The Early Vernacular of the North Carolina Mountains

Posted on 2006-12-28. Filed under: Mountains |

This is a really cool article that I found around 1994 on Nando. You might ask, “What the hell is Nando?” Well, was one of the very first portal sites on the Internet and was run by the Raleigh News & Observer right here in North Cackalacky. This is before Google, before MSN, before Excite, even before Yahoo! was really big. If I remember correctly, the two main sites back then were Nando for your portal site and Altavista for your search engine. Nando was shut down in 2003 but I still remember it and I am kinda proud that it came from NC. One of my current clients was associated with it back in the day and that’s kinda cool.

Anyway, this article speaks to the origin of how people talk in the NC mountains. I’ve lived in the NC piedmont for 12 years now. And people around here talk different. They have more of a Southern drawl while we have more of a twang. My mom used to be an operator with Southern Bell and she could always tell when she was speaking with someone from back home. Also, the people around here use different vocabulary than back in the mountains. There’s some vocabulary in the article. Sometimes when I read a Jack Tale to my son, I wonder how anyone who didn’t grow up in the mountains can understand them! 🙂

It makes me sad when I go back home and hear people speak. Everyone speaks like the actors do on TV and in the movies. It’s the same boring language. But, when I was growing up there, there was this great diversity. I watched my home county move from the 50’s to the 60’s to the 70’s to the 80’s and I was only born in the 70’s! It’s because it had a  lot of catching up to do and it did it very quickly in the 70’s and 80’s. I left in the early 90’s – before there was a mass influx of folk from elsewhere like there has been in the last decade. There was still a feeling of uniquity there. Now, you can find it only in places like nursing homes and some of the more remote parts of the county. I’m amazed at how fast things have changed there. And, again, I’m saddened.


The Early Vernacular of the North Carolina Mountains

From the book


BY HORTON COOPER. Johnson Publishing Company of Murfreesboro (1972).

Not all the old-time speech of the early people of North Carolina mountains and their descendants for many decades consisted of held-overs from Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s days, but much of it did. Some of it was due to mispronunciation, a syntax of non-English origin and a deliberate diction which was meant to fit the culture and environment of the strong and daring people in their splendid isolation. Much of it, however, was the colorful and spicy speech of the Elizabethan era.

The earliest settlers were either people from the English Isles and other Northern European countries or their descendants who had been born in America. Besides the English, there came the Scotch-Irish, the Germans, Dutch, and some Welsh, with those of almost pure Anglo-Saxon blood having predominance in number. They intermarried, flavored their language with the idiom of Chaucer and clung tenaciously to the picturesque language of the days of Good Queen Bess.

It should not be forgotten that the English language itself is an idiom of West Germany.

As time passed and contact with the outside world was lost, the metamorphosis of language gradually continued, as has always been the case when mountain ranges, bodies of water and other natural barriers isolate groups originally speaking a common language. It is a historic fact that the Latinic Languages of Southern Europe derived their strength from the Latin of the old Roman Empire after Rome collapsed and lost contact with its former far-flung provinces, hidden beyond mountain range and river. Doubtless, had progress moved less rapidly, the mountaineers of the Appalachians and Blue Ridge eventually would have had a language not understood by the English-speaking out-landers, but two centuries was too short a period for the completion of the metamorphic process.

Just as Gullah, a dialect along the shore and on the islands off the coast of South Carolina, has lasted more than 250 years, but will soon be a dead language, so is the picturesque speech of the North Carolina mountains rapidly giving way to language uniformity imposed by many factors, including good schools and colleges, an abundance of printed matter, the radio and television and contact with the outside world.

The phraseology and syntax of the early people of North Carolina mountains was doomed around the turn of the century, when the State’s Literary Fund and the treasuries of the mountain counties made a longer school term possible, but for a decade or two the language of the most isolated rural regions was little affected. The slow process of eradication continued with marked success as the years passed and newspapers, magazines and books became more plentiful and high schools were established. Colleges began to dot the area. Those who observed closely knew that the purists of our language and the traits of mankind to conform were winning.

