Friday, April 18, 2008

Earthquake! (and regional pronunciations)

No, there wasn’t an earthquake here in the Bay Area, but back home in Illinois! Sure, California gets all the earthquake press, especially today: the anniversary of the '06 quake, but Alaska actually has more earthquakes every year. (The most seismically active place in the U.S. is the base of Mt. McKinley. Don’t ask me to back that up with a reference.)

But the Midwest has the New Madrid Fault system, which produces really deep quakes felt for great distances. This morning’s 5.2 quake was felt 400 miles away in Atlanta. That’s like feeling an LA quake up here in San Francisco. Back in 1811 and 1812 there were 4 quakes estimated at 7.0 or above on the New Madrid fault. The largest cracked a sidewalk in Washington, D.C. and rattled church bells in Boston. That’s like feeling a San Francisco quake in Denver. Farmers reported seeing their fields moving in waves like the ocean.

Take that Loma Prieta.

This image, taken from wikipedia, compares the 1895 Charleston, Missouri, earthquake in the New Madrid seismic zone with the 1994 Northridge, California, earthquake. Red indicates area of structural damage, yellow indicates area where shaking was felt:

I suppose I shouldn’t be bragging about the deadly potential of Midwestern earthquakes over California earthquakes, especially considering most of post-fire Chicago is built with bricks (uber bad for an earthquake zone) but really all this leads me naturally to a discussion of regional pronunciations.

I suppose in your head you’ve been pronouncing New Madrid like the city in Spain. It’s really pronounced New MAD rid. I find regional pronunciations fascinating, because I’m odd like that. Every area has them. San Francisco has Kearny St (ker-ny) and Gough (gof) which perhaps aren’t really that odd but often confuse newcomers. My favorite in Chicago was Paulina St (paul-I-na). And then of course there’s the city at the southern end of Illinois named Cairo, just up the river from Memphis, just like the two cities in Egypt. Only Cairo, IL is pronounced like the corn syrup: Kayro.

Perhaps my all time favorite pronunciation oddity I learned about in Bill Bryson’s Made In America. According to him and that book, Greenwich Village was originally pronounced like it is today. Then, for no discernible reason, at some point in the 1800’s everyone started calling it GREEN-wich and continued to do so for about a generation when it then mysteriously switched back to gren-ICH.

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