Tuesday, March 27, 2012

You kids get off my tree lawn!

At his Blogspot site, where anyone can visit (for free), John McIntyre has posted a tale of a tree he has nurtured through thick and thin. It's not about language -- and yet, there's a language mystery in the very first sentence: "In 2008, at our request, the city planted a redbud tree in the tree lawn in front of our house. It was a little taller than I was."

Now, as I was browsing through the new final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English, I had bookmarked the page with tree lawn. It's a very regional term, and my home region is the hottest hot spot on the DARE map.

(The tree lawn, for those of you not familiar with it, is the strip of grass between sidewalk and street, generally considered as city property rather than part of a private lot.  It's thus an excellent place to stand while you argue with a neighbor kid about whether he can keep you off the sidewalk or not.)  It's not the oddest such term; over by Akron there's a devil strip usage pocket, and DARE reports that it's also called a parkway, boulevard, terrace, and swale, among other things.

But John is a native Kentuckian; how does he come to call it a tree lawn? Simple, he tells me: "A colleague on the copy desk when I was at The Cincinnati Enquirer had grown up in the Bronx. I had never heard of the term 'tree lawn' before."

That's doesn't quite solve the mystery, since the Bronx is farther from tree lawn country than Kentucky (which, after all, borders Ohio). I suppose the northern Ohio usage might easily enough have migrated with some journalist southward to Cincinnati, there to wiggle its way into even a New Yorker's vocabulary, and thence, perhaps, to everyone else's.

And here's a late-breaking update: While I was scanning that DARE map, with its funny-shaped population-adjusted states, John posted about tree lawn at his Baltimore Sun blog. Spread the word!

Photo of a littleleaf lindens in a Cleveland tree lawn from State of Ohio Forestry Division website.

18 comments:

Bryan M. White said...

I'm from Northeast Ohio, deep in tree lawn country. I didn't even know that other people weren't familiar with this term. Your description is spot on.

There seems to be some confusion among people about whether it's city property or not, though. For the most part, I've always heard that it was. The city obviously expects you to take care of the mowing and the upkeep though. (Maybe I should be on the city payroll as a ground's keeper ;D )

It's funny too that they call it a "tree lawn" since there are rarely trees growing on it, as they would get tangled up in the power lines in many places. Any clues as to the origin of the term?

Bryan M. White said...

Annnnd, then I go back and look at the picture above....

Alexia said...

I like "tree lawn". I live in New Zealand; in this part of the world it is called a berm.

Chartreuse said...

Here in Australia it's called 'the verge' and it always belongs to the city council - to allow for road-widening when necessary. Property owners usually mow it, but if they don't most councils will do so - but not often. And some councils require owners to get permission before planting anything on the verge.

Australia's officially sanctioned dictionary (The Macquarie) defines it as follows:
1. a grassed strip of land between the footpath and the edge of the road.
2. an area of land between the front boundary of a residential block and the edge of the road.
3. a grassed median strip.
4. a strip of land planted with grass or with shrubs, etc.

tudza said...

I'm from Michigan and I've never heard this term, although it might be useful in the future. I wouldn't have selected berm since it meant to me some sort of retaining area. I get more of a picture of a small dirt wall when I think of that word. Had verge come to mind, I would have selected that one.

As to who owns it, in my hometown the city certainly believes they do as they cut down a couple of very nice trees in front of my grandparents house without a by-your-leave.

Snowparrot said...

I'm pretty sure we Canucks call it a boulevard, or perhaps, officially, a verge. Tree lawn is interesting, but creates an image for me of a little forest.

H. S. Gudnason said...

Growing up in the Detroit area in the 50s, we called it the curb. But my parents weren't NSoE, so all my childhood vocabulary is suspect.

In my 20s, a friend (originally from Rochester, NY) called it the "grassy verge," but she was aware of the dialect variations and may have used the term for its amusement value.

languagehat said...

Growing up in the Detroit area in the 50s, we called it the curb.

Then what did you call the curb?

janes_kid said...

As to who owns the strip, in Salt Lake City and Phoenix, at least the older parts where I once lived, my property ownership extended to the middle of the street but the city had an "easement'' to do with it as they pleased.

h.s. gudnason said...

Then what did you call the curb?

Good question, and one that I had to think about to answer.

The actual curbs in my neighborhood were low and rounded, and didn't enter much into our discussions. I can recall specific conversations about the "curb" (i.e., the tree lawn) and about the gutter, but none about that which normal mortals call the curb.

My brother (10 years older) also maintains the same idiosyncratic use of curb for tree lawn today. Unfortunately, I don't have contact with anyone else of that vintage and from that area to ask.

Apparently "curb strip" is a recognized variant. As I mentioned, our parents didn't grow up speaking English, so it's possible that they heard curb strip and simply shortened it in their speech. On the few occasions I've referred to the area in other regions, everyone has always seemed to understand what I meant.

Having been long aware of the regional variations, I have sometimes referred to it as "the area between the sidewalk and the street that I grew up calling the curb but which a friend once called a grassy verge and which some people call a tree lawn." It amuses people.

Marc Leavitt said...

Here in Central New Jersey I never heard it called by any particular name. It would be referred to as part of the municipal right-of-way, or thw grass between the sidewalk and the curb.

John Burgess said...

Whether it was in Detroit or western MA, I learned to call that a 'tree belt'. It had the sidewalk on one side and the street--marked by a curb--on the other.

In DC, the property is owned by the city, which is responsible for the trees on it. The grass and fallen leaves are the responsibility of the home owner whose property the strip abuts.

T. Roger Thomas said...

I just recently read about the D.A.R.E. but haven't cracked a copy yet.

To my ears "tree lawn" just doesn't convey what that space is used for since any decent sized tree will develop roots that will damage the surrounding sidewalk. "Green strip" is the way I would describe that space.

Ø said...

In my experience some neighborhoods, relatively new developments, have trees systematically planted in that little strip by the town but not much else to be seen in the way of trees. Whereas in other places there may be plenty of old trees all over the actual lawn and none between street and sidewalk, making "tree lawn" a funny-sounding term.

As for trees outgrowing that little space, it happens, and sometimes that's why towns go and cut them down.

Ed Cormany said...

i grew up in tree lawn country too, although i didn't know that Cleveland was the epicenter! my dad is from about an hour south of Cleveland, and in his town they called them "curb lawns", i think mostly because the city didn't plant trees on them. i haven't kept track of the usage as i've moved around, but i know that it's a moot point where i live in Ithaca, NY…the sidewalk immediately turns into road (which is a bit terrifying when you're a pedestrian walking on the no parking side).

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FigMince said...

Chartreuese has responded above with Australians calling it a 'verge', but I'd suggest most Australians call it a 'nature strip' – despite the lack of nature other than the monoculture of lawn.

Mark Burns said...

Here in north Texas, I don't recall a particular name for it. But "easement" sounds strangely familiar in that context.

As for ownership, in the age of "imminent domain", doesn't it all belong to the city, really?