As soon as Santa’s sleigh arrives at Macy’s on Thanksgiving morning, the airwaves are full of all manner of Christmas music. Besides traditional Christmas carols proclaiming the long-awaited Messiah (check out Handel’s “They walked in darkness” for the real meaning of Advent) and the birth of Jesus (ditto “…and suddenly, there was with the angel…”), I am fascinated by the goodwill and cheer that the promise of salvation engenders during the month of December. Apparently, that hope inspires some incredibly gleeful images.
My five-year old self singing “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas.”
The scandalous I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus.
Dean Martin slurring “Baby, it’s cold outside.”
Elmo and Patsy warbling the tragic “Grandma got run over by a reindeer.”
And that Baltimore classic, Crabs for Christmas.
You’ve never heard of that one? The refrain is “Ow, I want crabs for Christmas.” For those of you who live elsewhere, you know that word as “Oh”, but in Bawlmerese, it’s the sound you make when a crab’s pincer grabs your nose. If you’ve ever seen a John Waters film or heard swimmer Michael Phelps interviewed, you’ve heard a Bawlmer accent, hon. Native son, filmmaker Barry Levenson, showcased it to perfection in his film Tin Men. So, of all the silly Christmas tunes, this has become my favorite, a tribute to my adopted hometown. Yes, I’m a Marylander now.
When I moved to Maryland in 1976, we lived in Silver Spring, a suburb of Washington, DC, where all of our neighbors and co-workers were from some other part of the world, so there was no one, definitive accent. Then, in 1979, we bought a veterinary practice in a community about 15 miles north of Baltimore, aka “Charm City.” One day, one of the employees came to me and said we needed more “tals” (rhymes with “gals”).
“I’m sorry,” I answered. “We need more what?”
“Tals,” she repeated.
“Tals,” I echoed.
“Yes, tals,” she confirmed.
“Oh. I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” I replied, thinking there was some peculiar local slang with which I was unfamiliar. This young woman was well-educated, a college student and graduate of the local private high school.
“Tals,” I kept repeating, trying to puzzle out the sound in my head. She continued to nod her head in affirmation. “Um, let’s ask the Veterinarian.” He was a Virginia native who said weird things like “Awnt” instead of “Aunt.” Surely, he knew what she was trying to tell me.
“Apparently, we have a problem with our tals,” I told him.
“Our what?” He looked back and forth between me and the employee.
“Tals,” she stressed, clearly exasperated by her dense employers.
“Can you spell it?” he asked. She sighed loudly.
“Tals. T-o-w-e-l-s. Tals.” A two-syllable word had become one.
According to Google and some locals, the accent primarily is heard to the east and south of the city from a certain middle-class demographic, but I’m here to tell you that I’ve heard it streaming from the mouths of captains of industry, local broadcasters, dockworkers, steelworkers, carpenters, stockbrokers, priests, doctors, lawyers, and even — horror of horrors — from my own daughter, a native of Colorado. She picked it up immediately from her classmates and teachers.
If Baltimoreans (please, don’t make the mistake of saying “Baltimorons”) are lucky, they are taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital in an “amblance” with a “POH-leese” escort. In the summer, they go “downy ayshin” (translation: to Ocean City) or “over a friend’s house in Blare, Murlan” (to visit a friend in Bel Air, Maryland). I have heard professionals with doctorates speak like this in normal conversation.
The accent may come from immigrants of Britain’s coastal cities who settled in the growing seaport of Baltimore in the 18th century, and it definitely was influenced by German immigrants in the 19th. At Thanksgiving, many residents traditionally serve sauerkraut with their turkey and clean up the dishes in the “zinc.” (I know, I know. That one is often defended because some sinks were made of zinc, but I’m not buying it.)
The most frequently mispronounced vowel is that long “o” sound. It acquires two syllables. Think the word “owl” without the “l”. It is the bane of speech therapists, stage directors, and choral musicians throughout the region. Ow, Tannenbaum is the current scourge of my choral director, as we prepare for our annual Christmas concert. It doesn’t refer to the complaint you make when you stab yourself with an evergreen needle while hanging ornaments.
If your team has ever played one of our best birds in the AL or the AFC (Orioles or Ravens), you’ve heard our fans shout “OW” during the playing of our National Anthem. “OW! Say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave…” (And, yes, it still proudly flies over Ft. McHenry on Baltimore Harbor).
Despite the fact that locals mangle the pronunciation of my birthplace by saying “DEE-troit” instead of “de-TROIT,” I’ve grown to love the area’s quirky heritage. It puts the “charm” in “Charm City,” as exotic as a Cockney in London or a Cajun in N’awlins, as quaint as the Canadian accent I grew up hearing in Michigan, eh? Even I have been chastised by My Mother for saying “muh-vie” instead of “moo-vie.” Conversely, the locals say that I, struggling to maintain my clear Midwestern accent, sound like Rocky the Flying Squirrel of Frostbite Falls, Minnesota.
So that’s the source of my favorite crazy Christmas song’s refrain: “Ow, I want crabs for Christmas.” Even Maryland Public Television, our local bastion of such classy programming as Great Performances, Downton Abbey, and Nova, has featured it. Thanks for the Christmas cheer, David DeBoy! www.crabsforchristmas.com
DATE UPDATE: Not much new to report. I talked to a man about what men are looking for in a date and what they are finding online. Apparently, they are just as mystified as I am. It seems that women lie about their age, marital status, and looks, too. I must be nuts for giving my real age, real height, and posting photos of myself without makeup. I’m still confused, so I’ll do what I always do, be myself and go with my instincts (which, you may have noticed, haven’t been particularly helpful, so far). A friend of mine says that her lovely husband (from match.com) dated “about 100 women” over two years before finding her. Yikes!
On the upside, I’ve not heard from Mr. No-Profile Photo, so, who am I to complain? Life is good (mostly). Soli Deo Gloria!