Wicked Good Words

From Johnnycakes to Jug Handles, a Roundup of America's Regionalisms

Mim Harrison - Author

Paperback | $12.95 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9780399536762 | 208 pages | 02 Aug 2011 | Perigee | 8.26 x 5.23in | 18 - AND UP
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How to sound like you're from here, no matter where you are in America

"Simultaneously full of witty asides and linguistic erudition, Wicked Good Words is one of those rare books that you will read too fast and will find yourself wishing you could read for the first time all over again."
-Ammon Shea, author of Reading the OED

"As someone who grew up in the land of wicked pissa Sox games, what a delight it was to read about alligator pears, sundogs, piggling, sad cakes, doodinkus, jacklegs, and so many other American regionalisms."
-David Wolman, author of Righting the Mother Tongue

Wicked Good Words is a collection of words and phrases from places across the United States. Organized by region and peppered with engaging sidebars, it's a uniquely American road trip. You'll discover:

* In Ohio, that titillating talk about a four-way is all about a type of chili.
* When you rush the growler in Appalachia, you're filling your lunch pail with beer.
* A frog strangler in the South will send you running for cover: it's a heavy rain.
* In Louisiana and Texas, someone caught pirooting is nosing around.
* In the Northwest, something that's spendy is too expensive.
* A skeeter hawk, darning needle, snake feeder, spindle, ear sewer, needle, snake doctor, and stinger all refer to the same thing: a mosquito, depending on where you get attacked.

Wicked Pissa

New England

The European ancestors of these folks got here before almost everybody else, so they’re allowed to talk funny. New Englanders’ roots in England run deep, even though settlers from lots of other countries later joined them (think of the Irish who came to Boston). And try as they might, they’ve never totally lost that Puritan ethic. This is still the place where you’ll find drawer space reserved for pieces of string too small to save.

American chop suey. Ground beef and macaroni in a tomato sauce. Go to many a casual restaurant in New England, including River’s Edge Café in downtown Wakefield, Rhode Island, and you’ll find this delightful contradiction of terms. What could possibly be American about a dish whose name is more closely associated with bean sprouts and water chestnuts? Traditional chop suey is a mix of Chinese veggies and chicken or pork, but you won’t find a dish called chop suey in China, either. The term may date back to the early 1880s, when American ears first misheard the Cantonese word tsapsui, meaning a mixture. So why not make an America version of this Americanized term, using burger and pasta? As one Rhode Islander put it, American chop suey is Hamburger Helper before there was such a thing.

banker. Not the shirt-and-tie variety, but a commercial fisherman who fishes the Grand Banks off of Newfoundland. Sometimes, though not always, after one of these trips he smiles all the way to the bank.

the Big Ditch. Anglers know it well and don’t worry, you can’t just fall into it. The Big Ditch is the Cape Cod Canal, the manmade waterway that separates the Cape from the mainland of Massachusetts. It makes the Cape, in effect, an island, although nobody ever says so. The Big Ditch was dug twice—first by a private financier in 1914, when it was more like the Little Ditch, then again in the 1930s by the U.S. government. Fishermen most likely gave it its name. Up the road apiece in Boston, they recently undertook a similar large-scale project, this time on land. It was known officially as the Central Artery Tunnel Project. The locals just call it the Big Dig.

cleanser. Not the kind that cleans your face but the kind that cleans your clothes. This version of “dry cleaner,” first recorded in 1958, is seen in written form more than it is heard and spoken. Where there’s TONIC, there’s cleanser: look for the term primarily in the Boston area.

cold roast Boston. If it sounds like a leftover Sunday roast that’s served cold the next day by staunchly conservative Bostonians, it is—sort of. It’s the name that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s brother-in-law, Thomas Gold Appleton (1812-1884), conferred on a particular breed of Bostonian also known as the Boston Brahmin. These are the elite WASPS of the city and descendants of its founders. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., himself a Brahmin, coined “Boston Brahmin” in an 1860 article in the Atlantic Monthly. (He also later eulogized Appleton in the magazine.) The memorable poem by someone nobody remembers (not a Brahmin) captures the essence of the cold roast Boston:

“And this is good old Boston

The home of the bean and the cod,

Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots,

And the Cabots talk only to God.”