Today one has to travel farther and search more diligently than formerly to hear the old dialect spoken, but a part of it still exists, more or less, in many secluded neighborhoods, remindful of Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s language.

Any area has its localism and colloquialisms, as well as mispronunciations of many words, but nowhere else in all the world — not even in England — were they blended and mixed so colorfully for so long a time with the spicy diction of the Elizabethans as they were on the tongues and lips of the stalwart men and women of the North Carolina mountains.

Perhaps the many factors, including the work of the purists of our English language, have accomplished less than many persons think.

    Following is a partial glossary of early mountain vernacular:

  • a-childing: gestating; pregnant
  • aingern: onion
  • ain’t losin’ any sleep over hit: not worrying about it
  • a give-out: an announcement
  • air: are
  • appearant: apparant
  • a preach: a sermon
  • arm baby: child small enough to be carried in the arms
  • auger-eyed: sharp eyed
  • atter: after
  • at the getting place: where such things are obtained
  • a whoop and a holler: a considerable distance
  • ain’t had much schoolhousing: hasn’t had much formal education
  • as all get-out: very much so
  • ast, ax: ask
  • a wheel: a silver dollar
  • awnt: want
  • bad off: very ill
  • bald faced whiskey: whiskey fresh from the still
  • bait: a good meal
  • benasty: degrade
  • biddy-peck: to nag mildly
  • bigging and bigging it: exaggerating
  • big room: family room
  • big sight: much or many
  • blamyfied: to eternally blame without reason
  • blockader: a distiller of illicit whiskey
  • breaking: failing by age
  • bodaciously ruint: seriously injured
  • bug days: days which should be avoided when planting potatoes to prevent bugs from destroying the green leaves
  • butter-mouthed: speak flattery
  • buttock down: sit down
  • calm of day: early broad daylight
  • carry: escort
  • carry on: to act foolishly or immorally
  • catawampus: crosswise; big and fine
  • chunk-washer: a heavy rain
  • clim, cloom, clome: climbed
  • coon’s age: a long time
  • coon-along: walk on all fours
  • cooter around: to walk aimlessly or idly
  • corn-fed: husky; strong
  • crack of day: break of day
  • day down: late afternoon
  • doctor-medicine: prescribed by a doctor; not a home or herb remedy
  • doctor-woman: a midwife or female herb doctor
  • don’t dig up old dead cats: don’t recall disagreeable subjects
  • done nothing out of the way: did no wrong or immoral
  • doney-girl: a female sweetheart
  • don’t set well: doesn’t please
  • drave: drove
  • drink some water and suck our thumbs: eat a scant meal
  • drooped up: disappointed in love; ill or indisposed
  • druther: prefer
  • edzact: to reason out
  • et: ate
  • every bit and grain: all, entire
  • everyday gal: steady sweetheart
  • feathered-legged: cowardly
  • feet sot to run: ready to hurry away
  • ferment: opposite
  • fireboard: the mantel
  • fit, fout: fought
  • fleshen up: to put on weight
  • fram: beat
  • fotch: bought
  • fotch on: homemade
  • frayed: fretted and cried, as a baby
  • frazzled: very tired
  • friz: froze
  • funeralize: preach a funeral sermon
  • fur: far
  • fur piece: quite a distance
  • fur side: farther side
  • gap: mountain pass
  • garden sass: vegetables
  • gommed: mess; ruined
  • go-poke: a traveling bag
  • graveyard cough: a tubercular cough
  • greasy doors: doors of a family who have recently slaughtered hogs
  • hant, haint: a ghost that haunts a definite place
  • hell a-hooting: trouble starting; feuds
  • hoofing: walking
  • holp, holped: helped (old English form)
  • home-boys: boys or men of the same neighborhood
  • house plunder: furniture for the home
  • goozle: to speak hoarsely
