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Remembering my mother's linguistic creations

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Dolly Withrow Dolly Withrow

Dolly Withrow is a retired English professor and the author of four books. Her email is

Creatively reshaping expressions, Annie Dillard's mother provided inspiration that led the author to a lifelong love of language and, more than likely, to the writing of captivating essays and books.

My mother's word contortions inspired me, too, but she worked from the opposite end of the language spectrum; that is, she unwittingly reshaped words and expressions. She spoke the colorful Appalachian dialect with confidence and pride. Actually, she often displayed her own idiolect, creating unusual words. For instance, I asked her one year to attend an education rally with me. We needed as many warm bodies as possible to show great support for higher education. My mother was willing to go with me. She did not promise rapt attention, however, and after a few minutes at the rally, she wrote the following note, which she handed to me: "When can we go home? I'm not one bit insterned in this." She had created a new word by blending "interested" and "concerned." Obviously, she was neither.

Her pronunciations of many words frequently needed translations. She pronounced fish "feesh," the way she spelled it. President Bush was President Boosh, and cushion was cooshun. Battery was battry, and so it went. By the use of spoonerisms, malapropisms and other linguistic –isms, my mom made me aware of the versatility of our language.

I interpreted my mom's words for listeners throughout the years. In the middle of one night when she was staying with us, she yelled, "Dolly, my year's bleeding."

I went to her bedside and her "year" was bleeding. My husband and I rushed her to the closest hospital. The doctor who treated her spoke English only as a second language. There was my mom with her special dialect. There was the doctor speaking broken English, and there was I to interpret, just as the police officer did on "Sanford and Son."

The doctor asked, "Have you been putting something shop in your eah?"

She appeared mystified. I interpreted. "Mom, have you been putting something sharp in your ear?

She eyed the doctor suspiciously and said, "My year eetched." The poor doctor was at his wit's end, but again I came to the rescue. "Her ear itched."

He proceeded to tell her she should never put anything sharp in her ears, but she had no idea what he said and had lost interest anyway. She was busy watching men in orange jumpsuits. On the back of each was written, "[Local] County Jail." I don't know which was more difficult for doctors to treat in the middle of that dark night, my mom with her speech patterns or the inmates with their behavioral patterns.

One day, she and I took a walk through the woods near my country home. In the distance, we could barely hear a neighbor's radio as it pounded out a country song. Mom tripped along to the tune, turned her head toward me and said, "Do you know that Wammy Tynette is my favorite singer?"

I said, "You mean Tammy Wynette."

She rolled her eyes at her smart-aleck daughter and said, "Whatever."

As we continued talking though the woods, she asked, "Did I ever tell you about poor Grace who lives in our apartment building?"

I said, "What about poor Grace?"

She said, "She's been having bladder problems. She finally got so bad they had to have her castrated."

"Mom, do you mean catheterized?"

She replied testily, "No, I mean what I say. A nurse who knows everything told me about it. She also told me when you have any disease that ends in -itis, you have some kind of information."

"Mom, that's inflammation, isn't it?" I asked.

My tag question clearly showed my own lack of confidence around my mother, confidence that as far as I know she never lacked.

"Whichever," she said. "Anyway, if she hadn't made that trip to the hospital, she'd been up a tree without a paddle." Mixed metaphors were among my mom's linguistic specialties.

"Right," said I.

She then told me about an incident that happened in her apartment building.

"We had some excitement in the lobby the other day. A young man came in and stole some money from the petty cash box. They called the poleeces, and the poleeces came and took that young man out on the sidewalk and fondled him."

"Mom, they what?"

She said, "Well, you're in English. They wanted to see if he had a knife or gun on him."

"You mean frisked," I offered timidly.

She looked at me in dismay. "No, honey. That's horse of another feather. You want to watch your language."

"Right," I said softly.

The music in the background thumped out another tune.

My mother's voice was forever silenced on an icy day in February 2003. She loved my writing stories about her dialect, saying, "I think readers get a ‘keek' out of my stories." Wise in many ways, she felt that those who ridiculed her dialect were the real fools. Like my mother, I don't judge people because they break grammar rules, for they are intelligent in other areas — areas in which I am ignorant. We are all ignorant in many fields — all of us. Like Annie Dillard, though, I was inspired by my mother's linguistic creations. I miss her.