“She’s cold roast Boston” is the kind of thing you’d say in confidence—and only to someone who wasn’t.

common. Elsewhere it may be known as a park or a square, but in Boston in particular, it’s a common. Thus Boston Common is the large public park that’s a centerpiece of the city. And no, it’s not “commons,” even though that may sound more natural (to non-Bostonians). The term goes back to the beginnings of Boston and New England. A common is a public space available to all, both man and beast—cows grazed here till 1830. The word was being used in similar ways in England as far back as Chaucer in the 1300s. People did hang in Boston Common way back when, but not quite the way they do now. The Common is where public hangings took place until 1817.

cracky benders. Making a game out of running and sliding on ice that’s thin enough that it just might crack. This is an old sport in Connecticut; the rest of us first heard about it in 1943. In Pennsylvania, the same kind of ice is sometimes called kittly-bender.

they crawling good? The proper way to ask a Maine lobsterman if he’s catching any lobster—because his catch crawls on the ocean floor.

down the Cape. Heading toward Provincetown, the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It sounds straightforward enough till you check the map. About midway down the Cape, where the “elbow” bends, the land takes a northerly turn: it points up. A Bostonian explained with a perfectly straight face why you are nevertheless still going down the Cape even if you are traveling north: anytime you’re going farther away from Boston, you’re going down. If that’s a hard one to swallow, try the anatomy lesson explanation. Back to that Cape “elbow”: the land mass before the elbow is equivalent to your upper arm and shoulder. The land mass after the elbow is like your lower arm and fist. So if you’re traversing the lower part of your arm, you’re going down. Thoreau got into the whole arm-and-elbow thing when he traveled down the Cape in the 1850s:

“Cape Cod is the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts: the shoulder is at Buzzard’s Bay; the elbow, or crazy-bone, at Cape Mallebarre; the wrist at Truro; and the sandy fist at Provincetown.”

Down-East’er. One who’s a native of up-yonder Maine. What’s up with the “down” for this northern state—a case of a compass gone awry? No, just those Bostonians again and their geography. Down-East’er is old nautical terminology, from when heading east usually indicated sailing downwind. Lots of those who settled Down East on the coast of Maine were sailors, and most of Maine’s coast faces south. When the old ships of sail headed out of the Hub (aka Boston), the winds took them east—but downward, along the coast of Maine.

dropped egg. A poached egg—because you drop it in water in order to poach it. But don’t try ordering this unless you’re in New England, or you might have egg on more than your face. You can find instructions on how to make a dropped egg in the classic New England collection of recipes called The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, first published in 1896. You may know it by its other name: the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Here’s Ms. Farmer’s 1918 recipe for the proper way to drop eggs:

“Have ready a frying-pan two-thirds full of boiling salted water, allowing one-half tablespoon salt to one quart of water. Put two or three buttered muffin rings in the water. Break each egg separately into a saucer, and carefully slip into a muffin ring. The water should cover the eggs. When there is a film over the top, and the white is firm, carefully remove with a buttered skimmer to circular pieces of buttered toast….”

fence viewer. The local official who regulates fences. Doesn’t every town have one? Actually, the job has pretty much gone the way of the buggy whip, but back in the day when fences were an important way of defining property, the fence viewer was a busy fellow. He was primarily in New England, although the term has been recorded as early as 1657 in Long Island. Nowadays the expression is little used but deserves a revival, as it’s the ideal metaphor to describe the person who doesn’t do much but still has a title. Nice work if you can get it.

frog run of the sap. The last batch of maple syrup you’re apt to get for the season. Maple sap is collected for syrup in the very early spring, before the frogs appear. A comparable expression is bud run of the sap, meaning the trees are in bloom so spring is in full swing—and no more sap will be flowing. Frogs figure prominently in Southern-speak (see FINE AS FROG’S HAIR and FROG STRANGLER), but this particular frog is a Vermonter. The term was first recorded in 1947 but probably used long before then. “This bucket has the frog run of the sap,” you might hear the Vermonter say, “so enjoy the last of the syrup till next year.”

fub around. Waste time, futz, fritter away the day. You hear it mainly in Maine, where historically the traditionally industrious Yankees don’t do much fubbing. But somebody must have been doing just that back in 1902, because that’s when the term was recorded. Along with wasting time, “fub” also suggests a lack of activity, as in the newer term futz, which might be connected to the German furzen: to fart. Those who futz and fub can also be said to fart around.

