How’s Bayou? “Ax” Murder on the Bayou
You can serve me tomatoes, or even tomahtoes; just don’t “ax” me how I want them prepared.
I don’t know why this little quibble about diction bothers me so much. I spent years among the British, who insist on pronouncing the past tense of the verb to eat (ate) “et.” Some West Country farmer in 18th-century England probably went around “axing” people if they liked his tomatoes; but the next time someone “axes” me a question, there’s likely to be an “ax” murder on Bayou Lafourche.
The truth is, we play pretty footloose and fancy free with language along the bayou. We say things that outsiders couldn’t possibly comprehend, yet every local knows exactly what’s meant.
Did you know, for example, that Job was the first eye doctor? After preaching a Sunday sermon, the impromptu pastor assured me that it wasn’t for nothing that God had placed so many opticals in His servant’s way.
It’s really not that different from the Brits’ insistence on pronouncing Cholmondeley “Chumley,” but somehow they manage to come across as super educated, not aurally deficient. Yet as early as 1844, the London humor magazine “Punch” decried this practice in its revisionist Volume VI:
“Whereas,” Mr. Punch began, “divers and sundry persons, subjects of Her Most Gracious Majesty, VICTORIA, of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith, are known, called and designated by certain surnames, which are spelt one way and pronounced another; and whereas such names are so spelt that nobody on earth could, from their spelling, have the remotest idea of their pronunciation . . . .
"BE IT ENACTED, That from the passing of this Act, henceforth and forever, no Person calling himself Chumley shall spell his name Cholmondeley; and that all manner of persons who think proper to spell their names Cholmondeley, shall pronounce their said names, and have them pronounced of others, precisely as they are spelt.”
Fast forward to the 1970s, when Inge O’quin, a charming Austro-Hungarian transplant and look-alike for Zsa Zsa Gabor on the television show “Green Acres,” held court as resident manager of Madewood. Inge would sweep down from the gilded extravagance of her upstairs quarters -- christened “Kleine Wien” (Little Vienna) by the director of the television film “A Woman Called Moses,” during filming at Madewood – and rush into the yard to save a fallen sparrow, just like Zsa Zsa on TV.
Inge was a great favorite of the locals, who insisted on addressing her as “Mrs. Aucoin,” (O-kwaeh),certain that she was mispronouncing that Cajun name when she introduced herself as Mrs. O’Quin.
We also love modifiers, a practice drawn from early French. We have to spend cash money to buy Brie cheese before we head home to water the yard with a hose pipe.
Thelma Parker, housekeeper at Madewood for many years, kept us laughing with stories about her home life, and amused with her modifications of ordinary words.
One day, during a particularly ferocious thunderstorm, Thelma was at home stirring a huge pot of fudge for a church event, when a rolling ball of lightning swept into the kitchen through an open window, soared across the counter and bounced into the bubbling pot on the electricity-radiating stove. Pausing momentarily to bathe itself in the luscious chocolate, the intruding fireball then rolled out through an open door, leaving a trail of confection across the recently-scrubbed floor -- and a very sticky screen door -- and narrowly missing a child, who remained terrified for weeks.
"Sure, I was scared. I didn't know what that thing was -- comin' into my kitchen from out of nowhere," Thelma recalled, "and hoppin' into that pot like it owned it. I backed off, cause it was flaming as it moved across the counter, and I sure didn't want it to strike me. I thought to myself, ‘Take all the fudge you want, just leave me alone.’"
But the fudge wasn’t the real problem. The event was Thelma’s niece’s debut at her church; and the invitation called for formal attire for her and her husband, “J’iant.” Therein lay the rub:
“Everyone’s gonna be watching you,” Thelma explained, “and J’iant is all upset because he’s got to go an rent himself a tuck to wear.”
Bet you didn’t know that on Bayou Lafourche, tux is plural.
Or that at least one of the most famous plantation houses in the Mississippi River Valley is misspelled.
Years ago, I worked with Ann Little of Destrehan Plantation on a tourism project. We’d been playing phone tag; but when I arrived at Madewood late one evening, Thelma had left me a note:
Please call Miss Little at Dusty Hand Plantation.
If you were to ax me which name I prefer, I’m afraid I’d have to go with the latter.
How’s Bayou? the secrets of remaining sane while running an upscale B&B on Bayou Lafourche, is written weekly for NolaVie by Keith Marshall, a former Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Yale and Oxford universities who now runs Madewood Plantation House in Napoleonville.