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The conversations we hear around us are often filled with words and phrases that would be out of place in formal writing. The following collection is a tiny sample of the vernacular expressions that have been used over the last four centuries in North America. I have tried to present a diverse cross section of these gems, drawing from different-size communities and various walks of life ranging from white-collar and blue-collar workers to hoboes. Throughout the gathering and editing process, my focus has been on forgotten and less commonly encountered Americanisms, although some are still used today.
Growing up, I was fortunate to live in a number of linguistically distinct parts of America Milwaukee, San Diego, New Orleans, and briefly New York and Portland, Oregon and visited other parts of America's "lower 48" and Canada as time permitted. This serendipitous introduction to North America's cultural diversity planted a seed in me that led roundabout to this book. In Louisiana, such phrases as "like a one-legged man in a behind-kickin' contest," describing a person experiencing difficulties, regularly whetted my appetite for entertaining localisms. Since my interest was piqued in the 1970s, I have enjoyed countless moments just listening to people talk.
Elizabethan English in America?
It is intriguing that more than a few current "Americanisms" originated in Shakespeare's Britain before the first European settlements were founded in America. Baggage, for example, a fifteenth-century word used by Shakespeare in As You Like It and The Winter's Tale, faded in England during the 1700s, leaving most of its duties to luggage. Meanwhile, both of these terms thrived among English transplants across the Atlantic. In fact, baggage is now found in more than two dozen combinations in America, such as baggage-car, and is even used metaphorically in the realm of pop psychology, meaning someone's undesirable habits and attitudes.
Disencourage and many other archaic Anglo terms disappeared in the land of their birth but flourished among British settlers, especially in the Ozarks and Appalachia. These older anachronisms were kept alive along with more recent Briticisms like fair and square (used by both Francis Bacon and Oliver Cromwell) and the slang coinages fib, bamboozle, and fun, which can be found in Francis Grose's 1796 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Americans were roundly ridiculed for their use of these lowbrow terms by British-language commentators who believed these were of Yankee origin. In 1908, for example, English critic Charles Whibley wrote pompously in his American Sketches:
That a country which makes a constant boast of its practical intelligence should delight in long, flat, cumbrous collections of syllables such as locate, operate, antagonize, transportation, communication, and proposition is an irony of civilization. These words, if words they may be called, are hideous to the eye, offensive to the ear, and inexpressive to the mind. They are the base coins of the language. They are put upon the street fresh from the [coin] smasher's den.
But thirteen years later, American linguist Gilbert Tucker rightly refuted these misguided accusations in his own book, American English:
Mr. Whibley['s]...objection...rests on his supposing that they are very recently invented by Americans....The fact is every one of them has been in use in England for decades, all but one of them [transportation, c. 1776] for centuries.
The use of barbarous expressions by Americans was only a part of what offended some educated ears. Reporting on one of Abraham Lincoln's state banquets at which he was a guest in 1861, American William Howard Russell was amazed at the discordant variations of English he noticed at this affair. Afterward, he wrote of hearing "a diversity of accent almost as great as if a number of foreigners had been speaking English." Without personally leaping into this divisive fray, I have included what I hope is a provocative and revealing quotation before each of the twenty-six alphabetical groupings of entries to briefly introduce some widely varying British and American attitudes toward the emerging language of the New World.
American English Comes of Age
The tide began to turn during the nineteenth century as the works of Mark Twain and his cohorts and subsequent writers softened the resistance felt by many toward America's words and patterns of speech. Walt Whitman's poetry, the plays of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, and the novels of Twain, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few, all thrust the American dialect before readers. As a partial result, Britons began adopting or in some cases reclaiming words from America, especially after "talkies" were introduced in 1927. With the language stigma rapidly disappearing, American filmmakers joined in during the late 1930s and 1940s, first introducing generalized accents for character actors, and later crafting such accent-rich films as To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962.
The advent of television provided an opportunity for such early sitcoms as Amos 'n' Andy and The Beverly Hillbillies to exploit elements of dialect speech, including quaint expressions, pronunciation, and mannerisms. Although the dialogue often evoked laughter at the expense of those they depicted and did so without representing true dialects, this paradigm shift toward lively, if exaggerated, conversation helped pave the way for more serious Hollywood fare. Soon afterward, Bonnie and Clyde and Midnight Cowboy refined these improvements, followed by The Godfather and many others. Today, some movies would sound dull or absurd if the specialized language of their scripts was overlooked.