gaumy. Clumsy when you’re in northern New England, most notably in Maine. It works as both an adjective (“he’s WICKED gaumy with those big feet”) and a noun (“he’s some gaumy the way he trips over his own toes”). Gaumy hails from gom, a noun the Irish were familiar with back at least as far as the 1830s. The word started out as the Irish gamal, meaning a simpleton—a poor awkward clod of a fellow.

get your bait back. Break even. If you’re a commercial fisherman, one way to break even is to pay for your bait.

gurrybutt. Next time you serve clams or mussels or lobster and put an empty bowl on the table to collect the empty shells, impress your guests by suggesting they put their discards in the gurrybutt. Gurry is an old whaling term for fish offal. Even Rudyard Kipling knew the word, which appears in Captains Courageous, his 1897 novel about the Grand Banks. He did part of his research for the book in the Massachusetts fishing village of Gloucester.

hit the felt. Hit the hay, in Maine paper-mill parlance—in other words, go to bed. Paper-making machines have a heavy felt blanket that contains the wet pulp. When it wears out its usefulness on the machine, it can be trimmed into blankets for bed.

ice-cream shot. An easy shot (and nothing like a Jell-O shot). The expression dates back to the days when ice cream was brought to Maine hunting camps in big tubs, and the salt and ice it was packed in was dumped in a designated spot. The salt attracted the deer, so shooting one while it licked the salt was a no-brainer: an ice-cream shot.

just ’cause your cat has kittens in the oven don’t make ’em biscuits. Just because you’ve lived in Maine since you were an hour old, that doesn’t make you a native. (Read the “don’t” in the expression as “doesn’t.”) Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but not by much. No matter that those first European settlers were themselves arrivistes—unless you’re born in New England, you’ll never be a full-fledged New Englander. (You can move there and live there for years and still be considered a transient.) Even if your kids are born there but you weren’t, there’s some question as to whether “native” really applies to them.

killhag. A trap for catching various animals. You’re likely to hear the word in Maine and New Hampshire, and it’s an oldie—since 1784. Its origin is even older than that, as the word is rooted in the Algonquian for “catch.”

like pigs on ice. Very slippery. Pigs don’t walk on ice—they slither and skate on

like salts through a goose. Anything that happens like this happens extremely quickly. Geese are not known for being constipated. Compound that with medicinal salts that act as a purgative, and you have one quick trip. “My paycheck disappeared so fast, it was like salts through a goose.”

the luck of Hiram Smith. Luckless in the extreme. Exceedingly unlucky Hiram was the only soldier to die in the Aroostook War of 1836–39, the tussle between the U.S. and England over Maine’s northern border. The irony is that nary a shot was fired in this war, but Hiram managed to die anyway—because of either an illness or a freak accident. “First his car was stolen, then his bike, then his shoes. He has the luck of Hiram Smith.”

mackerel sky. A cloud-streaked sky in New England. You’re most likely to hear the phrase among the old salts (longtime sailors). The expression harks back to the mid- to late-seventeenth century, and it’s really no surprise that people who lived with the sea used a fishing metaphor. The markings on the Atlantic mackerel resemble streaks of clouds, at least to a fisherman’s eye. Two days wet and one day dry goes the rhyme about the mackerel sky; when you see such a sky, expect it to rain.

minge. A gnat, or what’s often called a midge. The word has been flying around since 1895; the gnats/minges/midges/no-see-ums have been flying around Maine and New Hampshire a lot longer than that.

mooncusser. We could say “one who cusses at the moon” and leave it at that, or we could spin the old New England yarn about the scavengers of shipwrecks (who no doubt caused some of them) who cursed the moon. These wreckers would shine lantern lights from the shore at night, to try to confuse the ships and lure them in. But if the moon was up, exposing the shore—and the men on it—so was their jig. A mooncusser, then, was a scavenger caught in the act. This was an old term even when it appeared in the Old Farmer’s Almanac for 1813, and doesn’t get much use anymore. But it’s a good tale to tell the next time you’re out at night and the moon shines bright.

