Monday, April 10, 2006

"Words, Words! They're All We Have to Go On!"

I suppose it's because I'm an English teacher and avid reader and writer, but dialects fascinate me. My ears really perk up when I hear people use different words than I use for common everyday objects. (Even that last sentence can prove interesting: some people say their ears "prick up.") Sometimes, I can even locate the general region of where the person lived or was raised by a few key words in their common usage vocabulary.

In my house, we sat on the davenport. You might have had a sofa, or a couch. I blame my mother for that one. She was "Pennsylvania Dutch", and she gave us lots of odd words. We never picked up or tidied up. We redded up the house. We didn't vacuum, either. We ran the sweeper. We didn't eat dinner; we ate supper for the evening meal. On Sunday, our largest meal was in the afternoon, and it was called Sunday Dinner. We didn't use a washcloth to wash up, we used a washrag. And we played in the sandbox with a bucket, not a pail.

My friends across the street had a parent from West Virginia, so they were all screwed up. They got their groceries in a sack, not a paper bag. When one of them got an electrical shock from the outlet, she said she got a poke. She called my braids "pigtails". When she asked her grandmother permission to go with me on my paper route, she said she had to ask her "Ma-Maw" to go on my root. I had never heard of a Ma-Maw and no one had ever pronounced "route" (which I had always said like it rhymed with "about") as if it rhymed with "toot."

But then, I had my own Grandma who called green peppers "mangoes" for whatever reason, and called all saucepans "dippers." She was from Wiggletown, Ohio, which isn't even there anymore, to my knowledge. They probably were incorporated into another small town without them even knowing it, largely owing to the fact that the Wiggletownians couldn't communicate effectively. ;-)

My brother-in-law, who was born in Ohio but transplanted to New Jersey, calls jeans dungarees and calls rubber bands gum bands. He calls carbonated beverages soda, whereas in Ohio, they are commonly called pop, which I cannot bring myself to say. It sounds ridiculous, so I say soda also even though I have never lived in the East.

Once in a while, I give trivia questions for extra credit in my English classes. One day, I asked what a davenport was. Only two students got it right. And both of them knew it because of their grandmothers. A fact which they didn't need to share with me. But they did. At which time I felt a new wrinkle sprout.

This language of ours is so captivating. It is what unifies us, yet it is what makes us unique. It can mark us as readily as a brand to a trained ear. I have become almost a collector of the nuances of English, and it is a lifelong obsession.


  1. I adore language as well! My father was the approximate age of most of my peer's grandparents, so I grew up knowing neat words that none of them had ever heard used before. Moxie, for instance.He would say, "You've got moxie, kid!" and I would smile, knowing what that meant, as my friends stood by with puzzled expressions.

  2. welcome to the dept., naomi! we never used MOXIE around our house. are you from NE ohio?


  3. Anonymous1:16 PM

    How come you didn't mention that you NEVER CALL ANYTHING BY ITS CORRECT NAME...? I think you should devote an entry to that. Or maybe you already have and I just haven't read it, yet.

    Thanks ever so for the lovely b-day wish! I will actually be writing soon... -- C.

  4. Anonymous10:47 AM

    I was interested in the reference to Wiggletown. Was your Grand Ma from northern Ashland County?

    By the way, here wash is pronounced "warsh"!

  5. Anonymous--Yes, she was! Then moved to Rowsburg. And "warsh" is a common term there, too.

  6. Just wondering who your Grand-ma is?


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