Coming back from vacation is always a thud. But when I wandered into these hallowed halls last week to catch up on the mail and the gossip, the thud took a different form.

Two guys on the elevator were arguing, apparently about a friend of theirs. "How do you know he went to jail?" asked the first. "Because the PO-lice told me," replied the second.

Thud.

You won't find any PO-lice in the Bronx, brother. After three weeks on the road, all of it spent north of here, I realized I was back home in the southernish Middle Atlantic -- where UM-brellas keep you dry, where PE-cans become pies and where the fifth president will forever be James MON-roe.

Why is the first syllable accented so frequently in Southernspeak? The thud still resounding in my ears, I consulted one of the country's foremost authorities on southern dialects -- Fred Tarpley, head of the Department of Literature and Languages at East Texas State University.

"Without sounding like a Chauvinistic Southwesterner," he wrote, " . . . I maintain that these pronunciations are actually more 'American' than the dictionary version of poLICE, inSURance, etc."

Tarpley gave three reasons:

* "In the English language, which evolved from German origins, the native stress (commonly called accent) was placed on the root syllable of a word, which was almost always the first syllable. Thus, native English words such as merry, merrily, merriment never change the stress from the first syllable . . . "

* "In Latin, Greek and other languages which lent vocabulary to English, the placement of the stress . . . was governed by rather regular rules . . . Thus, in a series of words formed from the same root, such as grammar, grammatical, grammaticality, or photograph, photographer, photogravure, the stress moves from one syllable to another in accordance with the stress rules of the language from which the word was borrowed."

* Most Southernspeak favorites like "police" are borrowed from Latin and Greek. Therefore, according to Tarpley, Southernspeakers are merely transferring from native English words to borrowed Latin and Greek words the familiar habit of accenting the first syllable.

Yankees can relax, however. Tarpley's chauvinism isn't boundless.

"Mind you, I am not advocating that everyone start saying PO-lice," he writes. " . . . But I do believe that outsiders should understand historically and culturally why we pronounce these words as we do."

Mission accomplished, Fred Tarpley. Thanks for making the thud of being back a little less thuddy.

Northerner or Southerner, I'll bet you've made this mistake many times. H. R. Maguire of Bethesda offers a heartfelt correction.

"I am a New Zealander -- born, bred (and proud)," Maguire writes, "and it really does get to me to hear kiwi fruit referred to as 'kiwis.'

"Kiwis are harmless, flightless birds, and are the symbol of my country. New Zealanders affectionately call themselves 'kiwis.' . . . It is very upsetting to read a recipe saying 'Slice four kiwis, chop, dice, cut, peel, etc.' The mind boggles."

Sometimes abbreviation is the route to distortion, H.R. Your point is well taken.

And finally, on the language front:

This symbol (*) is called an asterisk. This one (&) is called an ampersand. But is there a formal name for the tic-tac-toe symbol (#)?

This question has been driving two researchers (Linda Josephson and Linda duBuclet) and one columnist (guess) nuts. Here's where our best efforts have gotten us:

The # is "just called a number sign," says Naomi Hurley of the education department at the Washington School for Secretaries.

No special name, says Cynthia Epps, a marketing rep for IBM, whose typewriters bear plenty of #'s.

# means "sharp" in music. It is unofficially called a "cross hatch" in several dictionaries. It means "pounds" if a numeral precedes it, says Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary ("5#" means five pounds). But Webster is silent on what you call # itself.

Twisting slowly in the wind is lonely. Can anyone help?