New York system. A hot dog served only in Rhode Island. Actually, don’t even call it a hot dog: this one’s a weiner. The name “New York system” was adopted by the Greek restaurateurs of the early 1900s who left the environs of the Big Apple and moved to Little Rhody. They figured the moniker would give their weiners more credibility. Something worked, because these wieners-with-the-works are an institution in many parts of the state. You start with a small weiner in a bun, add mustard, meat sauce with secret ingredients, and then onions. Here’s the clincher: the authentic way for the chefs to add the condiments is to line up a small battalion of the wieners—on their arms.

Nor’easter. A three-day blow, or storm, that sometimes hangs around for five. “Northeaster” was recorded as early as 1774. But even the literary Atlantic Monthly had dropped the “th” by 1865—perhaps because the magazine’s founders were New Englanders who’d grown up getting drenched by these wet, chill winds.

numb as a hake. Dumb as a doorknob, in Maine-New Hampshire speak. In other words, quite slow and bordering on stupid. You can also say just “numb as hake,” the syllabic equivalent of “dumb as s___.” But “numb” is a somewhat softer insult than “dumb.” Hake is a kind of cod, and seems to be getting a bad rap here, as it’s no number or dumber than other fish. Perhaps it was just in the wrong New England waters at the wrong time. Interestingly, in the 1880s, “numb” was a noun rather than an adjective. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “a cold which numbs fish.” And since at least the 1800s, “numb” has suggested ineptitude. Think of “numbheaded” (1850s), “numbskull” (1940s), “numb nuts” (1960s). Local sighting: the signs advertising an insurance company called Unum have been known to have “as a hake” mysteriously appended to them.

oakum, as in “I put the oakum on him.” It means you shut him up but good. Oakum is a tarred hemp mixture used to shut up, or seal, the seams in boats.

off-islander. A thinly veiled code for one who is an outsider to Nantucket. This Nantucketism was first heard in the 1880s, probably by one who was such a person. Unless you’re a native, you’re an off-islander even when you’re on this island. In Nantucket; a history (1914), the author gives two examples of “off-islander”:

“A Nantucket schoolboy being asked to mention the situation of Alaska, located it as being ‘in the northwest corner of off-island.’…Another began a composition thus: ‘Napoleon was a great man; he was a great soldier and a great statesman—but he was an off-islander!”

Old Ironsides. The affectionate nickname of the U.S.S. Constitution, a three-masted frigate and the country’s oldest warship still afloat. She’s moored in the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, still basking in the glory of her heroics in the War of 1812, when she shrugged off repeated assaults by the British. One of the sailors declared her sides to be made of iron. (She’s a wooden ship.) Oliver Wendell Holmes’s 1830 poem “Old Ironsides” saved the Constitution from the scrap heap, an early example of historic preservation.

package store. Where New Englanders buy their booze, even though much of the rest of the country goes to a liquor store. The term is a relic of post-Prohibition days, when stalwart souls still didn’t care to associate with the likes of boozy-sounding words. “Package” most likely suggests the (usually plain) paper bag you get at checkout. So when New Englanders make a packie run, they’re going to the liquor store.

potato bargain. A stew of onion, pork, and potatoes, the recipe for which you can get in the 1939 Yankee Cook Book. These ingredients add up to a cheap meal in New England, so it’s a bargain.

rawny. Raw-boned, in the sense of big-boned. Think of brawny and you’re just about there. It’s a word that’s been around since at least the 1860s.

red flannel hash. Corned-beef hash with beets, which make it red. The red-hash supper first appeared in print in 1907 but was no doubt on the plates of waste-not New Englanders well before that. A 1939 cookbook pegged it as the encore performance of the New England boiled dinner, a way to use up the leftover meat and vegetables, spruced up with the beets. That’s in keeping with the New England credo of “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.

scrod. The short definition is: fish. Depending on where you look up the word, you’ll get two longer definitions that are very different:

Urban Dictionary: “The past passive pluperfect of ‘to screw’.”

Merriam-Webster Online: “Past participle of scraw”—meaning to split and dry young fish.

Let’s put it this way: some people who order scrod at a restaurant or fish market might feel they’ve gotten screwed. Scrod is like the fishy version of mystery meat. It could be cod, perhaps it’s haddock, possibly pollock, and most likely whatever was the cheapest catch of that day. People have been getting scrod since the 1800s. When you see scrod on a menu, it’s advisable to ask what it is. Just be careful how you ask. And it’s best not to say, “I feel like getting scrod tonight.”