  • goozler: boy whose voice is changing
  • hot shots: first whiskey that comes from the worm of a still
  • I can’t come it: I can’t eat no more
  • infare: wedding feast given in the groom’s home
  • ill: of explosive temper
  • It don’t please me none: it gives no pleasure
  • heard the wind blow before: heard boasting before; don’t believe it
  • jair: a jar, to jar
  • jairy: nervous
  • Jim-swinger: a frock or long-tailed coat
  • jubus, juberous: dubious; frightened
  • jularker: a male sweetheart
  • kiver: cover
  • knee child: a child small enough to hold on the knee
  • laid by: had intended; cultivated for the last time
  • lap child: a child that could be held in the lap
  • let’s play like: let’s pretend
  • light and hitch: come in and visit
  • light in the breech: frail
  • lit a rag: left hurriedly
  • made the fur fly: work hard; be industrious
  • mealy-mouthed: too timid to speak frankly
  • meeting-house: church
  • middling peart: fair in health
  • might-nigh: almost
  • mincy: finicky
  • mizzle: to rain lightly in small drops
  • nairy: none
  • notorious republican: notary public
  • on the down-go: declining in age or health or economic status
  • outen: to extinguish; put out
  • painter: panther
  • pap: father
  • peart: lively; in good health
  • perzactly: exactly
  • picking down: becoming worse
  • picking up: improving
  • pile up with trash: live with the low class or immoral
  • pimeblank: exactly
  • pooch out: to extend
  • pump knot: knot on the head from a blow
  • pure forgot: entirely forgot
  • quod: quoted
  • right smart: good deal
  • rimtion: a great deal
  • rip and tear: to raise cain
  • riz: arose
  • risin: a boil, carbuncle or stone bruise
  • rooster a gun: cock a gun
  • runction: a quarrel or fight
  • saprising time: youth
  • scrooch up: slump the shoulders; take less room
  • setting rounders: ones sitting near; idlers
  • shagnasty: a low bred person
  • since Heck was a pup: a long while ago
  • shammuck: to walk
  • short talk: quarrelsome talk
  • skun: skinned
  • slaunchways: slanting
  • smackdab: exactly
  • snurl: to curl the lips
  • spang: exactly
  • sparking: courting; wooing
  • splindlingest: slenderest
  • sull-up: pout
  • tater riffle: light bread
  • techious: easily riled
  • to contrary: to vex or anger
  • chance on: happen on
  • tooth-dentist: dentist
  • trade: shop or buy
  • traipse: walk aimlessly or needlessly
  • trees are springing green: trees are leafing
  • turn right-handed: turn right
  • turn left-handed: turn left
  • turkey tails out: spread out
  • ‘twant nothing: amounted to nothing
  • twistification: a dance
  • two curves and a cuss fight: the distance beyond two curves of the road and to the next house
  • using around: dating or courting a sweetheart
  • what will you take for it and not back out?: what is your exact price?
  • whitleather: cured but untanned hide
  • whole lot: a great amount
  • whup: a whip; to whip
  • woodscolt: a child born out of wedlock
  • yan: yonder
  • yan side: the farthest side
  • yearth: earth
  • Exclamations for expressing diverse surprises

  • For goodness’ sake!
  • For heaven’ sake!
  • For the Land’s sake!
  • Good gracious alive!
  • Go on!
  • Did you ever!
  • Did you ever hear the like!
  • Great day in the morning!
  • I’ll swan!
  • I’ll be John Browned!
  • Mercy me!
  • Not since Heck was a pup!
  • My goodness!
  • My stars!
  • Sakes alive!
  • Shut your mouth!
  • I wish I might drop dead!
  • Holy Moses!

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2 Responses to “The Early Vernacular of the North Carolina Mountains”

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I remember this! I’m so glad you saved it. Suggie (my grandmother) used to talk like that!

i shore did enji this thang. lived here all my time

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