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May 19, 2010

Dubuquians, Wisconsonians and Other Midwestians

There is a moment in "Annie Hall" when Diane Keaton, playing a native of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, utters the name of her home state. "Wis-con-sin," she says crisply, instantly betraying the fact that she is neither from there nor under the guidance of a dialect coach. As any upper Midwesterner knows, the locals -- and those of us, like me, who grew up there but long ago moved away -- pronounce the proper name of America's Dairyland with a casual verbal slouch in the middle: Wi-scon-sin. When Diane Keaton gets it wrong, the movie falls apart for me, every time. A sweet Southerner I used to know felt the same way about the accents in the film version of "To Kill a Mockingbird." He couldn't bear to listen.

Wisconsonians.jpg

What prompts this is not, in fact, Doug's post questioning New York's cultural dominance but a gracious letter of reprimand in the current issue of The New Yorker. Marsha Rabe (quick! guess which famous playwright is her brother) takes the magazine to task for failing to ascertain the proper name for denizens of her hometown, Dubuque, Iowa. In Jill Lepore's recent piece on Harold Ross and Henry Luce, the term used is "Dubuquian" -- not "Dubuquer," as it should be, Rabe points out. "Getting it wrong is a small matter," she writes, "but it seems in a subtle way to bear out the provincialism-of-the-big-city syndrome."

Her excellent letter brought to mind a similarly jarring error in Curtis Sittenfeld's 2008 novel, "American Wife." Set largely in Wisconsin, it feels extraordinarily true to the place -- which is why it was such a shock, when I was reading the book to review it, to come across the word "Wisconsonians" where "Wisconsinites" ought to have been. My marginalia grew emphatic in response: "ARE YOU KIDDING?" Though I was reading the galley, the mistake made it all the way into the hardcover.

This is a big country, I know. But is it really too much trouble to learn the names of the people in the middle?

May 19, 2010 12:00 AM | | Comments (3)

3 Comments

I smiled when I read that letter yesterday. I loved the quote from Time: "There is no provincialism so blatant as that of the metropolitan who lacks urbanity."

But names can be a burden. All those years I lived in Cambridge, I always cringed when someone, correctly, called me a Cantabrigian. I am now a Carlislian, which flows better on the tongue (the S is silent), but nevertheless sounds like something out of "Gulliver's Travels."

It should be noted that David Rabe "has been hailed as one of Dubuque's greatest living playwrights."

That's spectacular. Imagine if he hadn't made the cut!

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