See a sea glin, catch a wet skin.” A red-sky/weather kind of rhyme. Glin is for glint, the light on the horizon in cold weather that signals bad weather is on the way—much the way a red sky in the morning is the sailor’s warning that unsettled weather is ahead.

spa. The drugstore, but only in Boston and environs. More precisely, the SODA FOUNTAIN, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. The spa was the place where one went to partake of carbonated drinks, which were inspired by the mineral water from springs like those in Spa, Belgium. Today there are few such places left, but one that hangs on in Boston is Hillside Spa Cardoza Brothers.

Swamp Yankee. Legend has it that during the American Revolution, a group of Connecticut residents fled to the swamps in order to avoid an attack by the British. But the term has gone far beyond the legend to mean descendants of those early settlers who are known for being stoic, stubborn, frugal, and hardworking, unwilling to suffer fools or most politicians, and fiercely independent. Connecticut is the number-one place for Swamp Yankees, with parts of Rhode Island—notably South County—coming in second. Is the term an insult or a compliment? That depends. Let’s just say that if you’re not a Swamp Yankee, it’s probably best not to use the term.

two lamps lit and no ship out. Extravagant and therefore wasteful. If there’s no ship coming to shore, no need to waste whatever fuel is lighting those lamps.

wicked. Before wicked was the name of a Broadway musical, it was a way for many New Englanders to mangle the adverb “wickedly” by dropping the last syllable and making it a synonym for very. Some thought can be wicked good, someone can be wicked funny, something can be a wicked pissa (cool). The Cape Codder newspaper even has a section called To grammarians’ ears this all sounds wicked awful, but colloquialisms seldom consult grammarians. Wicked, as in the evil witch kind, harks back to the Old English wicca, or sorcerer. And who were among the oldest English to settle America? The Puritans of New England, of course, who were so concerned by wicked ways (consider Hester Prynne and the Scarlet Letter) that their descendants engaged in the shameful Salem witch trials. So it’s only fitting that wicked should be part of the New England lexicon. (If nothing else, it makes for good folk etymology.) Even L. L. Bean has gotten into the act, with its Wicked Good Moccasins. That most un-Puritanical of writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, gets a scarlet-lettered A for effort in trying to sound wicked good. In This Side of Paradise, one of his characters announces that “Phoebe and I are going to shake a wicked calf.” Fitzgerald was, however, missing the customary second modifier—a wicked pretty calf, or a wicked sexy calf, perhaps. Blame it on his editor.

Native sum

The first book to be published in America was The Bay Psalm Book, in 1640. It was printed in English. The first bible in America was published in 1661. It was printed in Algonquian. A Puritan pastor named John Eliot translated the bible from English to this indigenous tongue. Granted, the point of the printing was to win converts among the Native Americans; nevertheless, the New Americans were already demonstrating that they had an ear for their surroundings.

While the country’s new arrivals didn’t immediately adopt a slew of Native American terms, they did borrow a number of them. In some ways no words are more regional than these. They defined America’s surroundings in ways no other words could, and described things never seen before America.

  • That four-legged creature with the black-rimmed eyes was a raughroughouns, or aracouns, soon to be shortened even further to the more pronounceable raccoon.
  • The creature that literally raised a stink when cornered was a segankn, or skunk.
  • That good-tasting gourd (once you figured out how to cook it) was isquontersquash—or squash, for short.

Pecan, persimmon, chipmunk, moose, barbecue, hominy, toboggan, kayak, mugwump—all of these have roots in the indigenous languages of the Americas. As settlers ventured ever farther west in the 1800s, they became ever more attuned to the local languages: in their journals, Lewis and Clark recorded five hundred Native American terms as they made their way west from Saint Louis to the Pacific coast in 1804.

"[A] breezy cultural road trip through American regionalisms... lively, enlightening and witty."

"A fascinating survey of idioms."
-St. Petersburg Times

"Simultaneously full of witty asides and linguistic erudition, Wicked Good Words is one of those rare books that you will read too fast and will find yourself wishing you could read for the first time all over again."
-Ammon Shea, author of Reading the OED

"As someone who grew up in the land of wicked pissa Sox games, what a delight it was to read about alligator pears, sundogs, piggling, sad cakes, doodinkus, jacklegs, and so many other American regionalisms."
-David Wolman, author of Righting the Mother Tongue

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