Speaking American, Josh Katz’s book about US regional English, is endlessly fascinating to me.
When I was growing up just north of New York City, my family sometimes made a summer visit to my aunt who lived in Massachusetts. As soon as we arrived, she would immediately offer us a tonic (pronounced tawnic). She didn’t necessarily mean tonic water; she was offering us any kind of fizzy, bubbly, non-alcoholic drink we wanted. According to Katz, tonic was the word of choice, particularly around Boston but throughout most of Massachusetts. Today, that word is declining among the younger generation there but is still strong among older people.
About 60% of the country now calls those drinks soda, with that designation particularly strong on the West Coast, in South Florida, and throughout New England (even among the former tonic people in Massachusetts).
Soft drink accounts for 6% around Washington, DC and in Louisiana. Pop is the word across all the northern United States from Washington State through Pennsylvania up to western New York. Coke is your word if you live in New Mexico, all the way through the deep South. Realize that Coke does not necessarily refer to Coca Cola; even 7-Up, Sprite and root beer are Coke. And (for me, this is the kicker) if you live in Georgia across to western South Carolina, your drink of choice is Cocola. Again, you might want Mountain Dew—but that’s just a form of Cocola.
Mark Forsyth wrote a book called The Elements of Eloquence, which includes this unspoken and largely unwritten rule we all follow but were never taught:
“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”
Try moving just one of those adjectives to a different spot and you’ll see and hear how weird the sentence sounds. I find it fascinating that we all pick up the intricacies of our native languages before we even start school, without being taught the grammar. I call it linguistic osmosis.
The US Captioning Company listened to newscasters to find the most commonly mispronounced words during 2016. The British Institute of Verbatim Reporters did the same in the UK. Here is the rest of the list:
6. Nomophobia Fear of being without one’s cellphone. This was a biggie on both the US and UK lists. Pronounced no mo PHO be uh.
7. Quinoa A grain from the Andes. Both US and UK broadcasters had great difficulty pronouncing this word. It’s KEEN wah.
8. Redacted Censored or blacked out on a document. The Brits had trouble pronouncing this (why?). Not so the Americans, probably because of how frequently it was used when referring to Hillary Clinton’s emails. Parts were revealed but others parts were redacted. You saw those heavy black lines. ree DAK tid.
9. Xenophobia Fear of foreigners, foreign ideas, and of the people who espouse them. This was Dictionary.Com’s 2016 word of the year. Zeen uh PHO be uh. It was often mispronounced on both sides of the Atlantic.
10. Zika A deadly virus transmitted by mosquitos, sexual contact, and passed from mother to child. It reached epidemic proportions in 2016. ZEE kuh.
If you’ve been mispronouncing any of the words on these two lists, don’t feel too bad. If enough other people also mispronounce them, that pronunciation will eventually become standard. All languages change. Sometimes that change is slow, but at times it happens almost overnight. I’m thinking of homogeneous. The dictionary pronunciation is ho mo JEEN ee is. But I hear huh MAH jin us so often that I’m expecting to see it as an approved pronunciation in dictionaries next week.
I recently bought this book by Josh Katz. The subtitle is “How Y’All, Youse, and You Guys Talk.” It’s a visual guide to American regional English. For years now I’ve been pining for DARE, the Dictionary of American English. The last time I looked it was three volumes and cost close to $400. That price was steep enough that I haven’t checked back.
But along came this book for $25 and I knew I had to have it. What the author did was take everyday objects and illustrate with maps of the United States what those objects are called in various parts of the country.
For instance, take “a sandwich on a long roll with meats and cheeses.” Here in California, I instantly think “sub.” But around Pennsylvania, it’s a “hoagie,” in NYC and on Long Island it’s a “hero,” a little piece of Connecticut says it’s a “wedge” (who knew?), the Upper Midwest and the Illinois/ Indiana area prefer “grinders,” and most of New England has decided it’s an “Italian sandwich.”
Do you call this type of sandwich something other than one of these regionalisms? If so, tell me what it is and let me know where you live.
When you’re angry or frustrated, are you beside yourself or besides yourself? Here’s the difference:
BESIDES means in addition to.
Besides me, only three people showed up at the meeting.
BESIDE means next to, alongside.
At the meeting, I sat beside a woman I had never met before.
However, the expression beside myself (with frustration, for example) strikes me as odd. Obviously, it’s idiomatic; you can’t physically get next to yourself, no matter how hard you try. But if you are sufficiently frustrated, you might feel as if you have been torn into two people. I’m just guessing here.