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Chaucer’s English

chaucerThe highlander often speak in Elizabethan or Chaucerian or even pre-Charcerian terms.  His pronoun hit antedates English itself, being the Anglo-Saxon neuter of he.  Ey God, a favorite expletive, is the original of egad, and goes back of Chaucer.  Ax for ask and kag for keg were the primitive and legitimate forms, which one can traces as far as the time of Layamon.  When the mountain boy challenges his mate: “I dar ye – I ain’t afeared!” his verb and participle are of the same ancient and sterling rank.  Afore, atwixt, awar, help o’ folks, peart, up and done it, usen for used, all these everyday expressions of the backwoods were contemporary with the Canterbury Tales.

A remarkable word, common in the Smokies, is dauncy, defined as “mincy about eating,” which is to say fastidious, over-nice.  Dauncy probably is a variant of daunch, of which the Oxford New English Dictionary but one example from the Townley Mysteries of circa 1460.

A strange term used by Carolina mountaineers, without the faintest notion of its origin, is doney (long o) or doney-gal, meaning a sweetheart.  Its history is unique.  British sailors of the olde time brought it to England from Spainish or Italian ports.  Doney is simply dona or donna a trifle anglicized in proununciation.  Odd, though, that it should be preserved in America by none but backwoodsmen whose ancestors for two centuries never saw the tides.

We have in the mountains many home born words to fit the circumstances of backwoods life.  When maize has passed from the soft and milky stage of roasting ears but is not yet hard enough for grinding, the ears are grated into a soft meal and baked into delectable pones called gritted-bread.


When it is necessary to know the depth of the water at any point in the river, the test or sounding is made by dropping a 33 foot rope, to the end of which isSoundings fastened a pipe filled with lead.  The pipe is about one and a half inches in diameter and twelve inches in length.  A few inches of heavy chain are put into the pipe, and around this melted lead is poured.  The weight of a lead is between six and ten pounds.  The rope is fastened to a link of the chain that is allowed to extend past the length of the pipe.  The length of the lead line is marked at four feet by a piece of white flannel woven into the rope, at six feet, by a piece of leather, at nine feet by a piece of red cloth; at Mark Twain there is a piece of leather split into two thongs and at Mark Four there is a single leather strip with a round hole.  These signals are recognized by the leadsman as the rope slips through his hands in the darkness.

The sounds are called out as the line drops.  A depth less than Quarter Less Twain is given in feet.  After Mark Four is reached the measurement is usually give as No Bottom.

The Hounds and The Law

The fox had his eye on a turkey perched in a treetop.  “Hey, Brer Turkey,” called the Brer Fox, “is you heard about the new law? – Foxes can’t eat no more turkeys, and hounds can’t chase foxes.  Come on down and we’ll talk about it.”  “Nothin’ doing,” said Brer Turkey, “we can talk about it right where we is.”  Just then some hounds were heard coming over the hill.  “Guess I’ll be runnin’ along,” said Brer Fox.  Brer Turkey said, “I thought you said the new law says no more fox hunts”  And Brer Fox said, “That’s right – but them dogs will run right over that law.”

A Day On Lake Santeetlah

A lovely day on Lake Santeetlah with soaring eagles, large fish, a dragonfly and ducks! Take a look at this video…

Darling Cory

Considerable study remains to be done on the white “blues” of the hills, of which “Darling Cory” is an excellent example.  This song is as mountain asmountain hog and hominy or po’k and possum.  It might have been inspired by a boy riding down the creek on a mule after he had been up to the still house!

“Wake up wake up darling Corey

What makes you sleep so sound
The revenue officers are coming
They’re gonna tear your still-house down.

“Well the first time I seen darling Corey
She was sitting by the banks of the sea
Had a forty-four around her body
And a five-string on her knee.

“Go away go away darling Corey
Quit hanging around my bed
Your liquor has ruined my body
Pretty women gone to my head.

“Dig a hole dig a hole in the meadow
Dig a hole in the cold damp ground
Dig a hole dig a hole in the meadow
We’re gonna lay darling Corey down.

“Can’t you hear them bluebirds a-singing
Don’t you hear that mournful sound
They’re preaching darling Corey’s funeral
In some lonesome graveyard ground.”

