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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Wearing Your Drunzel and Dopas


My Grandmother's maiden name was Nussbaum which she swore wasn't Jewish. Maybe it wasn't. Nussbaum can be either a German or a Jewish name. On the other hand, being a Jew in her little rural community in Illinois coming up on the turn of the century wasn't a popular thing to be so no one could blame the family for fudging it. She looked almost exactly like this cartoon - iron gray hair in a bun, glasses, always with an apron (although she never would have worn heels or a necklace). She was sterner than she was sweet but she had to be, raising four children on her own in the early 1900's.

Grammie had a language all her own. We all picked up on it and my generation still uses many of the descriptive words from her vocabulary. Somehow, they just seem more fitting and colorful than ordinary terms. For instance, she often let things brutzle on the back of the stove. Brutzling was a little less than boiling and a little more than simmering. When she used the broom to give the kitchen a less than motivated lick and a promise, she swintzled it. Same thing with ironing. If you just pressed your blouse quickly, not paying much attention to detail, you roshpeled it. When you lay in your bed enjoying that dreamy state between sleep and full wakefulness, you were fowlencing.

To Grammie, an old worn-out robe that you clung to was a drunzel. A beat up old pair of shoes were dopas.

If you came home, having had too much to drink but not really drunk, you were pasoofah. Her circle of family and friends were the Carottles. In her lexicon, Carottles seemed to mean a rowdy, loving family that sometimes feuded but defended one another against outsiders no matter what. Sort of like the Duck Dynasty family if they really were the Duck Dynasty family instead of rich Yuppies in disguise.

Maybe these are all real German and/or Jewish words (if so, they are probably all spelled wrong). I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't Grammie providing us with a secret family language that started my lifelong fascination with words.

We moved a lot when I was a kid and I can remember loving to hear the rich accents of South Carolina, like fudge bubbling on the stove. And the soft drawl of Texas when a man in a cowboy hat leaned into  car to give us directions. "Want some cow in that?" a Montanan once asked Dad, which meant, "would you like cream in your coffee?" And when we lived in the east among the regional dialects of Massachusetts and Maine, I sometimes had to ask people to repeat themselves before I understood them. When we moved to California, I was told Hoosiers talked through their nose although of course, I thought I had no accent at all.

Professions often have their own language too. When I worked for the Sheriff's Department, I learned a whole new set of harsh phrases - "cuff'em and stuff'em" and "hook'em and book'em" and "smash and grab".  "That don't feed the bulldog" and "clusterfuck". "Holster-sniffer" and "'Scrotebag". "Drop a dime" and "zero-dark-thirty".

Becoming a NASCAR fan, I discovered terms like "drive it like ya' stole it" and "bump and run" and "pit lizard" (which is NASCAR's version of "holster sniffer") and "Boogity, boogity, boogity". I learned about The Big One and what a Darlington Stripe is and what it means to be "on the throttle". (Unlike NASCAR folks back in the day, fewer current drivers sound like they come from the South).

Language, in general, is getting more generic, like the exits off the interstate in so many American cities. Distinctive regional dialects and accents are disappearing and all news reporters sound like they came from Nowhere-in-Particular, USA. But it doesn't have to be that way in writing. We can make our characters sound as colorful as we like in our stories. Maybe, in the end, it will be up to us to keep this rich and picturesque part of our national heritage alive.

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