Regional differences in food and dialects fascinate me. I suppose some of that fascination grew out of my having spent time in very different regions of the country. My early childhood years were spent in rural southwest Virginia, tween and teen years in Ohio, a large chunk of my adult years in DC and Baltimore, and finally, Atlanta. Along the way, there were pauses in Massachusetts, Alabama, and Indiana. Each stop required learning the local lingo, which, while 90% the same as everywhere else, the remaining 10 percent brought confusion or laughter.
I started out drinking pop, then found out it was soda. In places where people drink pop, a soda is an ice cream soda (pop with ice cream floating in it, usually 7Up and Vanilla ice cream). In other places, they were simply called floats. There seem to be a lot of names for sandwiches on long rolls. I never saw one of those as a kid in Virginia but loved the hoagies, heroes, subs, and grinders the further north I went.
Moving between regions always calls attention to one’s accent. Once when giving a talk in south Georgia, an attendee wrote in the evaluation that I had a strong northern accent. In Boston, while attending a conference, I was chided for my strong southern accent. And oddly, a woman I spoke with in Indiana accused me of having such a strong eastern accent that she could not understand a word I was saying—this was after having spent the previous 12 years in Ohio.
The only time I have unable to understand a native-born American speaking was when interacting with a family from North Carolina who lived in my apartment building in DC. I lived across the hall from them for two years, and in those two years, I never understood a word they said. I quickly learned to smile and rush into my apartment before a conversation began. That strategy worked until the postman left a package for me and my neighbors were kind enough to keep it while I was away. When I arrived home, the husband knocked on my door, handed me the package, and launched into a three-minute explanation of why he had it. At least, I think that is what he was telling me. After I had asked, “What?” enough times to exasperate him and embarrass myself, I took the package as gracefully as possible, and wanting to escape the growing awkwardness, thanked him profusely, then ducked into my apartment. To this day, I have no idea what he said.
As a child, especially when going to a new school, one learns to adapt quickly or become the kid everyone laughs at for the entire school year. Well, in my part of Virginia, the insect in the pictures was known as a “snake doctor.” In Ohio, as I quickly learned, they are dragonflies. My southernisms became quite the source of amusement for fourth and fifth grade. I realized from those experiences that wherever I happen to be, it’s helpful to learn the local lingo as fast as possible.
Many years later, after reading about American regional dialects, I asked two coworkers what they called the fierce-looking insect that supposedly helps snakes heal. They replied, “diamond needles!” I then related my snake doctor story and told them I’m a dragonfly guy these days. Now, should I ever venture back to my part of Virginia, it’ll be snake doctor for sure— local lingo and all…