INTRO: Our Wordmasters, Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble, are off searching their dictionaries this week. But our travel reporter, Ted Landphair, is here to tell us about some of the unusual expressions you'll run into if you journey to the northeastern part of the United States.
MUSIC: "New England Night"/J.D. Beard
TL: Americans don't speak a single language -- even when they're speaking English. There are many quaint regional expressions common to only one part of the nation. The fancy term for these expressions is "colloquialisms," [kah-loke-qwee-uh-liz-ums]. Often these colloquialisms are spoken with a distinctive regional accent. This is especially true in New England, one of the oldest, most compact, and most colorful of America's regions.
"New England night
"All the windows frozen
"And the wind blows high
"And the storm draws nigh ..."
TL: If you want to hear some fascinating expressions that survive from an earlier time, New England is a good place to go.
That's one example, "ay-yup." It means yes. Ask a question of folks in Maine -- many of whom don't talk much to strangers -- and all you're likely to get is a one-word answer: "ay-yup" or "nope."
Robert Hendrickson writes about New England expressions in a book called "Yankee Talk." It lists New England colloquialisms that even another American might scratch his head trying to understand.
I've asked Ed Blotner, a colleague from another part of the Voice of America, to read us some samples from the "Yankeee Talk" book . Eddie is a true Yankee -- from the north shore of Massachusetts, above Boston. Here goes:
TAPE: CUT ONE -- BLOTNER
"Two lamps burning, and no ship at sea."
TL: Here's the meaning: Coastal dwellers used to burn a light in a window to help ships navigate, or to welcome someone home from the sea. So if there are two lamps burning and no ship at sea, it means you're a foolish person, wasting your time and wasting good fuel.
TAPE: CUT TWO -- BLOTNER
"Happy as a clam at high tide."
TL: You dig or dredge for clams at low tide, so a clam is quite happy when the tide is high. He's safe.
TAPE: CUT THREE -- BLOTNER
"All in a pucker."
TL: Don't be so all in a pucker to get home -- don't be in such a hurry.
TAPE: CUT FOUR -- BLOTNER
"An apple shaker."
TL: That's a storm so strong that it knocks apples off of trees.
TAPE: CUT FIVE -- BLOTNER
"A flower-pot judge."
TL: This is one of the associate judges on a court who mostly sits there like a flower pot -- like a decoration -- and does or says nothing.
TAPE: CUT SIX -- BLOTNER
"The fog's so thick, you can hardly spit."
TL: That one does not require much of an explanation!
TAPE: CUT SEVEN -- BLOTNER
"Get a wiggle on."
TL: Hurry up. Get a wiggle on.
TAPE: CUT EIGHT -- BLOTNER
"God made the food, but the devil made the cook!"
TL: In other words, the food's not very good!
TAPE: CUT NINE -- BLOTNER
"guyascutas." [pronounced: guy-us-cutt-us]
TL: Guyascutus. It's a made-up name for a make-believe Vermont cow. Supposedly its legs are shorter on one side than they are on the other. That way, it can walk comfortably along the steep hillsides in Vermont.
TAPE: CUT TEN -- BLOTNER
"Hang up your boots."
TL: That means to die. Used to be, New Englanders would hang a working man's boots on the cross over his grave.
TAPE: CUT ELEVEN -- BLOTNER
"He has the hatter's shakes."
TL: The deadly element mercury was once used in the making of felt hats in New England factories, and the mercury damaged workers' nerves. It gave them the hatter's shakes.
TAPE: CUT TWELVE -- BLOTNER
"He doesn't know beans when the bag's untied!"
TL: In other words, he's not very smart. He cannot tell it's beans in the bag, even when you open it and show them to him.
TAPE: CUT THIRTEEN -- BLOTNER
"A New Hampshire screwdriver."
TL: That's a hammer. Folks from Maine would call a hammer a New Hampshire screwdriver, meaning that a neighbor from New Hampshire might try to pound in the screw with a hammer. A lot of Yankee talk makes fun of somebody from the neighboring state.
TAPE: CUT FOURTEEN -- BLOTNER
TL: The Irish came to Boston in waves, beginning about 1835. And for a long time, most of them were poor. They could not afford a fancy turkey dinner. They had what their neighbors called "Irish turkey" -- or humble corned beef and cabbage.
And in Maine, "Kennebec turkey" is a meal prepared by a fisherman -- it's herring instead of turkey.
TAPE: CUT FIFTEEN -- BLOTNER
"Lie like a tombstone."
TL: He's a good liar ... The way the words on a tombstone say only good things about a person.
TAPE: CUT SIXTEEN -- BLOTNER
"He moves like a toad in a tar bucket."
TL: He's not moving very fast! OK, one more.
TAPE: CUT SEVENTEEN -- BLOTNER
"New England diamonds."
TL: That's little stones or gravel. Farmers whose fields had a lot of small stones could sell these "New England diamonds" for use in making roads.
Robert Hendrickson cites several reasons why New England has so many colorful expressions. It's a cold, often snowbound place, so people did not travel as much as Americans elsewhere. And when you live in one place and don't hear other people's speech much, you develop your own expressions for things. Another reason is that most of the early American writers came from New England.
They took note of unusual expressions and used them in their writing ... Just like we did today! I'm Ted Landphair.
MUSIC: "When Fall Comes to New England"/Cheryl Wheeler
"When the fall comes to New England
"And the wind blows off the sea
"Swallows fly in a perfect sky
"And the world was meant to be.
"When the acorns line the walkways
"Then winter can't be far.
"From the yellow leaves a bluejay calls.
"Grandmothers walk out in the shawls.
"And chipmunks walk the old stone walls
"When fall comes to New England ..."