The original gathering of a minor portion of these entries was done not as an academic pursuit, but as an extension of an individual's employment, or lack thereof. I was surprised to learn that in order to compile his American Tramp and Underworld Slang, Godfrey Irwin drew from notes he had jotted during his twenty-year stint as a vagrant. In another instance, George Matsell reformatted vocabulary he had collected from criminals (much of which had been borrowed from British thieves' cant) during his long tenure as police chief of New York City. Likewise, Hyman Goldin and two associates cobbled together the clandestine records of thirty carefully selected "convict-editors" from America's state prison system for their gritty but credible Dictionary of the American Underworld Lingo.
The definitions of Noah Webster and his competitor Joseph Worcester are largely absent from these pages because they tended to reject many informalisms in favor of more mainstream English. Most of their entries, while certainly used in normal conversation, were conservative choices that have predictably survived the test of time. Webster's limited interest in American dialect words and slang prompted him to underestimate in 1828 that fewer than fifty words used in America were not also current in England. Although vernacular terms constitute the bulk of my selections, many were also found in fiction and nonfiction writings.
The Boontling Language
Between 1880 and 1920, a community lingo developed in the Anderson Valley of California's rural Mendocino County. In and around Boonville, a patois containing more than a thousand words and phrases came into being that deserves a place among America's most curious subdialects. In the "Boontling" language, the habits, traits and appearances of local residents were preserved in a manner similar to the baseball prowess of Babe Ruth, whose name became synonymous across America with a home run in the 1920s and 1930s. Blevins, meaning an inept carpenter (from the name of a family of mediocre tradesmen), is one of several hundred Boont terms that reflects characteristics of valley citizens. Another grouping consists of roughly rehewn phrases such as bowgley, a mispronunciation of "big lie." We also find intriguing tidbits like dom-on-the-saddlehorn, an expression defined by language researcher Charles Adams as meaning "payment for sexual favors." It seems that a local romance involved a man who would carry on his horse's saddlehorn a dead chicken, or dom, as a gift to a woman who savored these fowls.
Notes on the Text
My aim has been to encourage the appreciation of colorful and often neglected expressions in part by reducing the unnecessary detail that some readers associate with books on language. To this end, I opted for a less cluttered and more readable format, with a minimum of dates, footnotes, small print, and cryptic abbreviations. These entries are presented verbatim because I feel that just as Renaissance music is more enjoyable when played on authentic instruments, old expressions often contain more subtle nuances when explained by earlier field linguists, who could then be properly credited for their valuable work.
Where multiple definitions of a term were available, I did not necessarily select the oldest but tried to present the most clear, concise, and thought-provoking descriptions and in some cases combined two or more. A small minority of entries needed to be edited lightly for clarity or in order to add brief notes regarding their origins, but their contents have remained substantially unaltered.
The times of usage I supplied for entries are not intended to be precise. The dates found in my bibliography offer only a sense of when these accumulations were first published, which was sometimes a decade or more after some of the entries were collected. Beyond this it is possible, or even likely, that a fair number of the entries in these source works had been used for decades before being recorded, and some may still be in circulation. So what might seem like an authoritative date could easily prove otherwise. But in general, these dates may serve as a reasonable chronological orientation.
Likewise, the locations mentioned for most of these expressions should suggest only a likely cradle of their gestation rather than an overall distribution. I sometimes wish that these unpredictable terms were found in more orderly geographic confines. But especially with the growth of mass media, former localisms have strayed from their places of origin, making them difficult to account for despite improvements in data compilation. Therefore the reader should consider place references as merely rough snapshots of where terms were recorded. Even so, I should add that as late as the mid-twentieth century, a few American "elocutionists" earned their livings at county fairs by listening to people speak and then guessing often with surprising accuracy where the speaker had grown up.
