I spent most of last week up something, but I couldn’t decide what I was up.
Was I up a creek? Or was I up a crick?
I had plenty of time to ponder this question, because I was out roaming Marble Creek, Hobo Creek, Moose Creek, Kelly Creek, and various other creeks in between. Suddenly, I realized to my horror that half the time I used one pronunciation, and half the time the other. Sometimes I used both in the same sentence.
“Just follow this creek down to where it joins a bigger crick on the right,” I found myself saying.
Am I a crick man or a creek man?
Little did I know that, with this question, I was entering a tangled thicket of linguistics. A crooked creek, with cricks in it. America as a whole can’t quite decide how to pronounce this simple word, either.
So as I wandered around out there from creek to crick, I came to the conclusion that crick was probably a Southernism, like vittles or cornpone, and that creek was essentially the Northern book-learning pronunciation.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
When I finally got my head out of those cricks and into some dictionaries, I learned that it’s not that simple.
The first thing I learned was that crick is used just about everywhere except the South. “Crick is less frequent in the South than in the rest of the U.S.,” says Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.
So be warned, all of you Northerners attempting to imitate a Southern accent for the purposes of humor. Don’t say, “I’m gwine to pick me a mess of poke salad down by the crick, ya’ll.”
Instead, you should say, “I’m gwine to snatch me a possum and bile it in a pot with some goober peas down by the creek, y’all, honey chile, whee-doggies.”
I still wasn’t sure exactly who says crick. So I asked some of my friends, and I got a definite “crick” response from a guy who was brought up in Michigan, and another from a guy from Ohio, and another from a woman whose roots are in West Virginia.
But then, from a certain Eastern big-city boy, I got a sniffed, “Crick is for hicks.”
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Crick is not the ignorant, uneducated pronunciation of hillbillies who don’t know how to spell. “Crick is common in many sections of the U.S. and is by no means rare in educated use,” says the World Book Dictionary.
See why this is so confusing?
This all began to make sense when I went back to the Dictionary of American Regional English, the authoritative tome on all things crick-ish.
“Crick is in general use through the North Midland, and North, except for southern New England and perhaps metropolitan New York,” said this book. “Crick has nearly universal currency in New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, as well as the Hudson and Mohawk valleys.”
OK, but where does that leave me, a person from the West? I know for a fact that Washington and Idaho are serious crick country, and so are Wyoming and Colorado, where I grew up.
I read on and found that crick has migrated into most of the West, except for Texas. Which explains the crick half of my identity.
Yet this still does not explain the creek half. Then I found this line in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: “Crick is less frequent in urban than in rural areas.”
The urban part of me insists on saying creek, while the rural part of me insists on saying crick. These competing impulses are waging a battle for my very soul, and neither one can declare victory.
Neither rural nor urban, I am caught in an eddy between crick and creek. Which should I say? Which is correct.
So, as a last resort, I found the “NBC Handbook of Pronunciation.” It brooked no arguments. It said the correct pronunciation is creek.
Yeah, sure, if you’re a non-Pennsylvanian city person from the South.