A linguist looks at the city’s most unique phrase

You can still catch the flinty reflection of Akron’s hardscrabble grit lurking behind the darkened windows of the city’s old brick factory buildings, splayed in the asphalt-dotted icy slush beside the curb and sliding along the friction-polished tops of its rusty rails. Though the Rubber City brims with new life now, these industrial artifacts find subtle ways to remind us of Akron’s blue collar beginnings. One inconspicuous way is in the vocabulary of the Akronite.

In particular, the phrase “devil strip.”

Given the proximity to Cleveland, Akronites sport the influence of the Great Lakes shipping lanes in addition to a mixture of Midwestern America and the inland Northeast. This means Akronites have adopted a milder version of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. The most prominent and easily recognizable examples of this phenomenon are the raising, tensing and lengthening of the short “a” sound (which can make “cat” sound like “kyet”) or the unique short “o” sound (which can make “John” sound like “jyan”).

[su_box title=”Author John Green on ‘devil strip’ vs. ‘tree lawn'”][su_youtube_advanced url=”http://youtu.be/1w6uQIXC1aI?t=3m52s” width=”300″ height=”200″ theme=”light”][/su_box]

However, not all of the linguistic characteristics of Akron descended from the Cleveland area. That’s one reason “devil strip” stands out. It’s much less evident in the greater Cleveland area and has long been closely associated with Akron’s specific dialect.

In 2012, Akron Beacon Journal columnist Bob Dyer attempted, unsuccessfully, to definitively discern the origins of the phrase. While its geographic origin remains a point of contention, it appears clear “devil strip” was primarily used in blue collar industrial communities around northern Ohio, as well as a few other outlying areas.

The point here is not so much about the exact origin of the phrase as what its connection to Akron tells us about the people who’ve lived here for decades.

This thin strip of lawn between the sidewalk and street is called, in most places around Ohio, a “tree lawn.” But not in Akron. Here, perhaps, the blue collar backbone is so dominant it defied the socio-economic diversification that seemingly weakened the industrial influence in larger cities like Cleveland. That is, the term “devil strip” itself suggests a raw and wary mindfulness that more privileged communities may have found less appealing than “tree lawn.”

If it’s true that the “devil strip” was menacingly named to keep children from playing near the streets, then you can imagine how industrial-era Akronites may have viewed their homes as a place of comfort and safety away from the dangerous world that existed just past their sidewalks. In this way, the term is as much about the steely toughness that lies at the heart of Akron as it is the focus on family and home.

By comparison, it’s possible “tree-lawn” communities were more concerned with comfort and aesthetics than a “devil strip” community like Akron, which was necessarily more preoccupied with survival.

So for Akronites, perhaps, “devil strip” lingers as a reminder there’s still a thin line that divides Akron comfortingly from the world beyond.

 

aaron deBee headshotAaron DeBee is a freelance translator and language consultant from East Palestine, Ohio. He worked from 1993 to 2005 as an intelligence analyst and cryptologic linguist for the Department of Defense. He graduated from the Defense Language Institute Chinese Program, from the University of Akron with a B.A. in Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, and from Case Western Reserve University with a M.A. in Cognitive Linguistics.

8 Responses

  1. PM Watson

    The first paragraph of this article almost put me to sleep. One thing was stated correctly by the writer, life is too short to be boring. (or just plain bored)

    Reply
    • Chris H.

      Hey PM, thanks for reading. Not sure why you kept going if you nearly fell asleep but I really admire your dedication. Take care! – Chris H.

      Reply
  2. Nancy Dorrans

    I always understood it was so-called because property owners were expected to maintain it…but the city had the control…

    “The grassy area between the street and the sidewalk.
    This term is unique to the Akron, Ohio area.
    The city can plant trees, or come and dig up the devil’s strip
    without the permission of the resident that pays tax on this land. The “devil” in this case is a vague reference to the Tax collector/government in general.
    by Andy Mixon October 31, 2007″

    Reply
    • Sue

      Yes, Nancy!
      That is where Akronites pegged the term!
      There seem to be other, previous uses for the term…
      but Akronites were making a statement against the City!
      Mr Debee needs to check this out….

      Reply
  3. Kim

    My husband of 39 years, who grew up in Akron, said “I am watering the devil strip.” I said Whaaat? So I googled the phrase and found this article. We both found it very interesting.

    Reply
  4. Sue

    Nancy Dorians had the correct answer.
    Property owners were making a statement against the tax collector/city and for the reason she mentioned.
    I remember my dad told me this back in the 50’s….
    (Apparently it does have other meanings around the country, but Akronites were making a political statement)

    Reply
  5. Michael Burgos

    Look onto to correlation of A.A. and the death rates of drunk drivers that jumped the curb. A.A. was birthed in Akron

    Reply
  6. Brent Sobie

    The term seems to have been used and possibly originated in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and it referred to the centralized “strip” of road between running electric street cars (trollies). The city had horse-drawn cars as early as 1882, with electric street cars being implemented in 1991. As such, the order along main thoroughfares going across the street from sidewalk to sidewalk was carriages – and later automobiles – first, then the street car going in one direction, then the Devil Strip at center, followed by a second street car moving in the opposite direction, then again carriages, and finally the sidewalk. The term is mentioned in print on page 44 of John E. Baker’s 1982 work Winnipeg’s Electric Transit, with a circa-1909 photo captioned, mentioning “Traffic seems to be quite unregulated, witness the auto and bicycle traveling in opposite directions in the devil strip!”
    I hope this information helps….

    Reply

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