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.