Please see this great footage

The Miller and The Devil

Once there was a miller who could “toll ‘em heavy” or “toll ‘em light” as he ground corn for rich farmers, ordinary farmers, and farmers who mademill barely enough to eat.  As he ground the corn, the miller always carried on a conversation with the devil, who stood behind his shoulder, as to whether or not he should play fair with his customers.

One day, a little before noon, there drove up to the mill a very rich farmer with fifty wagon loads of corn.  The miller began to grind.

As he ground, he turned his head over his should and said, “Devil, he’s rich.  Must I toll him heavy or toll him light?”

And the devil said to the miller, “He probably got rich being hard on the poor.  Toll him heavy.”

And the miller tolled him heavy.

Early that afternoon came to the mill just an ordinary farmer with ten wagon loads of corn.  And the miller put the corn in the mill and began to grind.

And as he ground, he turned to the devil and said, “This fellow is not poor, he is not rich.  How must I toll him, heavy or light?”

And the devil said, “Oh, he’ll get along all right.  Certainly he will not starve.  He is contented with his lot.  He is healthy.  He is happy.  Toll him heavy.”

So the miller tolled him heavy.

A little before sundown came to the mill another farmer.  He had one sack of corn on his back, about a bushel perhaps.  He was tired from walking a long way.  He was hungry.  And the miller put his corn into the mill and began to grind it.

And as he ground, he turned once more to the devil and said, “Devil, this fellow certainly is poor.  He’s tired.  He’s hungry.  What must I do with him, toll him heavy or toll him light?”

And the devil answered, “He’s poor, damn him, keep him poor!  Toll him heavy.”

And the miller tolled him heavy.

Reconteurs in Homespun

As the South has never lacked story materials, so it has never lacked storytellers, audiences and occasions for storytelling.  On farmhouse and countryhomespun store porches, in the parlor and the nursery, at religious and political gathers, on courthouse steps and benches, at picnics and barbecues, around the campfire, on the job – wherever people came together for sociability and entertaining or persuasive talk, there have been tongues to tell and ears to hear the inherited repertoire.

In addition to the universal themes and motifs of yarns and tall tales and historical and local traditions, the South has a rich source of anecdote and story in the characters and doings of kinfolk, friends and neighbors, who are all the more readily assimilated to folk tradition by reason of the Southern code of personal ethics, which regards them first of all as human beings and individuals.

Besides the inherited themes there are the inherited techniques; and the art of casual narrative flourishes where life is causal, leisurely, and informal, paced to the relaxed tempo of Southern living.  In an environment where people “do not like books so well, but…like to remember and memorize many things that [they] do love,” according to Bascom Lamar Lunsford, book-say is close to folk-say; and literate and non-literate reconteurs alike are caught up in the same stream of oral memory and “torrential re-collectiveness”.

In the mid 1800’s, some of the best and tallest tale-tellers who ever got into print were recruited from the rank of Southern lawyers, judges, ministers, editors and sportsmen.  The newspaper became an important link in the story-telling chain, folklore and local color were the soil from which sprang the broad humor, the racy idiom, the anecdotal verve and the gorgeous yarn spinning of later humorists.

Corn Liquor

Corn liquor is the most maligned stimulant in America.  It is the purest whisky in the world.  The only difference between bourbon and corn is that Corn Liquorbourbon is the parlor name for corn!

There is a story of a local boy who once made some good corn and buried it in barrels under his barn.  Lightning destroyed the barn.  May years later he decided to rebuild and in digging his foundation he discovered the barrels.  The lightning by some crazy twist has charred the kegs but hadn’t damaged them.  The owner tasted the amber liquor and whooped.  The neighbors tasted it and they all set to whooping!

At its most romantic, the praise of native corn liquor always belonged to the school of the fox who lost his tail pointing to taillessness as perfection.  At its best, aged in home sized kegs, which could be purchased at most of the chain stores, corn liquor was a potable drink full of the mule’s heels.  Gentlemen exchanged private systems for reducing the shock to the palate, which extended all the way from the introduction of dried fruits into the liquor to advanced chemical procedures.  Sometimes they succeeded.  But at their worst, corn liquor and monkey rum (which in North Carolina was the distilled syrup of sorghum cane) were concoctions taken stoically, with retching and running eyes, for the effect beyond the first fusel oil belch.

