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A Little About the New England Language

A Little About the New England Language
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Welcome to the December 2008 edition of Jud’s New England Journal, the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, editor-in-chief of Yankee Magazine, published since 1935 in Dublin, New Hampshire.

A Little About the New England Language

It’s still true that every region of our country continues to have its own special words.

Ask a waitress in almost any American restaurant if you can have a poached egg and she’ll understand. Say you want it porched and she’ll be with you if she originally lived in the Deep South. Ask for a dropped egg, and unless she’s a New Englander, her face will remain blank. You’ll need to explain that you’d like it fried in water.

The separating area in the middle of a four-lane road is a mall in New York, a medial strip in Pennsylvania, a median strip in parts of New England and the Midwest, a medium strip in Kentucky, a center line in the West, a centerstrip in Ohio, and neutral ground in Louisiana and Mississippi. We New Englanders, particularly about four months from now, sometimes feel logy. But in Indiana they’re more apt to feel dauncy, while elsewhere they might be sort of punk, puny, or draggy.

There’s little question that the language is somewhat different from region to region across the United States. I guess (or if I were from the South, I reckon, or if from some of the New England offshore islands, I presume likely) the only argument is whether or not those differences are disappearing. In my view, maybe regional accents are becoming less pronounced (except way Down East, of course), but not regional language.

Words and expressions unique to individual regions remain in use because so many are based on specific historical, geographical, or other attributes of their region. “Straight as a loon’s leg” will never, for instance, become an Oklahoma expression. If a Texan suggests a swim in a pond, well, more than likely she/he is not a Texan. Because so many ponds in Texas are man-made, ponds are called tanks.

In a similar way, my camp on an island in New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee isn’t a place for tenting or camping. As outsiders are quick to learn, a camp in New England can be a pretty luxurious home, as can a summer cottage. During a recent visit with friends in South Carolina, I learned that when building a fire they prefer splinters to our kindling. We had battercakes for breakfast one morning rather than pancakes. Served on the same plate was streaked meat, not bacon. And can you guess what they called their attic? It was the plunder room. No kidding.

A North Dakota friend of mine told me when we first met that he never realized the word “summer” could be used as a verb. In fact, I recall he got quite a chuckle out of it. After he moved to Vermont to take a job with Vermont Life magazine, however, I smiled when he informed me that his parents were building a camp on Lake Winnipeg in Canada and were intending to summer there.

Good, I thought. Even newcomers to New England eventually learn the region’s expressions, names, and words. What they don’t always learn is the accurate pronunciations. But that’s another story — maybe for next year.

Meanwhile, Merry Christmas, everyone.

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A Little About the New England Language

Updated Monday, December 1st, 2008

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