Learning the new town lingo

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 16, 2002

My life has been fairly settled until now. Other than a four-year stint in Memphis, I had lived within a 30-mile radius of my birthplace in middle Tennessee. Moving to a new town and a new state is not exactly like moving to a new country, but there are some similarities. Like any American in France, struggling with the pronunciation of town names, I find myself spelling out the places I want to go. I did learn that, when stopping an officer of the law, not to tell him I was looking for "Weed."

Luckily, he knew the community of that name.

I've started a cheater's dictionary to speed up acclimation - and to keep me out of jail.

Conecuh - Pronounced cun-EK-uh, not CON – ee-kuh.

Tallasseee - town in Alabama, not a typo for the town in Florida.

Debro - Deveraux.

F'rala - Florala.

Of course, this is just a starting place. Learning the different pronunciations has been as much fun as learning the names of the different towns. Coming from a state that boasts a Bugtussell, Bucksnort, Hoodoo and Pocahontas, I love unusual town names and digging into their origins. One of my favorites is in Louisiana - a town called Smackover. The name was "blurred" from the French phrase that means "covered in sumac," Which, I suppose, sounded more romantic than "Covered in poison ivy."

The name of my own hometown - Tullahoma - is shrouded in mystery and controversy. The former mayor decided one year it mean "Land of Yellow Flowers" and used it as a wedge to get all of the downtown businesses to plant daffodils for a beautification project. The town historian, however, backed up by noted historian Ken Burns of the Civil War series, said it meant "Red Dirt." We enjoyed the daffodils anyway.

My husband swears it means "Rains on Weekends."

Moving here has opened a whole new treasure chest of town names to study. For some reason, the boys love the town of "Pine Apple" and insist on pronouncing it just like that, with a heavy pause between "Pine" and "Apple."

Some of the names on that long drive down I-65 are familiar friends - names we have known before in Tennessee. We have been to Shelby County and we live near a town called Pelham. But most are new and, to young ears, exotic.

Every time we try to pronounce some of the river names, all of which seem to end in 'atchie', my husband says 'Gesundheit." My oldest thinks that "DeFuniak Springs" sounds like a headline for a Pittsburgh Steelers' game. And the three-year-old, of course, loves the name "Opp" and chants it endlessly the minute we load the van. The last time I tried to read Dr. Suess' Hop on Pop to him, I was told - in no uncertain terms - that it was supposed to be "Opp on Opp," not "Hop on Pop."

As for "Andalusia" - the boys love to draw it out, An-da-loooooja., until it sounds like a song from Finian's Rainbow:

"How are things in An-da-looooja?

Is that willow tree still weeping there?

(I'd hum the tune for you from 'How Are Things in Glocca Mora," but I'd better not. Even, my onw children, when I would sing them lullabyes, would put their tiny little hands over my mouth and say "No, Mama, no – don't sing!")

So no singing, but I will keep on collecting new towns and their names and adding them to me cheat sheet.