Thursday, April 18, 2013

Lightening Bugs at a Quarter of

Memoir writing at the virtual Camp NaNoWriMo is making memories flow.

I started out in college as a history major, but within a year had switched to cultural anthropology.  One of the required courses was a course in anthropological linguistics.  It became one of my favorite courses, which amazed me because my auditory skills aren't a strong point.

Taking that course is how I found myself on a New York City college campus on a beautiful fall day, asking fellow students what time it was.  My aim was to find students from various parts of the United States (and even the world) and ask them certain questions.  Based on the answers they gave, I would draw a "linguistics" map.

Think about this for a minute.

You know those sandwiches made with thick, long, crusty Italian bread?  Commonly, those sandwiches are made from cold cuts, mustard, lettuce tomato, onion, sometimes salad dressing and pepper rings or pickles.

What do you call that sandwich?  In the old days, if you were from New York City, you probably called it a hero.  In New England, you might have called it a grinder.  In Philadelphia, a hoagie.  My husband, who spent part of his childhood in Westchester County, New York, calls them wedges.

How about those early summer insects who fly in the evening and are able to light up part of their bodies?  What do you call them?  Fireflies? Lightning bugs? Lighning beetles?

How about carbonated drinks?  Soda?  Pop?  Soda Pop?

And that's why I was pulling aside random strangers, asking them to take a survey, and then pointing to my watch.  The little hand was on the 3 and the big hand was on the 9.  And I was writing down their responses:  did they say a quarter to three?  Or a quarter of three?

How did they pronounce the words Mary, Merry and Marry? (midwesterners, like one of my late aunts, tend to pronounce them exactly the same.)

In a way, that class has stayed with me all my life.  Little did I know that in the 10 years after my college graduation I would live in Florida, Iowa, Texas, Kansas and Arkansas, and I would hear my class in action as I interacted with people in each area.  Even after I moved to upstate New York, I listened to the women who told me that "they were pregnant for (name of their child)" rather than the New York City "pregnant with".  And, something enjoyable wasn't just good, it was "wicked good".

Now, years later - so many of these regional expressions are merging.  Perhaps thanks to a certain fast sandwich chain, many of us call that Italian bread sandwich a "sub".   I don't hear "wicked" used as much as I used to.  But other expressions live on, and I look forward to seeing fireflies this summer while I sip on a diet soda.

What regional expressions are used where you live?


  1. This is a fascinating topic and one I can easily relate to. Having spent 30 years as an ex-pat in France and England, and having studied and taught languages and communication skills, I too, have always enjoyed digging for the differences in the sandwiches. Thanks for a very informative post!

    1. Thank you. Being an ex-pat is an experience I've not had. It must be fascinating.

  2. Wedges? I have never heard of that. Here's one for you. A pocketbook or a purse? What do you call them?

    1. Pocketbook. Is my New York City origin showing again?

  3. Alana,
    I found your post a fascinating journey filled with interesting bends and wonderful gems to be discovered along the way! It brought me back to a speech class in college where I learned all about the different dialects from the regions throughout the US; I found that class as fascinating as your post!

    Where in upstate NY are you now living? I ask because I, too, hail from upstate NY (Kingston to be exact).

    Lynn Spiro

  4. This is such a fun topic! Pop and sofa is used- I guess I intermingle Spanglish as well into the arena LOL I loved this, very fun to hear responses.

  5. Super fun post, Alana. I am a native Texan, married to a Canadian and living in California. Plus, I have a doctorate in Spanish so I love studies like this one. Do you know every country in Latin America has a different name for the word sweater?? Texas is certainly full of kitschy phrases and slang. My favorite is "Djeet?" which translated into English means "Did you eat?" which in my family often comes immediately after "Hi ya'll."

  6. I really enjoyed this post, Alana. It's fun to study words and usage. I grew up saying "warsh" (the dishes) because that's the way my Mom always said it. I got a lot of razzing because everybody else said "wash."


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