May 15, 2011 Comments Off on Spider-Burp Juice
About a year ago, I was taking ENG 338: Wisconsin Englishes. As you might imagine, we spent a lot of time talking about dialects. Specifically, we discussed lexical items (words) that varied among the members of the class. It was more interesting than different pronunciations because a lot of times people couldn’t hear themselves saying “beyg” instead of “bag,” but everyone could hear the difference between “soda” and “pop.” The professor mentioned that using different words for familiar objects is the most divisive feature of a dialect, and he was proven right one day when we ended up talking about this kind of thing for an entire class period.
One girl said she’d grown up calling carbonated drinks “spider-burp juice.” She laughed a little about it and admitted it didn’t make much sense, but supposedly there were tiny spiders in the drink, and their burps made the bubbles; it was just something that sprang up in her family, almost inexplicably. Everyone chuckled indulgently.
The next topic was “clicker” vs. “remote,” and one girl raised her hand to say that her family had always called it a “changer.” More than a few people turned right around to stare, saying “What?!” in loud outraged tones. I was totally nonplussed. It made a hell of a lot more sense than “spider-burp juice,” but everyone jumped on this poor girl like she’d casually used some terrible racist slur. It wasn’t just shock in their reactions; it was outright malice.
It put me in mind of a friend of mine from the dorms who was belligerently Wisconsinite in his dialect. If I was hanging out in his room and needed a drink, he practically wouldn’t let me out of the room until I’d rephrased my casual statement of intent to incorporate the word “bubbler” (which is a word for “water fountain” used only in Wisconsin and part of New England). He insisted that it was a bubbler, that bubbler was the only proper word for it, and seemed to get truly angry if I tried to brush him off by saying you could use either term. (For the record, “bubbler” is a brand name—it’s exactly equivalent to the difference between “kleenex” and “tissue.”) He also insisted that “water fountain” and “drinking fountain,” though both incorrect, were not interchangeable, even though I—the one who actually had both terms in her dialect—thought they were. It was very puzzling and ultimately drove me away from him, but he would seize on dialectical features like that with squidlike tenacity, and pick fights over them. Eventually I would just roll my eyes and say “bubbler,” but it never stopped being painful and annoying. On a related note, I actually say “soda” now, even though I grew up calling it “pop,” because—and I am not exaggerating—there was a derisive comment made about it every. single. time. it came up. From other students, too; it wasn’t just my intolerant friend. You can’t say “pop” in public in Wisconsin, even in relatively cosmopolitan Madison, without drawing fire for it. Think about that. What a terrible thing! Why should it matter? Who cares?
As it turns out, I think it stems from Small Town Wisconsin Syndrome (STWS), which I have come across elsewhere as well. So many people come to Madison from smaller towns where their graduating class had 50 students in it that I think they’re threatened by the novel diversity of the school population. To compensate, they adopt a pugnacious attitude towards everything unfamiliar, particularly unfamiliar attitudes and dialects exhibited by other white people, because you’re allowed to pick on a white girl for the way she talks, but it’s much riskier to pick on a black guy or an Asian kid for the way they talk. In the end, STWS indicates a sheltered, provincial upbringing as well as a desire not to be perceived as sheltered or provincial. It was evident in all my classmates who would accept “spider-burp juice” but not “changer,” and, to me at least, the experience really drove home the point about lexical items being divisive. After this, I started watching myself for times when I would get upset with someone for using a wrong or dumb word, which, to my shock, was a lot more often than I’d thought. I think even that much of an increase in my awareness has made me a lot more tolerant, and it makes me wonder how much might change if everyone started paying attention to their spikes of irritation. Just being conscious of them will make them less frequent and less strong.
Don’t worry, we all have a little STWS in us. But we should make it more of a goal to get rid of it. Think about how small-minded it makes you to pick on someone for using a different word than the one you grew up with. Think how un-PC it would become if everyone started paying attention to it. And for once, I’d be in favor of PCification—it’s PC in its original and best form, the kind that came into being to prevent people being called fags or kikes, because there was so much more to them than blind labels. Hopefully it’s not that big a problem for most of us…but you owe it to everyone who says “pop” to double-check and make sure you’re not being a jerkwad.