Monday, May 14, 2012

Gallinippers, Gee-haw Whimmydiddles and Ziggerboos

The long-awaited fifth volume (Sl – Z) of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE for short) has finally been released by Harvard University Press.  Those of you who have been following this blog for a while might remember that I wrote about DARE and its founding editor and longtime driving force, the late Frederick Gomes Cassidy, back in March of 2011

Fred and I both presented lectures at a conference sponsored by the Indiana Historical Society way back in 1987.  At the time I wrote last year, I described the forthcoming fifth volume as the “final” volume, not knowing that a sixth volume, with yet more maps, regional indexes and all manner of good analytic stuff was also in the works. It is now almost "in press", as they say in the book biz.

The Dictionary of American Regional English has had its home at the University of Wisconsin since its very beginning. You can learn much, much more about the Dictionary of American Regional English on the project’s updated website here.  

Be sure to visit the “DARE in the News” page here to read about the release of the latest volume and also to read the reviews and related stories.  If you have even a passing interest in “English as she is spoke”, you’ll be glad you did.

But why should you care about DARE in the first place?  After all, you’re unlikely to find a single ancestor’s name in it.

Simply put, DARE can provide family researchers with a unique linguistic insight into regional language and culture, including unveiling patterns of immigration and migration that local historians and genealogists will find exceedingly valuable. 

Here are some examples.

Mrs. Blogger (who is NOT from these parts) sometimes finds things to be all “cattywumpus”, but I know that they’re really just “cockeyed”. Her relatives ate “smear cheese”, while mine ate “cottage cheese” (the city folk) or “pot cheese” (the farmer folk).  Just by knowing that she says these two things goes a long way to identifying her origins.  Likewise with me.

Much of what she says is the result of growing up around her parents, who grew up around their parents, and so on.  Same with me.  Each of us speaks a kind of regional English, peppered with words and expressions that are unique to a specific part of the United States.  And that peppering gives a unique spice and flavor to our spoken language.

Here in the Northeast, folks used to go “down cellar” and “down street.”  Business or shopping might take our grandparents “down city.” If it wasn’t too far away, they often went “down along” to the post office. They rarely went “down the line”, however – that was an Upper Midwest kinda thing.

And, of course, everybody knows that going on vacation “down East” means going to Maine, right?

Here, we have “dooryards” in the country and “stoops” in the city. Some city folks live in “flats”. Whether we sit on couches, sofas or davenports often depends on our age and social condition. And if you ask us whether the noon-ish, midday meal is "dinner" or "lunch", our answer will depend on that "urban/rural/age/social class" thingamabob.

What we actually eat is also important. Our words for foods tell a lot about where we live and where our ancestors lived. For example, it’s pretty hard to find “frankforts” outside of the Northeast and a few parts of the Upper Midwest. Most other folks call ‘em “hot dogs”, although a few call ‘em “frankfurters.”  Go far enough east in New England and you can get a frappe (no “e” sound on the end, please) or a “tonic” with your frankfort, or maybe even a “coffee milk.”  If you’re near Boston, you can finish it all off with a nice piece of “election cake” the right time of year.

Folks around here prefer “sodas” and “milk shakes” to wash down their food.  In the South, “coke” is the big thing.  Just be ready to be asked what flavor “coke” you want.  Orange?  Lemon-lime?  Root beer?

In many parts of the Midwest, farm folks made “fourteen-day pickles.”  In Maine, however, they’re called “fifteen-day pickles” and they take a little bit longer.  Maybe it’s the weather down East.

Eggs seem to have a regional history all their own.  “Dropped eggs” are popular in New England, while “egg bread” is a Southern thing. In Boston, “egg coffee” was for company.  In New York City, if you order an “egg cream”, you will get something entirely without eggs or cream.  Go figure.

If you enjoy “flannel cakes”, chances are very high that you have roots in Pennsylvania, Maryland and those parts of the Appalachians settled by Pennsylvanians or Marylanders. You also might be a bit older than most folks. The term began to die out in the 1940s and 1950s, as “pancakes” and “hot cakes” became more common.  “Funnel cakes”, once an isolated Pennsylvania delicacy, are now widely available at state fairs all over the country.

That’s simply a linguistic fact of life: as people move around the country, regional vocabularies and dialects that reflect early immigration and migration patterns are often driven out in favor of more homogenous “national” words and sounds. Still, the old words and expressions crop up in diaries, stories and oral histories that folks left behind.

Of course, it’s not just all about food.  There are those nasty flying bugs and creepy crawly things as well. 

In some parts of the South, you might well be pestered by “gallinippers” in the summer.  Depending on the area you’re in, the term could refer to any number of large flying insects, ranging from mosquitoes to dragon-flies (which, of course, are properly called “darning needles” in these here parts and “eyestitchers” in some parts of Wisconsin.)  Then, there are the southern "dog flies" and the northern "no see-ums."

Even the gadget-y, appliance-y stuff we use in our daily lives is subject to regionalisms.   For example, in the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast parts of the US, the generic term “frigidaire” (used to describe any brand of electric or gas refrigerator) stuck around a whole lot longer than it did in the Northeast or Mountain states, where the shortened “fridge” became the term of choice.

And when things went wrong with fridges, radios and TVs, they were described as being “on the fritz”, at least in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and West Coast states.  Apparently, the folks in the South Atlantic and Gulf Coast states didn’t have the same problems with malfunctioning appliances, since “on the fritz” is not widely used there. 

If you ever played with a “gee-haw whimmydiddle” when you were a kid, there’s a very good chance you grew up in the southern Appalachians.  If you had access to a copy of the second volume of DARE, you’d be able to learn what a “gee-haw whimmydiddle” actually is.  Here’s a hint: in parts of Tennessee, they call them “ziggerboos.” 

That, of course, can easily be found in the just-released Volume V of DARE.

Nuff said for now. 

Now . . .  go pester a librarian and look it all up.

1 comment:

  1. Having grown up with dropped eggs for breakfast and going down the street, I loved this article. No wonder my friends here in the Blue Ridge look at me strangely when my linguistic New England roots come out to play.