Breaking The Language Barrier

The Southern drawl can at times sound like a foreign language, especially to those who pass through for the first time, the states below the Mason-Dixon Line. This holds true even from state to state. In some cases, there are different dialects and genuflections within each state.

While I have visited many of the states that comprise Old Dixie, I was born in the hills of West Virginia, and as such am better versed in the hillbilly vernacular. Born in rural Roane County before moving to neighboring Kanawha, I was exposed to a life of farming, the backwoods and boondocks, the hills and small towns. None of these were ever very far from one of the others.

While listening to a radio in one ear and a baseball game on the television with the other, I heard a song that reminded me of my youth. It was an oldie, a parody of another oldie, Almost Persuaded by Sheb Wooley using the name Ben Colder. In the song he is introducing himself to a woman saying, "Ben Colder here." The woman replied, "It ain't been any colder here than any place else."

While on that thought, I actually knew a man by that name when I was a youngster, or a whipper-snapper as one of my uncles called me. That memory had me drifting back in time to a place called Doctor's Creek, about five miles from Clendenin one way on U.S. 119, and Amma ten miles the other way. They say a trip of a thousand miles begins with a single step; well, in Appalachia you had to first take a thousand steps to find a mile just to start a trip anywhere.

That was back in the mid-fifties when we lived next to old man Ben Colder's place. At that time I was a beanpole of a kid eight years old. In those days children were supposed to be seen and not heard, although parents would check to see why you were so quiet. When the adults were talking, we were expected to be outside playing, children did not listen to adults' conversations. It's certainly not like that these days!

Despite their efforts, we did sometimes manage to hear things we shouldn't have. I'm sure some of those things weren't necessarily bad, but some of it was over our heads anyway. I guess it was some of those "snuck and overheard" comments that were the source of our confusion for a long time. Now, it is that confusion that was the language barrier.

I cannot remember or even try to count how many times those conversations had to do with the very same woman. It seemed that everyone but us kids knew her. Ida Claire must have been quite the lady that everyone seemed to know her. Try as we might, we couldn't find out who she was or where she lived.

Ida wasn't the only enigmatic person whose name we heard mentioned in those, our informative years. We may have been young, but we were clever enough to see the humor in some people's names. Maybe clever isn't the right word, perhaps it was because of our innocence, or a cruel sense of naivete, that we thought they were funny names.

A few years later we would find out that sometimes the joke was on us. It turned out that some of the names were not names of people after all. They weren't even names! Ironically, there were some funny word combinations that we joked about that in fact were names of people. Looking back, I can only wonder what their parents could have possibly been thinking when they had those name put on the birth certificates of their children.

What of Ida Claire, you might ask? There was no Ida with a last name Claire. It turns out that all along they were saying, "I declare." Unless we actually knew the other people, we never knew for sure if some were real names. It turns out that there really was a man by the name of Harry Bottoms! There was in town a Herb Butts who sold used cars. There were also a Sue Mack, a Mary Gold, and Rick O'Shea. Of course you didn't have to be a kid to laugh at a name like Harry Bottoms. To an adult, finding humor in Herb Butts' name was a stretch, but it was no less comical to us kids. Living in rural areas, we didn't need formal education to be familiar with sumac or marigolds. Anyone who has ever watched a Western on TV or at the movies, was privy to the ricochet of a bullet.

Sometimes there would be names mentioned by my parents of people who didn't live in our town, and when we heard these we couldn't be sure if they were real or not. They sounded like real people. It was on one Saturday night while my mother was watching Lawrence Welk, that I learned Jerry Atrick was not a person. I didn't know what "geriatric" meant at the time, but it had something to do with regularity and stools.

After a while, a little older, I started figuring out which ones were real people and which ones weren't. Of course I kept this knowledge from my younger siblings, thinking it gave me some kind of an advantage . By then I knew that Jerry Mander was not a real person, as were both Abby Normal and Betty Dont. My dad wasn't always saying "my car," sometimes he was referring to Mike Carr, who ran the local funeral home. I knew that donkeys were animals, but there was a policeman named Don Kheas. Believe it or not, I went to school with a Michael Hunt long before the movie "Porky's" was made. I didn't know why back then, but today I know why he didn't like to be called Mike.
Since my dad was a mechanic, he often mentioned names that could have been either a person or a make of a car. I often wondered if he might be talking about one of the Baker boys, not Jeff Robert but his brother Stuart David. Yes, this lad went by Stu D. Baker! My dad once owned a Studebaker Hawk.

In later years I occasionally came across people with curious names, names I would have laughed at when I was a kid. Being older and showing some discretion, I learned to keep my amusement to myself. I went to college with a relative of the owner of the Leer Jet Company. I didn't know Shanda personally, but her name always tended to "shed some light."

Lastly, I feel compelled not to omit a security guard from a bank in downtown Boston. I had seen his name on his shirt, but it wasn't until one of the tellers called "Harry" to the counter for something, that I found the humor and irony of his name. I couldn't help but smile sheepishly every time I was in that bank after that day. Just what were Mr. and Mrs. Balls thinking when they named their son Harry?

There might not be a drawl to the Boston accent, but to say the least, there can be to the uninformed, a language barrier. The Yankee vernacular, with its mysterious absence of the letter "R," will be explored in a future post.

(This story was an original post of May 12,'05, at It Occurred To Me .)



lime said...

my husband graduated with a justin case. i once met a korean law student named sue yoo, and my husband and i have both met a man named dick shook.

Hale McKay said...

LOL, Lime. There was a man in New Hampshire who ran for the U.S. Senate a few years ago - Dick Swett.

Serena Joy said...

Apparently, there's not much difference between the dialects of VA and WV. I grew up with that Ida Clair person, too. And the threatening bully, Imo -- "Imo whup your butt."

Hale McKay said...

Ida Clair sure got around.

Serena Joy said...

She did, for sure. In fact, I think she was fooling around with a guy named Chester Drawers who I used to think lived in my bedroom.

Anonymous said...

Great story, Hale.

kenju said...

Good post, Hale!

Hale McKay said...

T'anks, Steve.

Ida Clair, Judy. Thank you too.

Trixie said...

I think you mean "inflections" not "genuflections." To genuflect is to kneel on one knee in a posture of reverence or worship as in church. Just thought I'd mention it, since this is a blog about language!