John McIntyre

Between curb and sidewalk

Posting yesterday on my personal blog, I said that the city had planted a redbud tree on the tree lawn in front of the house. Eagle-eyed Jan Freeman spotted that and wrote to ask where I had heard of tree lawn, which she suspected was not a term native to me.
She was quite right. Elizaville, Kentucky, has no tree lawns, and I'm not sure what they would be called there if there were any. I learned tree lawn years ago from a colleague at The Cincinnati Enquirer who had grown up in New York City. It sounded odd then, but I had no better term to offer.
The tree lawn is the strip of land between the curb and the sidewalk. The term for that strip of property is, according to Joan Houston Hall, chief editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English, one of the most distinctive regional markers that DARE researchers have discovered.
The variants on tree lawn in DARE include tree bank, tree belt, tree border, tree box, tree court, tree plot, tree strip, tree terrace, devil's strip, parking, parkway, street lawn, and swale. And I may not have copied them all. Show them that another is native to your region, and you might get your name somewhere in the small print.
Naming, Genesis informs us, was the first task assigned to humankind. To this day, we think that in naming or cataloguing something we know it. More than that, naming something means we in a sense own it. The reciprocal of that is that the names in the places we come from also come to own us, have a hold on us.
I've mentioned in the past that on the rare occasions I return to Kentucky, the remaining people there who remember me call me "John Early," after the Southern custom of using a man's first name and middle name in direct address, as Russians use the given name and the patronymic. They know who I am in way that people in four other states over forty years haven't. (Kathleen sometimes calls me "John Early," but I am afraid that though she knows the words, she does not have the music. It doesn't sound quote right.)
The native words we know for things sound right when we hear them, reminding us who we are and where we come from.
That is one more reason to celebrate the Dictionary of American Regional English, which reminds us that we have continued to name things long after Adam, and which lovingly and indefatigably catalogues the words that place us in the world.