Euphonious Baltimore

October 07, 1997|By Gwinn Owens

SOME YEARS AGO my wife and I invited cousins from Ontario to visit us in Baltimore. In accepting, one of them wrote: "I have never been to Baltimore but I have always imagined I'd like it because it has such a beautiful name."

They came in May when the azaleas were everywhere, Sherwood Gardens was in full bloom and the Inner Harbor was just being transformed. Baltimore, they said, lived up to the impression inspired by its name.

Baltimore is indeed a beautiful word, ranking right up there with the celebrated most euphonious word, "cellardoor." It is reminiscent, perhaps, of the lilt of the Irish language from which it came. I prefer to think it invokes the sound of a distant train whistle -- appropriate for the city from which the first American railroad meandered up the Patapsco Valley. Either way, that sound should be treasured as a gift of history.

Neverthless, Baltimore institutions that ought to know better go out of their way to distort the name. It is true, some Baltimoreans drawl it into "Bawlamer," but must we insist on installing a sort of Joe Sixpack trademark on our hometown by instituting a rustic-urban mispronunciation?

To be specific, the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, one of the city's most worthy and effective organizations, got off-track when it titled its guidebook "Bawlamer." This seemed to start a trend that encouraged politicians, disk jockeys, talk-show hosts and know-it-all sports columnists to demonstrate their common touch by flaunting the pronunciation of the so-called people.

The most recent example of this kind of civic destruction came less than a year ago in a fund-raising letter from -- of all places -- the City Life Museums. Across the envelope was written, "What Makes Baltimore Bawlamer, Hon?" My answer was that nothing makes Baltimore Bawlamer except those who are averse to beauty. It is a coincidence that shortly thereafter the City Life Museums, the invaluable Smithsonian of Baltimore, closed their doors for lack of funds?

Of course, words in constant use tend to be contracted. Cities I have known include Milwaukee, which natives call "M'waukee"; or Chicago, which becomes "Ch'cogga"; or New Orleans, which has evolved into "N'awlins." None of these is such a demeaning variant of the original name as "Bawlamer" for Baltimore.

Baltimoreans might take a lesson from San Francisco. Though the situations are not identical, the San Francisco tactics could well be the same. San Francisco (another euphonious name) acquired the nickname "Frisco." San Franciscans hated it. They turned their objections into a civic crusade. I experienced this firsthand a half-century ago when I lived in San Francisco. If I said "Frisco" I was chastised on the spot. Today, Ted Lilliethal, an 85-year-old member of the staff of San Francisco Focus magazine and a third-generation native, says "Frisco" has just about been eliminated.

But in Baltimore, we ignore our blessing and encourage or even flaunt a slurring distortion. Remember that pop singer and songwriter Randy Newman composed a top-of-the-charts song called "Baltimore." It wasn't complimentary and Mr. Newman, who had never visited Baltimore, said he could have applied it to almost any city. He chose Baltimore because he loved the sound of the name.

If songwriters and people from Ontario treasure that sound, where is the pride of the people of Bal-ti-more?

Gwinn Owens is a retired Evening Sun editorial writer.

Pub Date: 10/07/97

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