The last Sunday night I spent in Pittsburgh this Christmas found me at the McDonald’s where my cousin once worked, flaunting to Mother Nature that even though she insisted upon setting her thermostat at a level that could charitably be described as frigid, I would have no problem drinking a frozen caramel frappe. My parents had coupons, expiring that night, that granted us two frappes and two mochas for the price of one frappe and one mocha and the ten minutes it took for the guy behind the counter to understand what we wanted and how to make it.
There we were, the seven of us — if one accepts the argument that their long development makes the drinks full characters in this story — when an eighth character appeared to offer us his newspaper as he left. We readily accepted, looking for any excuse to linger away from the cold of the outdoors (and our house, where we save money by relying primarily on warm feelings and layers of sweaters to prevent hypothermia)
Finding two crosswords in the paper, we divided them; I taking one, and my parents sharing the other. We switched off on occasion, with each switch bringing another admonishment from my dad for me and my mother’s habit of neglecting to cross out clues as we fill them in. I tried to explain our negligence as a result of our finely-tuned crosswording minds: having only pens, we hesitated to commit to a word until we confirmed that another connecting word or two fit the first. As a result, we tended to have word cascades, where several clues came together at once, and it was difficult to find all of them to mark off. I even coined a phrase for it: “The spirit catches you, and you fill in.” (My conscience is forcing me to reveal that I coined this phrase only now, making it significantly less clever than it would have been had I coined it at the time.)
After one of the exchanges, I noticed that I now had enough letters to figure out a seven-letter word that would spring me from the prison of the upper-left corner. “Ersatz frisbees”, read the clue, and I had P I E _ _ _ _. Pie tins, of course. I filled it in, only to find a few minutes later that something was wrong. For a “quick trip”, I was getting jiunt, instead of the obviously correct jaunt. But that would mean that ersatz frisbess were pie tans, and that was clearly impossible. Then I realized that “don’t take no for an answer” also made more sense as press than tress, I realized that the crossword constructor was calling them pie pans, a phrase I’d never seemed to have heard in my life.
So I, in an allusion to my younger years in Pittsburgh, whined to my parents. “Pie pans?”, I asked incredulously, “What a huckster, trying to make this crossword more difficult by intentionally using the wrong word. It’s pie tins, right?” And my parents, no longer at an age where they had to pretend that their son was always right, said, “Maybe that’s how they say it where they’re from.”
I felt like Medusa gazing into a mirror, or whoever it was who was hoist by his own petard. I was gobsmacked. I exist on the Internet as a set of words lambasting others for doing what I just did — calling someone a lunkhead for having done nothing more than using the form most common in their dialect. I stewed for a second, and then muttered something about how this was totally different, because in a crossword you ought to stick to the more standard form, and everyone calls it a pie tin. My parents were too busy arguing over whether 99-Down really needed to have been crossed out to notice.
I had put this ugly episode out of my mind until this morning, when I found myself idly thinking about baked goods and suddenly the matter popped right back up. I was gentler now, as we had answered every last clue in both of the crosswords, and so I could afford magnanimy toward the crosswords’ designers. I now regarded pie pans as a delightful little trick, tripping me up momentarily with its uncommon usage. So I figured I’d assess how devilish a trick it was by seeing how much rarer pie pans is than pie tins:
The lesson: each of us is fluent not in English, but in an idiolect of English. When you encounter someone who deviates from the form of English you use, don’t be too quick to assume that it’s them, and not you, who deviate from Standard English. And never start complaining about it until you’ve checked the facts. I’m just offering this story as a reminder that even if you, like me, haughtily think that you never fall into this fallacy, you probably still do.