A most delightful aroma was wafting out of my colleague Kim Cagle’s office on Thursday as I walked by. I looked inside, and she had a glorious bouquet of pink peonies on her desk.
They’re the great big double ones with the flowers that have edges that look like torn paper. They are my absolute favorite flowers, or they’re my favorite until roses come into bloom which are my favorite until it’s time for lilies. But the crazy spring weather we’ve had this year has caused the roses and peonies in my neighborhood to bloom at the same time, which doesn’t usually happen and has been a little confusing.
Of course I had to go in Kim’s office for a closer look and to stick my face in the bouquet for a nice deep inhale. Sometimes, I think I must have been a honey bee in a former life as much as I love the smell of flowers.
So I said to Kim, “I just love peonies.” (Let’s take a moment to note that I pronounced peonies as “PEE-uhh-neez.” That will be important later.)
Kim told me she got them from her mother, and we chatted for a moment. I couldn’t help but notice a little smile playing around the corner of her mouth.
Then the smile broke through to the rest of her mouth, and Kim said, “When I was growing up in Flat Rock, we called them “pee-OWN-eze.”
She then told me her story of being embarrassed by an uppity radio announcer twenty or more years ago because of the way she pronounced the word.
When she finished her story, I told her Flat Rock was not the only place that had “pee-OWN-eze.” That’s what they were called in Elkin when I was growing up, at least on the side of town where I lived. And I didn’t find out any different until I got to New York and faced the same sort of derision from a self-proclaimed protector of proper American English as Kim had faced, and if we were keeping score, (which we are not), I would say my corrector was snottier about it, but then again, I was used to it, as having my speech corrected was an almost daily occurrence at the time.
Within a week of moving into the Times Square Motor Hotel, I discovered there was barely a word in my vocabulary I was pronouncing correctly. Oh, and yes, there really used to be such a place as the Times Square Motor Hotel, and it was in Times Square right next door to the old New York Times building, and was the cheapest place to live in all of Manhattan as the neighborhood back then was not the Disneyland it is today, but was very sketchy indeed. Not to mention the hotel accepted as payment vouchers the city gave to mental patients who had been kicked out of asylums about that time if the state deemed them not to be a threat to society — which simply meant they hadn’t killed anyone yet.
I only mention this because when riding in an elevator with a schizophrenic who hears voices, it is a good idea if he can understand your voice as well as the ones in his head, should it become necessary to tell him something — for instance, to remove his hands from around your neck, that sort of thing.
But I was virtually unintelligible. And it’s not like I hadn’t been working on it for years. I felt I had done a good job of restricting one-syllable words to a single syllable, as “them” was no longer “they-uhm” as it had been in my childhood. I was quite proud of that achievement as it had taken most of my sophomore year of high school to achieve.
But I still couldn’t pronounce my own name, as I discovered upon finding out most of my new friends thought my name was “Beal” since I pronounced “Bill” as “Bee-uhl.” Seriously, I kid you not.
It wasn’t long until it came to my attention that I couldn’t pronounce “yellow,” even though I thought I had solved that one when I kicked “yaller” to the curb years before. But there were still some intricacies to the word that I hadn’t mastered. I still can’t say “white” without making my own daughter howl with merriment, and what is worse, I can’t hear what I’m getting wrong. It’s a mystery to this very day.
And speaking of mysteries, I had no idea that “pin” and “pen” were pronounced differently. Who knew? For the longest time, I thought they were messing with me on that one. But alas, there is a subtle difference.
So Kim made my day, when she made her confession about growing up with “pee-OWN-eze” and the embarrassment she faced in learning they were really “PEE-uhh-neez” in the higher net worth neighborhoods. There is nothing quite so comforting as learning you’re not alone in something you thought was a personal misery.
I must remember to ask her how they pronounce “white” in Flat Rock. Maybe we’ll have that conversation when the Madonna lilies bloom.
Reach Bill Colvard at 336-415-4699.