THE POSSIBILITIES abound in Baltimore for hearing a curious pronunciation or use of language. Over the years, I've collected some of my favorites, which I'll share today.
Growing up in the old house on Guilford Avenue, I never heard the phase, "Lunch is ready." A few minutes before noon, a call did rise up the staircase: "Tea's made!" Translated, that meant that a big pot of steaming tea sat squarely on the table. It also meant the luncheon hour had arrived and all at home were required to post at table.
There were other food corollaries. My grandmother, Lily Rose, told me how, only on Sundays, she and her four sisters used the phrase, "Please pass the chicken," no matter what dish was on the table. It applied equally to lowly hot dogs and sauerkraut or lordly rib roast of beef.
Names for carbonated beverages could fill a dictionary page. I knew them as soft drinks, no doubt to contrast them from hard drinks. The one term, however, that was never used was soda. Soda water accompanied Scotch whiskey or brandy. The word soda, freestanding, meant a chocolate ice cream soda, a delicious treat that could only be obtained at a commercial soda fountain.
I thought my family was the only tribe in Baltimore who talked this way until I met Dr. H. Baldwin Streett, a Park Avenue dentist who became a good friend. One Saturday afternoon, after a heavy lunch, we were talking. He used a great term to describe the breakfast dish known widely as pancakes: flannel cakes. That day, he also pronounced Lafayette Avenue as LAY-fayette (as Lily Rose did), rather than LAH-fayette.
Baltimore and its geography dish up plenty, too. I grew up on Guilford Avenue, but, in speech, we never went to Waverly to shop. We went "up the Road," meaning to the heart of Waverly on Greenmount Avenue, which, of course, we never called that. It was the York Road, the way Baltimoreans place the article before the Harford Road and the Belair Road.
Like everybody else, we "went downtown," but my South Baltimore grandmother "went uptown," because she lived on Poultney Street. She and my father went "up the Hill," meaning, of course, Federal Hill Park, where, as we all know, the breezes are superior.
Speaking of Federal Hill, I never knew an Inner Harbor. It was the Basin, meaning the body of the Patapsco enclosed by Pratt and Light streets. My people also used Patapsco River more than the word harbor for some reason.
Come Sunday, some family members "went to church." All Roman Catholic, they never used the word Mass, because, in truth, that could be misleading. Indeed, they did enter many of the city's older houses of worship. Among other "church" pursuits, they could have gone to confession, attended a novena service, gotten out of the house for half the day, toured and patronized the delicatessens of East Lombard Street and spent the afternoon in Little Italy. "Going to church" lasted until precisely 5 p.m., the equally sacred Sunday supper hour, when it was time to "pass the chicken," even if it was only grilled scrapple.