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Here's to you, Mizriz Robinson (and Mrs. Debonis)

Rick Wagner • Sep 4, 2018 at 2:30 PM

During college at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, I once went home to Surgoinsville to visit my parents on a mid-1980s winter’s weekend and got stuck there because of snow.

I had a broadcasting class on Monday and called my instructor, Susan Debonis, to tell her of my situation and explain why I wouldn’t be there. She didn’t seem too concerned about my absence, but she was concerned about what I called her. You see, Susan Debonis was married, but she did not yet hold her doctorate, so I called her Mrs. Debonis.

I pronounced that “mizeriz” or “mizriz.”

Think about the word “misery,” slurred slightly, but just end it with a “er-z” or “z” instead of a “y.” My instructor wanted to know what I had called her. I told her, again. As a broadcasting instructor, she said she was astonished. She later told me she did some research and found that the best explanation she had was that I was pronouncing a married woman’s courtesy title in an old slave dialect.

My older son, Jonathan, is at Middle Tennessee State University as a freshman this fall but doesn’t say “mizriz.”

WHY?

First, a little more linguistics background, especially for folks who didn’t grow up in Northeast Tennessee or Southwest Virginia. You know those buzzing things that aren’t bees or hornets but have nests and sting? I grew up calling those waspers. Most people call them wasps.

Later in college, while living in Washington, D.C., I had a roommate from Ohio who was taken aback about what I called pieces of paper you cut out of newspapers, magazines or mail to save money on a purchase. Those were “que-pons,” I said. Some call them “coo-pons,” as the roommate did, and it is spelled c-o-u-p-o-n-s.

But wait, there’s more. My paternal grandmother said the folded paper that contained letters in the mail was called an “n-vellap,” after all it did envelop a letter, although most call it an “n-ve-lope.” She called an umbrella an “umbrell.”

MRS. VS. MIZRIZ

I was still curious, all these years later, so I contacted Dr. Theresa McGarry, a linguist and professor in the Department of Literature and Language at East Tennessee State University. She provided three references: the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English, with a whole section on Mrs. variants including misris, misriz, mistress and mizriz. The Mrs. variants also were the subject of an article in the April 1996 edition of the SECOL Review, short for Southeastern Conference on Literature.

Anyway, McGarry said Mrs. came from the title Mistress, which applied to a woman the way Master did to a man back then, although in modern English means something altogether different, sort of the opposite of Mrs. Shakespeare’s writing used Mistress instead of Mrs. 

In the SECOL article, Lucille M. Bailey wrote about students in a Berea College class saying “misruz” instead of “missis” and “M.” instead of “Mr.” or mister. She found indications of “mizruz” in 1646 Connecticut as well as in 1908 and 1939 Alabama. The Smoky Mountain dictionary cited people saying that from locations including Cocke County in a 1952 reference.

MORE VARIANTS 

McGarry said Southeastern dialects are likely the most studied of any American English variants. Case in point, the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English gives the variants misris, misriz, mistress and mizriz, while the Dictionary of American Regional English lists variants of misiz, miziz, miz and mis for the North, North Middle and West; and mizriz and mistris in the South and South Middle. The South Middle includes all of Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas, southwest Virginia, southern West Virginia, western North Carolina, northeastern South Carolina, northern Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi and southern Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

It lists a 1903 reference as: “Generally used by negroes and ignorant whites for ‘Mrs.’ ” Bailey wrote that teachers went to great lengths to discourage the use of mizriz and similar variants.

McGarry said that my calling Mrs. Debonis from home, the house where I literally grew up, also could have had an effect. She cited the “speech accommodation” effect: People mimic pronunciations of people around them they like and with whom they are comfortable, whereas they tend to speak unlike folks they are around but don’t like.

In the Smoky Mountain dictionary, waspers is a variant of wasp. McGarry said she couldn’t find any mention of alternative pronunciations for envelope or umbrella, although she said it wouldn’t surprise her because of a tendency to move the stress or emphasis on consonants forward into the first syllable of a word. For example, in-SURance becomes IN-surance.

I never said IN-surance, umbrell or n-vellap, and I’ve quit saying mizriz and waspers for the most part, at least when I’m not in my hometown.

So here’s to you, Mizriz Robinson (played by the late Anne Bancroft). Hope those waspers don’t sting you and young Benjamin (played by Dustin Hoffman). (Note: I first saw “The Graduate” at the old University Center at UT in the 1980s around the time of my “Mizriz” Debonis debacle.)

QUIZ: What full and partial states make up the South Middle of the United States, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English?

Rick Wagner covers education for the Times News. Email him at rwa[email protected]

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