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iStock // Lucy Quintanilla
iStock // Lucy Quintanilla

12 Regional Idioms for ‘Highway Median Strip’

iStock // Lucy Quintanilla
iStock // Lucy Quintanilla

Chances are you call that divider separating opposing lanes of traffic a median or median strip—unless, that is, you live in Louisiana, Mississippi, or the Pacific and Rocky Mountain states. So what would those residents and others call it instead? We worked with the editors at the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) to find out.

1. NEUTRAL GROUND

In Louisiana and southern Mississippi, a highway median strip is like Switzerland: neutral ground. In parade-loving New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana, according to DARE, the neutral ground is actually wider than a traditional median strip, providing “a good wide place free from traffic for people—sort of like mini parks.” Neutral ground also refers to a tree lawn, that grassy area between the sidewalk and road.

2. NEUTRAL STRIP

Mosey on over to Tennessee and neutral ground becomes neutral strip. Again, this term could also refer to a tree lawn.

3. CAUTION STRIP

Not to be confused with caution tape, caution strip is used in some parts of Mississippi.

4. DIVIDANCE

You won't find this North Carolina term in many traditional dictionaries. We're guessing dividance might either be a blend of divide and avoidance, or simply divide with the -ance suffix tacked on.

5. ESPLANADE

While the traditional definition of esplanade is a walkable promenade along a shoreline, in Texas it’s that divider between opposite flows of traffic. The word is originally French, but in Texas, it's probably influenced by the Spanish explanada, “lawn.”

6. BOULEVARD

In the western Great Lakes region and Gulf States, a median strip is called a boulevard. The word boulevard comes from the Old French bollevart, “rampart converted to a promenade,” which comes from the Middle Dutch bolwerc, “bulwark.”

7. MALL

Go to upstate New York and you’ll find out a mall isn't just about shopping. It’s that separating area in the middle of a multilane road. The word mall originated in 1727 to mean a shaded promenade. It came from The Mall, a specific promenade in London so called because it was once an open alley where the croquet-like game, pall-mall, was played. Pall-mall is an alteration of the Italian pallamaglio, “ball mallet.”

8. MIDWAY

In Connecticut, the median of a highway would be the midway.

9. AND 10. PARK AND PARKWAY

Park or center park might be used in Georgia and New York, while parkway has scattered usage, including parts of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Texas. “Don’t Drive on Parkway,” one road sign in south Florida warns, despite that old chestnut about driving on the parkway and parking on the driveway.

11. GREEN

In New York, a median strip might be a mall, park, center park or a green or green strip. The name was also found in Maryland, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Ohio, and California.

12. BERM

In addition to highway median in California and Indiana, the word berm has multiple meanings. According to DARE, it could refer to the bank of a canal opposite the towpath; a long mound or bank; a bank of snow or dirt, usually at a roadside; a bank of debris; the shoulder of the road in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and West Virginia; or a tree lawn in the Great Lakes region. The word is French in origin, says the Oxford English Dictionary, and in modern Dutch refers to a space or ledge.

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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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Big Questions
What’s the Difference Between a Gift and a Present?
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It’s that time again when we’re busy buying, wrapping, and giving them. Sometimes we call them gifts, sometimes presents. Is there a difference?

The words come to us from different language families. Gift comes from the old Germanic root for “to give.” It referred to an act of giving, and then, to the thing being given. In Old English it meant the dowry given to a bride’s parents. Present comes from the French for "to present." A present is the thing presented or bestowed. They were both in use for the idea of something undergoing a transfer of possession without expectation of payment from the 13th century onward.

The words gift and present are well-matched synonyms that mean essentially the same thing, but even well-matched synonyms have their own connotations and distinctive patterns of use. Gift applies to a wider range of situations. Gifts can be talents. You can have the gift of gab, or a musical gift. Gifts can be intangibles. There is the gift of understanding or the gift of a quiet day. We generally don’t use present for things like this. Presents are more concrete. A bit more, well, present. If your whole family gave donations to your college fund for your birthday would you say “I got a lot of presents”? It doesn’t exactly sound wrong, but since you never hold these donations in your hand, gifts seems to fit better.

Gift can also be an attributive noun, acting like an adjective to modify another noun. What do you call the type of shop where you can buy presents for people? A gift shop. What do you call the basket of presents that you can have sent to all your employees? A gift basket. Present doesn’t work well in this role of describing other nouns. We have gift boxes, gift cards, and gift wrap, not present boxes, present cards, and present wrap.

Gift appears to be more frequent than present, though it is difficult to get accurate counts, because if you compare occurrences of the noun present with the noun gift, you include that other noun present, meaning the here and now. However, the plural noun presents captures only the word we want. Gifts outnumbers presents in the Corpus of Contemporary American English by four to one.

Still, according to my personal sense of the words, present—though it may not be as common—is more casual sounding than gift. I expect a child to ask Santa for lots and lots of presents, not many, many gifts. But whether it’s gifts or presents you prefer, I wish you many and lots this year, of both the tangible and intangible kind.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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