It’s spring and the fish trees are in bloom. Other people call them Bradford pear trees, I now know, after asking a friend who is versed in horticultural matters. You can’t help noticing them, of course. Beautiful white flowers, planted everywhere, and a distinctive fishy smell to the blooms. Without knowing the formal name, I had to call them something, so I’ve always referred to them as fish trees. My kids picked up on that, and fish trees they will always be in our family discussions.
We also use sprinkle cheese in our house. My daughter coined this term for the grated parmesan stuff in a can. Another family I know calls the same food feet cheese, because the mother thinks it smells bad.
I’ve always been fascinated by those apocryphal stories of twins who invent their own secret languages. I know there’s been debate about whether this has ever really happened, and if so, to what extent. My personal experience tells me that wherever two or more people are gathered together for any length of extended contact, at least a few privately used words and phrases will spring into being. As my son once pithily observed, “Every word is a made-up word.”
Amazing and flexible thing, language. It can be so personalized and so universalized at the same time. I started thinking about this because I noticed the first fish tree blooms the same day I read that the final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English will be published this year. This dictionary, according to the publishers, “seeks to document the varieties of English that are not found everywhere in the United States–those words, pronunciations, and phrases that vary from one region to another, that we learn at home rather than at school, or that are part of our oral rather than our written culture.”
Big news for language geeks. I can’t wait to lose a few hours over it at the library.