The Future of Amerenglish
It is seldom easy to predict whether a fledgling term will survive. In 1810, the Massachusetts Spy weighed in on an ill-fated word that meant "the art of quizzing," declaring, "Quizzism is certainly a very good-looking word, and may in time become a popular one." What can be said is that a small percentage of today's outpouring of new words will become respectable. Just as the mainstream nouns bindery, lobbyist, gunslinger, and doughnut began as questionable American coinages, and lengthy as simply a corruption of length, the modern slang expressions sitcom, micromanage, and silver bullet seem to be here to stay. But what about the New Englandism blowdown, a description of fallen limbs and leaves after a storm? Although never really popular in its heyday a century ago, blowdown perhaps sounded a bit more dignified than some others and had a four-hundred-year-old synonym in windfall, yet its use dwindled over time.
Colloquialisms, such as a favorite of mine, the now widely distributed ambiguity "I don't guess," can add homegrown charm to even the most mundane conversation. Often containing an abundance of metaphor, simile, and common sense, these distillations of practical experience are easily bandied about by those whose education has not displaced their native intelligence. Despite ongoing cultural homogenization, surprising numbers of spicy folk extractions will surely live on in every region of North America, displaying a blend of homespun wisdom and humor. I hope the expressions to follow will make those spoken around you easier to notice and more enchanting. So "make long arms!" as has often been said in the Northeast to invite dinner guests to help themselves.
Copyright © 2005 by Jeffrey Kacirk
Chapter One: A
It is easy to foresee that in no very distant period their language will become as independent of England as they themselves are; and altogether as unlike English as the Dutch or Flemish is unlike German, or the Norwegian unlike the Danish, or the Portuguese unlike Spanish.
Reverend Jonathan Boucher, English-born philologist, Virginia resident, and compiler of the Glossary of Archaic and Provincial [American] Words, writing on American English in 1777
Above the ground. [Tucker]
To depart, go away. Of local usage in parts of the West settled by Germans; probably [from] German abscheiden. [Clapin]
Any food mixture of unknown ingredients. West Virginia. [Wentworth]
acknowledge the corn
A confession of having been mistaken or outwitted....
A popular account of the origin of the phrase ascribes it to the misfortunes of a flatboatman who had come down to New Orleans with two flatboats laden, one with corn, the other with potatoes. He was tempted to enter a gambling establishment, and lost his money and his produce. On returning at night to the wharf, he found his boat with corn had sunk in the river, and when the winner came next morning to demand the stake he received the answer, "Stranger, I acknowledge the corn take it. But the potatoes you can't have." [Schele de Vere]
River-thieves; river-pirates. [Matsell]
To go across lots is to proceed by the shortest route; similarly to do anything in the most expeditious manner. The phrase had its rise in the natural tendency of settlers in thinly populated districts to shorten the distance from point to point by leaving the road and striking [out] across vacant lots. Brigham Young familiarized its idiomatic use in the notorous saying "We'll send the Gentiles to hell across lots." [Farmer]
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the skipper of the English fishing vessel arriving first in a [Newfoundland] harbor in the spring was the "Fishing Admiral" for the season. He had his choice of location of fishing room; hence our expression. [Sandilands]
After night is a local expression, peculiar to Pennsylvania and some of the border[ing] states, where night is very commonly used for the hours of the afternoon; hence, "Court will be open again after night" simply means after candlelight [becomes necessary], as it is expressed everywhere else. [Schele de Vere]
Canned goods. Today we can buy anything in cans, from pie-dough to potato strings. But the open-range cowboy rarely saw any canned foods other than corn, tomatoes, peaches, and milk. West. [R. Adams]
Cotton [for] clothing, especially underwear. Pacific Northwest. [McCulloch]
A lock, padlock, bolt, latch, or knob so arranged that a bell is caused to ring by any movement of its parts, or by any attempt to open the door...to which it is fastened. [Whitney]
