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It’s really crappie!

Crap-pie (krap-e) n., pl. –pies. Either of two edible North American freshwater fishes, Pomoxis nigromaculatus, the black crappie, or P. annularis, the white crappie, related to the sunfishes. [Canadian Fr. crapet.] -American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Ed., 1985.

A few years ago, an at the time 13-year-old son of a friend of mine, Jasper, and his father, John, got into a heated argument. Not surprising, you might say. Adolescent sons and fathers argue frequently. What might surprise you is what they were arguing about. It was over the “proper” pronunciation of the fish variety commonly known as crappie.

Jasper fishes regularly with some local friends who say krap-e (rhymes with happy) whereas his father, who grew up in the Midwest, says krop-e (rhymes with poppy). The argument quickly expanded as friends, fishing buddies and relations were called upon to sanction one of the two pronunciations. It turns out local friends insisted that crappie should rhyme with happy, while another group of fishermen, born and raised in Nebraska, Missouri and Arkansas adamantly maintained it should rhyme with poppy.

As the argument grew more heated and neither father nor son was willing to concede one tiny vowel’s worth of pronunciation, my friend, Jana, wisely consulted the dictionaries in the house. And guess what? One dictionary said the name for this fish should rhyme with poppy and the other said it should rhyme with happy. Far from clearing up the matter, consulting the dictionaries widened the gap between feuding word warriors. Each refused to grant pronunciation rights to the other party.

A brief history of this word may help us understand what is going on. The word crappie comes from Canadian French crapet “sunfish.” Speakers of English borrowed the word first as crappé [krop-é], pronounced like “crop-ay,” which then spawned the variant croppie [króp-e]. Speakers in the mid-section of the United States maintained the pronunciation that had been transmitted in oral language from the French Canadian to English.

But it appears crappé reached the east coast of the United States first in written form, not in speech. Thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary, we know the 1861 issue of Sportsman W. Prairies printed the lines “A fish they call the crappeé” (p. 41) and later “the crappé very like our fresh-water bream” (p. 363). When fishermen out of the region read the name and moved the word from writing to speech, like any good reader of English, they shortened the [a] before two consonants just as in apple or tapped and the variant pronunciation crappie rhyming with happy was born. This explains why speakers in the Midwestern region of the United States prefer the original pronunciation and why speakers in the south and east use a variant form.

So back to Farmville and the argument between Jasper and John. A truce seems impossible between the two because each side is arguing from a misguided, yet understandable perception about the nature of language: That there is only one right way to pronounce a word. This perception is understandable because so much of what we have been taught about language reinforces the view there is only one correct way to do things, but it’s misguided because one of the fundamental principles of language is that variation is natural and is to be expected.

In fact, variation or multiple ways of expressing something is as natural to language as crappie are happy in the freshwater ways of Virginia. May you have many years of happy fishing, Jasper!

Julia Palmer is a linguist and Associate Professor of Spanish who teaches at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is jpalmer@hsc.edu.