Lightning Bugs or Peenie Wallies

by | Oct 15, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

In Atlanta, we call the big green outdoor trash cans, the ones you pull to the curb once a week on trash day, Herbie Curbies. At least, we used to call them those. We call the interstate that circles the city The Perimeter. We call soft drinks of all kinds coke, no matter the brand or variety–or at least we say we do. I’ve personally never actually called a Sprite a coke. We don’t call our city Hotlanta, or at least we say we don’t. In truth, Outkast uses Hotlanta in a song before it became a cool way to distinguish natives from tourists who think they know.

And another thing: “Bless your heart” may be used, sometimes, to mock someone, an expression of judgment and pity as everyone will now have you believe, but most of my life, the people who really used the term used it with affection. I always found it so tender, such a loving way to offer comfort and empathy. 

Every so often, I come across The New York Times dialect quiz, which asks a bunch of multiple-choice questions about diction and then shows you the regions where you are most likely to hail from given your answers. Here, we say lightning bugs. In California, they’ve never seen them. Other places, they are fireflies, and apparently the Jamaican patois term for them is peenie wallie. 

In White Teeth by Zadie Smith, a troubled young character named Millat struggles with his identity and with fitting in, and Smith reflects that struggle largely through MIllat’s language:

“What they want,” said Millat, “is to stop pissing around wid dis hammer business and jus’ get some Semtex and blow de djam ting up, if they don’t like it, you get me? Be quicker, innit?”

“Why do you talk like that?” snapped Irie, devouring a dumpling. “That’s not your voice. You sound ridiculous!” 

Even for me, with my relatively uncomplicated identity, language becomes fraught. I have, at times, exaggerated my accent or suppressed it either to distinguish myself or to fit in. As a freshman in college, a linguist acquaintance informed me that I overcorrected my -ing endings to sound like -ink because of the pressure to assimilate, with the assumption that, among other Southerners, I would say walkin’ and talkin’. But it was as if, the moment he told me his theory, I lost all memory of how I spoke back home. Did I drop my g’s and overcorrect once I got to college? Or did I simply mimic the overcorrection that my parents made? It’s one of those things that, as soon as you think about it, you can’t make heads or tails of it.

Prompt

Make a list of your language quirks. Take the quiz to get you started. What are your names for things that might not be everybody else’s names for things? Maybe it’s regional, or maybe you have some neologisms in your family. My brother started calling wet sand manole as a two-year-old and it just works, so we kept saying it and will probably pass it down to our kids. 

Do you have any overcorrections? Any stray bits of dialect that you lose or recover depending on your audience? If you speak more than one language, are there words that you trip over? Words that are untranslatable, that you feel homesick for?

Use one of the words or phrases as the title of a poem or essay, or put it in the first line of dialogue in a short story. Let the word or phrase lead you into a sense of setting and character in your piece. What does it reveal? What is the personality of this bit of dialect? 

You may also take language as your subject. How does your identity intersect with language? In “A Code Switch Memoir,” Nate Marshall chronicles his coming of age vis à vis the language that felt authentic to him.

Or keep returning to your list, and use it as a way to imbue your writing with your own authentic voice, singular and collective at once.