Geographical longings – right down to the grass roots

The Monitor's language columnist considers some words with a sense of place.

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I find myself longing for geographical anchoring of late – not so much for myself (I know where I am) but the people I deal with. I'm getting slightly fed up, for instance, with having to call an 800 number in Nebraska to check on the services offered at a shop half a mile from me, because the shop doesn't publish a local phone number.

It may be that some words are better anchored in place than some people. It was particularly refreshing a few weeks ago to run across a dictionary discussion of some vocabulary very much anchored – or rooted, I should say – in a sense of place.

This discovery began with my curiosity about the origin of the word boulevard. Obviously borrowed from French, it sounds so elegant, so debonair, that you practically expect to run into Maurice Chevalier at the next cross street. Boulevard has a military background, however.

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It came into French from a Dutch word that is closely related to our English bulwark and referred to a city wall or rampart. A boulevard was the grand street built on the land liberated when a city tore down the walls that had been overgrown and therefore no longer served a defensive purpose. Vienna's Ringstrasse, built in the mid-19th century after Emperor Franz Joseph I ordered demolition of the medieval walls, may be one of the best-known examples of this.

My exploration of boulevard led to discovery of some regional vocabulary connected with the various bits of green found along and within boulevards in the United States.

As the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD) observes in a regional usage note, "To the majority of Americans, the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the street is called simply the grassy strip between the sidewalk and the street."

Ah, the dry wit of the lexicographer. But there's more to it than that. "[I]n some parts of the country, it has acquired specific names. In the Midwest and West, it is often called the parking or parkway...."

I read that, and suddenly I was back in the southern California neighborhood where I grew up. Along each street there was a strip of green between the sidewalk and the curb. My parents referred to it as the "parkway," a usage I hadn't heard before and haven't heard since. That may be because it's a localism, or because I just haven't lived on a street with that configuration since. I'm also not sure whether parkway was something my parents brought from the Midwest or picked up in California. The AHD suggests it could be either.

The parkway, we kids understood, was not our property (an important word in the minds of children just becoming accustomed to concepts of ownership and sharing and fairness). But my parents saw it as their responsibility to maintain as they did the front lawn proper, and that seemed to be the norm in the neighborhood.

The AHD also lists the parking strip as a Washington State variant identified by surveyors for the Dictionary of American Regional English. Terrace is another term for this in the Midwest and the Great Lakes region. Tree lawn is another variant in the same region. Boulevard strip, or even boulevard alone, is to be heard in the Upper Midwest, according to the AHD. But my favorite of these, from Louisiana and southern Mississippi, is neutral ground – "as if the highway were a battle zone," as Craig M. Carver observed in "American Regional Dialects."

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