It’s time for another Weird Word Wednesday! Today’s word is Brahmin. I’m reading Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. In Chapter 11, they discuss the burning of High Bridge during the final days of the Civil War.
Colonel Francis Washburn of the Fourth Massachusetts is leading his cavalry toward High Bridge. On page 60, he orders his them to wheel left. “The colonel’s accent is Brahmin and his tone is fearless,” the text tells us.
I’ve heard of the Brahmins, the priests and scholars, highest of the four Hindu castes. I’ve also read about the Boston Brahmins, those aristocratic New England families that preserved their social status by marrying others of the same group. Think of the descendants of Samuel Adams, John Cabot, Leverett Saltonstall, and the Roosevelts, and you’ll get the idea.
But a Brahmin accent? That got me wondering, because I’ve always been interested in accents. Our recent vacation took us through Tennessee, where we stopped at a grocery store. As we chatted with the clerk, he tried to identify our accent. “Canada?” he asked. We shook our heads, smiling. “New Hampshire?” he ventured, which came out “New Haimp-shur.” No again.
“Well, ah know y’all aren’t from New York, so ah give up,” he laughed. We said we were from Wisconsin, and he smiled knowingly. I’ve talked to people from other parts of the country who think our Wisconsin accent sounds flat, which I asked the clerk about.
“I don’t wanna sound mean, ma’am, but y’all do sound purty flay-it,” he confirmed.
But if we sound flat to him, how does a Brahmin accent sound? Well, for an exaggerated version, think of Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island. Or Charles Emerson Winchester III on M*A*S*H*.
For more relevant examples, think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt saying “We have nothing to fee-ah but fee-ah itself,” or the Kennedys‘ manner of speech. Turns out, accents develop for a variety of reasons – patterns of settlement, geographic location and social standing, just to name a few.
So there you have it! The Brahmin Mystery, solved.