[A] mixture of sailors' names and landsmen's notions has led to the cant terms by which sturgeons and herrings are apt to be known on shore. The former, coming up the Hudson River as far as Albany, and being highly esteemed there, especially when roasted in the form of steaks, are popularly known as Albany beef; the herring, caught in abundance near Taunton in the state of Massachusetts, is called there a Taunton turkey, half in derision and half, no doubt, for the sake of the alliteration. [Schele de Vere] New York turkey, bacon....Arkansas chicken, salt pork. Northwest Arkansas. [Carr]
Presumably a corruption of German alles richtig. Used in common schools of Cincinnati as equivalent for the English all right. "How did you get through examination? Allerickstix." [Hart]
all horns and rattles
Said of one displaying a fit of temper. A man in this mood, as one cowboy said, "maybe don't say nothin', but it ain't safe to ask questions." West. [R. Adams]
Nervous jimjams, creeps, fidgets. "I don't like such stories. They give me the all-overs." Eastern Alabama. [Payne]
The drippings of glasses in saloons, collected and sold at half-price to drinkers who are not overly particular. [Clapin] "A counter perforated in elaborately-pricked patterns, like a convivial shroud, apparently for ornament, but ready for the purpose of allowing the drainings, overflowings, and outspillings of the...glasses to drop through which, being collected with sundry washings, and a dash, perhaps, of fresh material is, by the thrifty landlord, dispensed to his customers under the title of all sorts." [Sala]
"It's all turkey," a quaint saying indicating that it's all equally good. It is said that an old gentleman who was asked at a Thanksgiving dinner if he preferred white meat or dark replied, "I don't care which it's all turkey." [Barrère]
Tobacco juice; the spittle produced by chewing tobacco. Virginia. [Green] Ambia [is] used in the South and West for tobacco juice. It is a euphemism for the spittle produced by this voluntary ptyalism. More commonly spelled and pronounced ambeer, probably from amber, denoting its color. [Bartlett]
Seats near the pulpit in church. Southeastern Missouri. [Crumb] That part of a meeting-house occupied by persons who assist the preacher with occasional and irregular responses. [Thornton]
An ingenious instrument of American invention by means of which it is possible to turn a key in a door and unlock it from the outside. [Farmer]
among the willows
Said of one dodging the law. West. [R. Adams] Keep close to the willows, to be conventional, conservative, modest. Nude boys, swimming in willow-bordered creeks, keep close to the trees to avoid being seen. Ozarks. [Randolph & Wilson]
A Nova Scotian. [Scargill] From the species of potato which [Nova Scotians] produce and claim to be the best in the world. [Johnson] White nose, a man spending his first winter in Newfoundland. [England]
An ant-hill. Eastern Alabama. [Payne]
anxious mourner, anxious bench
Persons who are peculiarly excited to a consciousness of their sinfulness and the necessity of seeking salvation are called anxious mourners, and are led to the anxious bench. [Schele de Vere] Mourner's bench, a seat for "mourners" near the pulpit. Southern Indiana. [Hanley]
Willingness or obligingness. Nebraska. [Pound]
Plain drunk, caused by too much [apple-]jack. Burlington County, New Jersey. [Lee]
Arkansas wedding cake
Corn bread. Pacific Northwest. [McCulloch]
A compromise form between Arkansawyer and Arkansan. Arkansawyer, both as a noun and as an adjective, is universal among the uneducated and occurs even among the educated. The adjective and the noun Arkansan are in disrepute among the uneducated and others because the word suggests Kansan. Kansas and Kansans are very unpopular in Arkansas. [Carr]
The length of reach or swing of the arm. [Lyons]
A hand scythe; similarly of other hand-operated tools. [Weseen]
A waitress skilled at piling dishes on her arm. "Experienced arm waitress wanted." Seattle Times want-ad. [Garrett]
astern the lighter
Tardy, lagging behind; a lighter being a slow-moving craft used for transferring cargo. To be astern the lighter is to be rather a laggard, and the term is used in a contemptuous sense, as "Oh, he's always astern the lighter." Nantucket. [Macy]
Unemployed. An actor without a job is at liberty. Theater slang. [Weseen]
Up to one's full strength or ability. "I can easily pick 300 pounds of cotton when I am at myself." Eastern Alabama. [Payne]
To assume affected attitudes, airs, or postures. [Worcester]
Not genuine; made to imitate. At the town of Attleborough [Massachusetts] jewelry is manufactured from the baser metals, or so alloyed as to deceive those who are not good judges of the genuine article. [Matsell]
An emptying of an automobile by tilting or overturning. Kansas. [Ruppenthal]
The art of felling trees. [Thornton]
To back out. "We made a fair trade but he azzled out of it." Southeastern Missouri. [Crumb]
Copyright © 2005 by Jeffrey Kacirk