I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn't think anything of what he had done to the city's name. Later I heard men who could manage their r's give it the same pronunciation. I still didn't see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves' word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.Here's the gripe: Someone who called his shirt a shoit would not pronounce the first part of Personville poison, and that undercuts Hammett's whole point. Rather he would say poi-suhn, with an s sound rather than a z.
Unless Hammett referred to a regional pronunciation unknown to me, in which the pronunciations of s and z are much closer than in the English I know, he can’t have it both ways. The Personville/Poisonville pun works, or else the shirt/shoit dialect pronunciation joke works, but they can’t both work. Contrary to what he has the Continental Op tell us in that opening paragraph, the pun does not hinge on pronunciation of the r's, but rather of s and z.
This is not a trivial point; an opening, especially one as celebrated as this, ought to pull the reader right, and not distract him with minor inaccuracies. Comment from Hammett lovers and sociolinguists welcome.
Oh, geez, could the town's name be pronounced Per-zuhn-ville, in which case the jocose mispronunciation would make sense?
© Peter Rozovsky 2010