AUSTIN, TEXAS — Having trouble understanding President-elect George W. Bush? The 'bidness about how he wadn't talkin' right while campaigning is just downright unfair. Part of the problem is that he's a Texan. All that west Texas dust and grit have a way of getting stuck between the teeth, don't you know?
Texans talk funny. Their speech is unique and riddled with colorful expressions. "Last summer was so dry even the ticks had splinters," for instance. Working outside in the heat made folks feel like they were "rode hard and put away wet." And my favorite - which may have given George "Dubya" Bush pause for thought over the past few weeks: "The juice ain't worth the squeeze."
But Texans have a politeness quotient seldom found outside the South. When I recently drove back to Texas from a trip up North, a state trooper pulled me over.
"Howdy, ma'am. Can I see the insurance (pronounced IN-surance) papers for your vehicle (pronounced VEE-hickle)?" he drawled. Noting the policy expiry date he added, "Are y'all fixin' to renew this soon? You haven't got but three days before it runs out. You need to take care of it, ma'am."
"I know it," I replied in true Texan fashion, reminding myself that I also had to change the oil (pronounced "ole").
When I first moved here from up North, I was distressed at being called "ma'am" so often - a word I associated with elderly ladies or the Queen of England. But in Texas it's simply a term of respect for any female over the age of 20. Other Texas expressions also ambushed me.
In terms of reported traffic mishaps, it took me a while to realize that a "wreck" can mean anything from a fender-bender to the heap of smoking, twisted metal the word had always conjured up for me.
On my first day of work, I was puzzled when a colleague told me to "mash" the button to start a piece of office equipment. Turns out all she wanted me to do was push the button.
When she said, "You get you an ink pen," I was even more mystified. Don't all pens contain ink, thereby making the adjective "ink" redundant, I wondered? She then asked me if I knew where "they were at" and added, "There aren't but a dozen of 'em. You just set (sit) there, and I'll find another pin (pen)."
Where else but in Texas would you hear "suite" - as in a set of furniture - pronounced "suit?" Or be reminded not to damage the floor when the furniture is "drug" across it? Or hear the phrase "trailer house" to describe a mobile home? Or have to be told that "meemaw" means "grandma," probably a corruption of the French "maman," since Texas borders Louisiana?
A Texan doesn't get mad, he "pitches a hissy fit." In a better mood, he may "brag on" something good he's done. And Texans are always "fixin' to" do something - start the car, leave for work, make dinner.
The vocabulary for dining out in Texas is equally arcane. An "ice house" is a casual restaurant, the term a holdover from prerefrigeration days. If you ask for tea, it won't arrive hot unless you specially request it, since iced tea is the year-round beverage of choice. A young waitress in one diner claimed she didn't know tea could be hot. "I can't hardly figure that," she said. But iced tea goes well with the chicken-fried steak, barbecue, cornbread, pecan pie, and Tex-Mex cuisine the state is famous for.
Texans are friendly. Every store employee greets you with a genuine, "How y'all doin' today?" If you ask a question like, "Do you know where I can buy some Ropers?" (a type of cowboy boot) a negative reply will be phrased as, "I sure don't." They may add that you "might could" get them at a competitor's if you go over there right quick.
And Texans can laugh at themselves. In a region where "Bubba" is a term of endearment, my own neighborhood in south Austin recently hosted a "Billion Bubba March" to promote voter registration and civic pride.
So remember to give George Dubya a little leeway when it comes to language. He's just talkin' Texan.
Diane Barnet, a freelance writer in Austin, Texas, is originally from Toronto.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society