I have lived in Michigan for 17 years. And during that time, I have had numerous occasions to converse with other residents of this state, both native born and transplants. Those in the latter category, for the most part, moved here from other sections of the Midwest.
And besides those occasions when I have spoken to others, I also regularly read the newspaper in which this column appears, along with all sorts of other locally produced documents purportedly written in the same language I read and speak.
But in spite of my exposure to that voluminous record of English as it is spoken and written hereabouts, with hereabouts including more broadly the Midwest, I have not once encountered the word “ope.”
That is until a few Sundays ago, when it appeared in large type in an impressive front page headline of this paper’s Sunday edition.
Now, to be sure, I recall a poetic, literary version of the word, as a one-syllable version of the usual verb “open.” It is likely, although I confess I have not closely studied the question, that this truncated version of the word, reducing it from two syllables to one, resulted from a poet writing in what is known in the trade as “meter.”
Poetic meter, of which there are a number of varieties, is a pattern of accented and unaccented syllables that creates rhythm. That is how English poetry was written for centuries until Walt Whitman, most prominently among other like-minded poets, abandoned these patterns to compose poetic lines in what came to be known as free verse or, in French, vers libre, an innovation Robert Frost called playing tennis without the net.
Song writers, too, of course write lyrics that fit the rhythm of the music. I remember hearing Paul Simon, a die-hard New York Yankees fan, explaining to Mickey Mantle why the centerfielder in Simon’s “Mrs. Robinson” was DiMaggio and not Mantle. Simon said, “Syllables, Mick, syllables.”
Which is why a metrical poet such as Shakespeare would chop off the final syllable of “open,” as in this line from “Hamlet”: “To his good friends thus wide I’ll ope my arms.” Add the “n,” and you’ll hear that the rhythm falters.
Whether for meter or some other reason, the three letters forming “ope” occur in literary works. But the story in the paper insists that in the Midwest, those same three letters are expressed regularly, although nobody is quite sure what the word so formed actually means. Apparently, the most common suggestion is that it is used instead of “oops.”
The experts quoted in the newspaper story state that the precise meaning of “ope” depends upon context. But context always shapes and refines meaning. It does precisely the same thing if “oops” is substituted for “ope” in the examples the experts provide.
Be that as it may, I take issue with the article’s insistence that the word, wherever it came from, whatever it means, is a commonplace feature of our language, particularly in the Midwest. Furthermore, the article’s experts assert that the word’s usage is not confined to the Midwest.
How, then, did I never know of its existence outside of the literary version with which I was acquainted? Did my brain filter it out? In all my conversations, and all my reading, and all my other exposures to English, to which due to my professional interest in our language I am always sensitive, did I somehow miss noticing it? Did I live in some linguistic bubble in which the word was not welcome?
Perhaps I just did not ope my ears to it.