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”).
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 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.