, Fort Worth would be up. If I were in Dallas, Fort Worth would be out.

Corder’s outs, ups, downs and overs extended far beyond the boundaries of my own: I tend to cut mine off at about two hours drive, and after that it’s all merely to, at least in terms of east and west. Corder clearly believed they extended from Maine to California, and maybe beyond. But where do you draw the line? Do you go out or over or up to Russia? (Especially given that so many commercial flights head over the polar ice cap?)

Over, designating heading east, seems to be the shakiest and least universal of the four Texan prepositions, but at the same time, the one most unique to our borders. While relatively few non-Texans use over to denote heading east, lots of Texans do use other prepositions. Someone from Dallas might tell you they are going ‘round to Sulphur Springs or Commerce, and some other Texans will say they are heading back to Beaumont, even if they’ve never been there before.

Those usages are rooted in American history. ‘Round connotes a circle, and back suggests a lack of progress, a failure to thrive. Now that more and more Americans have forgotten about the general westward migration of our ancestors, though, it’s easy to forget that back signifies returning to where one came from, and not necessarily in the sense of a joyful homecoming. Going back can suggest more of a failure, a figurative return to your parents’s basement.

One could also argue that “over” holds something of the same connotation as heading back — the east is over, finished, kaput. Up and out are where you want to go. Excelsior! It’s part and parcel of the American and Texan ethos: Go West, young man; onward and upward.

And as Corder implied, wherever you go, there you are, and it’s up to you whether to go up, down, over or out, or even ‘round or back.

Read more in our Talk Like a Texan series here. And if you have a question about local parlance that you’d like explored, .