This week’s New Yorker includes a great article on forensic linguistics, in which author Jack Hitt asks whether linguists can solve crimes that stump the police. Hitt details both the origins of and current debates within the field, and in the process recounts an early case that helped to make the reputation of Roger Shuy, whom Hitt describes as being widely considered the “pioneer” of forensic linguistics:
Early in his career, the police in Illinois approached him regarding a notorious kidnapping case; they had several suspects, and they hoped his reading of the ransom notes might help narrow down the list of suspects. In each note, the kidnapper demanded money in a semiliterate rant: “No kops! Come alone!!,” followed by a terse instruction—“Put it in the green trash kan on the devil strip at the corner 18th and Carlson.” Shuy studied the letters and then asked, “Is one of your suspects an educated man born in Akron, Ohio?” The cops were stunned. There was one who matched that description perfectly, and when confronted he confessed. As Shuy subsequently explained, “kop” and “kan” most likely were intentional misspellings by someone posing as illiterate. And he knew from his research that the patch of grass between the sidewalk and the street—sometimes known as the “tree belt,” “tree lawn,” or “sidewalk buffer”—is called the “devil’s strip” only in Akron, Ohio.
Now, we at HUP were familiar with this anecdote, as it’s long been part of the lore around the Dictionary of American Regional English, which Shuy is said to have consulted in investigating the case. Shuy even offers the following endorsement of DARE: “Threat letters and ransom notes can be a rich source of forensic information. The problem is that most law enforcement officers and prosecutors are unfamiliar with linguistic variation in English speech and writing. . . . DARE often provides this valuable resource on English variation for me to use in helping the police narrow down their list of suspects.”
Here, from DARE Volume II, is the full entry for “devil’s strip,” including quotations from print media and DARE survey respondents:
devil’s strip n Also devil strip [Probably from its being a sort of no-man’s-land between public and private property; cf devil’s lane] chiefly Northeast Ohio
The strip of grass and trees between sidewalk and curb.
1957 American Speech 32.239 neOH, It [=a car] went out of control and jumped the curb, traveling partly on the road and partly on the devil strip ... [The term] is known throughout the Youngstown, Ohio, area. 1964 American Speech 39.293 neOH, The Akron term [for the strip of grass or weeds between the sidewalk and the curb] is Devil strip or Devil’s strip. There are a few, however, who think it vulgar or profane (although they recognize it), and to them it is the berm. 1966 DARE (Question N44) Informant SC2, Devil strip. [FW: She [=the Informant] never used it; heard it in Hartsville about 30 miles away. It’s supposed to keep the devil out of your house.] 1966 DARE File neOH, The “parking” or the “boulevard” is known as the “devil’s strip” from Cleveland to Youngstown. 1968 DARE Fieldworker Additional csOH, Devil strip. The strip of grass and trees between the sidewalk and the curb. 1980 Today Show Letters neOH, The area between the sidewalk and the street usually called the tree lawn is called the “devil strip” in Akron. The reason for this designation was explained to me as a child ... At some time a battle between a property owner and the city ensued over who should take care of the tree lawn area. (The homeowner’s lot stops at the sidewalk and the tree lawn area is city property.) It went to court and the judge ruling in frustration said: “If it’s not the city’s upkeep and not the owner’s upkeep then it must belong to the devil”—hence “devil strip.” 1982 Smithsonian Letters neOH, One term that was common parlance in Akron appears to be a relatively narrow usage: What do you call the narrow strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street? We grew up calling it the “devil strip’” and all our friends and neighbors used the same term.
Interestingly, the New Yorker article also points to an unlikely connection between the Dictionary of American Regional English and another HUP book, Brandon Garrett’s Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong. Hitt explains Shuy’s belief that forensic linguistics “can do for language crimes, such as bribery, blackmail, and extortion, what DNA has done for violent crimes. It could offer a counterweight to the many old-school methods, like lineups and unrecorded police interrogations, that are heavily relied upon despite serious flaws.” Robert Leonard, another of Hitt’s subjects and a colleague of Shuy’s, notes the finding that 80% of people later exonerated by DNA evidence had earlier falsely confessed, a phenomenon that Garrett’s research has been critical in exposing. In recalling many cases where confessions on paper turned out not to be confessions at all, Leonard explains that “The way humans perceive language is according to schemas, which lead to misperceptions as much as perceptions.”