Hidden Houston

What’s a Bayou Anyway?

And how do you pronounce it?

By Katharine Shilcutt October 24, 2016 Published in the November 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Panorama of Downtown Houston from Buffalo Bayou Park

We are, by virtue of our watery backbone, The Bayou City. But what, exactly, makes a bayou a bayou? The word in its original form, bayuk—which we imported from the Choctaw of Louisiana—referred to a small stream. But it now describes the swampy, low-lying rivers that, by and large, host flora and fauna found along the Gulf Coast: crawfish and gators, catfish and cattails.

And although you may have heard former mayor Annise Parker—along with a dwindling number of other old-school natives—pronounce it “bye-oh,” that’s not the way Joe Turner, director of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, says it. “I used to give her a hard time at press conferences,” Turner, himself a native Houstonian, laughs. “Besides, when Linda Ronstadt sings it, it’s ‘Blue Bye-you.’”

Trudi Smith of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership agrees. “We are all bye-you camp as well!” she says of her officemates at the non-profit, adding her own pop-culture evidence as proof: “And ‘Born on the Bayou,’ the classic song, is also bye-you. We feel it is the Southern way!” 

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