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A morsel for lexicographers

Driving away from my house, I encountered my neighbor from across the street as he returned home, and he spoke. That is, he raised his hand from the steering wheel in a slight wave.

In eastern Kentucky as I was growing up, to speak (vi) meant to acknowledge an acquaintance in passing, without uttering words: “I saw John Early on the street yesterday, and he didn’t speak.” Not acknowledging someone in this way was a minor affront.

Speaking, in this sense, is performed in motor vehicles by raising the fingers of one hand casually from the steering wheel. In a rural area like Fleming County, Kentucky, where everyone in theory knew everyone else, some drivers would “speak” to every driver they encountered so as not to risk giving offense.

 I offer this word, without charge, to the Oxford English Dictionary, which does not yet record this sense — though perhaps the dialect specialists may have gotten hold of it.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:58 PM | | Comments (6)


I've never heard that terminology for acknowledging someone, but I have noticed that the practice itself can vary from region to region.

I'm a runner*, not because I like it all that much, but to burn calories so I can spend more of them on good food and drink. I also go to Washington, DC periodically for museums, galleries, and restaurants. When running on my "home course" here in Baltimore, many or most other runners will "speak" as you pass, either by a slight nod of the head, a slight wave of a hand, or a brief verbal greeting (such as "'morning"). When running in DC, almost no one will even make eye contact, much less "speak".

*On a lexicogical note, when I was growing up a casual runner like myself would be referred to as a "jogger". That usage seems to have pretty much disappeared in recent years.

Reminds me of the "Minnesota wave", though we limit ourselves to raising the index finger alone. To raise more fingers than the index finger would be excessive, and excess is one of the Scandinavian Lutheran's seven deadly sins.

I was at March to Destiny yesterday, a Civil War re-enactment in Shippensburg, Pa. While walking through the "Union" camp I passed a soldier in a Union uniform. He reached up, tugged at his hat, dipped his head slightly and said, "Ma'am."

I wonder how many people are disconcerted by such behavior these days. Of course, he was staying in character.

Re the "Minnesota wave": Some Kentuckians also raise a single index finger from the steering wheel. I fear that in the Appalachian context, the behavior is likelier to be ascribed to laziness than theology.

It appears that in New York and New Jersey, a different digit is used for the exchange of pleasantries.

Lifting the pointer finger is also traditional in Australia whenever a vehicle passes a pedestrian or other vehicle on a country road (even if there's no possibility that the driver should recognise the other person). Theology certainly has nothing to do with it. The comedian Jimeoin once made fun of this custom, suggesting that a Mexican Wave passing through an international crowd would get to the Australian section and then ... we'd lift up our fingers.

I grew up in West Virginia and we always referred to the nod and wave as speaking. Lots of people there still do.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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