There was certainly a democracy in drinking then.  Rich and poor drank with the same gasping.  Indeed, when a death by gunshot wound resulted in the relation of the details of a party in one of the area’s richest houses, it came out that, before the gun went off, they had been drinking corn whisky and chasing it down with beer.

Old Southern Politicalisms

Old Southern PoliticalismsBourbon – A Democrat of the straightest sect, a “fire-eater”.  Applied for the most part to Southern Democrats of the old school.  This use of the word probably antedates the Civil War but no instance of such use has been found in print.  We must look to the old Bourbon party in France – uncompromising adherents of political tradition for its paternity.  “They learned nothing and forgot nothing.”

Buncombe, Bunkum, etc. – Talking merely for talk’s sake. The original employment of the word in this sense is ascribed to a member of Congress from Buncombe County, North Carolina, who explained that he was merely “talking for Buncombe,” when his fellow-members could not comprehend why he was making a speech.

Chivalry – “The Southern Chivalry” was a common phrase before and during the Civil War.  It was claimed as a proud title by Southerners and their friends but has always been heard and used in the North with a shade of derisive contempt.

Fire-Eater – A bitter Southern partisan.  It came into use during the early anti-slavery, and is of frequent occurrence in the journals of that time.  It is equivalent to Bourbon, but probably of earlier origin.

Mason and Dixon’s Line – A boundary line surveyed in 1766 by two English surveyors, named Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, to settle a dispute as to territory between Pennsylvania and Maryland.  It follows the fortieth parallel of latitude, and was originally marked by milestones having on one side the armorial bearings of Penn, and on the other those of Lord Baltimore.

Mountain Dialect

The Appalachian people have a marked Scotch-Irish strain, one would expect their speech to show a strong Scotch influence.  So far as vocabulary istrilliumanddelphinium concerned there is really little of it.  A few words, caigy (cadgy), coggled, fernent, gin for if, needcessity, trollop, almost exhaust the list of distinct Scotticisms.  The Scotch-Irish as they are called, were mainly Ulstermen, and the Ulster dialect of today bear little analogy to that of Appalachia.

Scotch influence does appear, however in one vital characteristic of the pronunciation: with few exceptions the highlanders sound “r” distinctly wherever it occurs though they will never trill it.  In the British Isles this constant sound of “r” in all positions is peculiar to Scotland, Ireland and a few small districts in the northern border counties of England. 

Throughout Appalachia such words as last, past, advantage, are pronounced with the same vowel as is heard in man.  In the early 20th century it was noted that the average mountaineer’s vocabulary did not exceed three hundred words.  This may be a natural inference if one spends but a few weeks among these people and sees them only under the prosaic conditions of workaday life.  But gain their intimacy and one shall find that even the less literate among them have a range of expression that is truly remarkable.  Seldom is a hillbilly at a loss for a word.  Lacking other means of expression, there will come “spang” from his mouth a coinage of his own.  Instantly he will create (always form English roots, of course) new words iby combination or by turning nouns into verbs or otherwise interchanging the parts of speech.

Crudity or deficiency of the verb characterizes the speech of all secluded societies.  In mountain vernacular many words that serve as verbs are only nouns of action or adjectives or even adverbs.  “That bear ‘ll meat me a month.”  “Granny kept faultin’ us all day.” “Are ye fixin to go squirrelin’?”  “Sis blouses her waist a purpose to carry a pistol.”  “This poke salat eats good.”

A verb will be coined from an adverb: “We better git some wood, bettern we?”  Or from an adjective: “Much that dog and see won’t he come along” (pet him, make much of him).  “I didn’t do nary thing to contrary her”.

Conversely, nouns are created from verbs.  “Hit don’t make no differ.”  “I didn’t hear no give out at meetin’” (announcement).  “You can git ye one more gittin’ o’ wood up thar.”  “That Natahala is a master shut0in, jest a plumb gorge.”  Or from an adjective:  “Them bugs – the little old hatefuls!”  “If anybody wanted a history of this county for fifty years he’d git a lavish of it by reading the mine suite testimony.”