Interlude—Concerning Words and Language

Dec 2, 2013

I believe God has a great sense of humor. I think one of the reasons God confounded the languages at the Tower of Babel was “just for laughs”—literally! I am only half-joking. My intent with this journal entry is to present an interlude as a change of pace from the serious Bible study entries, as well as my very personal autobiographical entries of late, in order to lighten up and have a chuckle or two for a time.

The fact that there are hundreds of languages in the world allows for countless opportunities for misunderstandings because of the differences in languages. Of course, those misunderstandings can be tragically serious, as in diplomatic negotiations to avoid war, etc. But certainly there are also innumerable instances where the differences in languages creates some very humorous exchanges.

Even within a nation where everyone is presumed to speak the same language, we find an unending supply of funny incidents where everyone can have a laugh based on language mishaps. In America, we all speak English (or at least we used to).

As I have lived in several disparate locations within the USA and I have certainly traveled extensively across our wonderful nation, I have had the opportunity to discern some humorous differences in the dialects found in various parts of the country. (Obviously, relating this kind of humor would work better aurally—i.e., hearing someone imitate someone’s dialect, but I think we can find humor in this area even in the printed word.)

When we first moved to Asheville, I joined the local volunteer fire department. By the way, allow me to make a preliminary note of affection here before I tell these stories: I have now lived in the Asheville area for 26 years. My children have grown up here. I love the area and I love the people here.

This area in the mountains of Western North Carolina (WNC) has become home to so many immigrants from other areas of the USA, that I would suspect that the proportion of native North Carolinians to those who have moved here from elsewhere is about 50-50. It makes Asheville quite a cosmopolitan area. It wasn’t like this when we moved here, probably more like about an 80-20 ratio of natives to outsiders then.

One of the interesting phenomena in this area is the high number of people who left somewhere in the northern states, moved to Florida for a while, found it not to their liking, and then moved here—halfway back to the north. Hence, the locals call us “halfbacks.”

In the course of my occasional writings, this and future, concerning the good folks here in WNC, I want it to be fully understood that these are dear and precious people. When I was a child growing up in northern Ohio, it was commonly believed that those who lived in the mountains “down south” were “hillbillies,” implying they were not only ignorant, but downright stupid.

That stereotype got smashed for me when I first got well acquainted with men from the south and deep south while serving in the Air Force. Some became my best buddies. I realized that southerners were just like people everywhere up north—some were unlearned, some were very learned. Some were stupid and others were very, very bright—as bright as any people I had known in the north. There is always a mix wherever you go. So all this is to say, as I try to inject some humor here and there, that just because people “talk funny” (as compared to the listener), it has nothing to do with intelligence–or good character, for that matter. Now on to the story.

As I got acquainted with my fellow volunteers in the fire department, I realized I was the only outsider. The rest of the men were all natives of the Asheville and Buncombe County area (more on the county name some other time). One of the jokes in the fire department that gets told and retold ad nauseam has to do with when a group of the volunteers are returning from, or later reporting to their fellows regarding the most recent fire.

If it were a house fire, everyone wonders (a) was anyone hurt or killed, (b) how did the fire start, and (c) how much of the house were we able to save. The joke is centered on the fact that if it were an older house, many of which have stone chimneys, the answer to (c) above is: “Well, all things considered, we did a pretty good job because we were able to save the chimney.” And everyone grins and chuckles, understanding that such is the way to indicate that it was a total loss, the fire consumed the entire house, except for the chimney.

My point in telling that story is that when I first heard it, I was laughing for two reasons. Okay, I get it; you saved the stone chimney from being consumed by the fire. But what caused me to laugh even more was that some of the locals “in these parts” have a peculiar way of pronouncing the word “chimney.” They say: “chimlee.” That was the first time I heard it pronounced that way.

Well, recently I have had the pleasure of getting acquainted with a couple ladies who are native to this area who are in the cleaning business. I will use fictitious names, even though they both good-naturedly gave me permission to use their names.

During the course of our conversation, Priscilla said the word “chimlee” and in a few seconds was interrupted by Christine (her boss) who laughingly chided her saying, “Did you just say ‘chimlee’?! Ha ha ha!” We all had a good laugh and then Christine asked me if I wanted to hear one that was even worse. “Sure, I replied.”

She told how when she was first getting into the cleaning business, she decided to offer several additional services, among them assisting a host or hostess by serving food or otherwise helping at a party. One of Christine’s first housecleaning clients was a well-to-do couple who have a 15,000 square foot residence. The lady asked Christine to help serve at a party she was throwing. Christine’s main job was to greet the guests and direct them immediately to the food and beverage tables in order to occupy themselves until the hostess could get around to greet them all.

Christine checked out the hors d’oeuvre and beverages tables, and also noticed trays of a type of single-serving cake or quick bread. So for the next several hours, as the guests arrived—who would naturally have been in the same socio-economic class as the hostess—Christine, who is very personable, greeted each and every one and promptly directed them to the tables where, she said, “I told them to head over there and get yourself some sconces.”

She said, “Would you believe, Mrs. _________ (the hostess) let me do that for the entire party? Then when all the guests had arrived, she came over to me and with a wink and grin told me that if, when the party was over and she discovered all of her wall candles were gone, she would know who to blame. Then she told me that the single-serving cakes were scones, not sconces!”

We will have more fun with words and language in future blogs, including some of my own mea culpas.