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Learning the New England Language

Learning the New England Language
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Welcome to the May 2010 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.

Learning the New England Language

Trouble is, as soon as you’ve identified a rule, you discover more exceptions than examples.

For instance, you might hear a Maine man say he intends to go gunnin’ for partridge that afternoon. You figure he’s using gunnin’ instead of huntin’. But he isn’t. If you’re after deer instead of partridge, then you’re deer-huntin’. We seldom eat venison, either. Eat a lot of deer meat, though.

Or take that simple little word “lot.” There are, in New England, plenty of wood lots, four-acre lots, and even barn lots. However, there are no corn, potato, or oat lots. A pasture is generally considered to be a large, untilled area, often with several groupings of trees scattered here and there. But these trees don’t constitute a wood lot. The stand of trees in a wood lot is bigger and thicker. A field of potatoes may be a patch, but you can’t describe a field of grain with that word.

The smallest of words may be the most difficult for outsiders to place correctly. In Maine, we used to have four principal directions: up river, down state, over to home and from away. We went up to Boston, and from Boston we went out to Prouts Neck (near Portland, Maine). But from Prouts Neck we went up to inland Vanceboro, whence we went over to McAdam (New Brunswick, Canada) or down to Calais. St. Stephen is just across the international border from Calais, but we went to St. Stephen.

Every town in New England has its own set of tos, ups, downs, overs, and outs in relation to the rest of New England. And if you depend on north-south logic, you’ll be wrong about half the time. For instance, everyone knows one goes down the coast of Maine when one is sailing northeast, up the coast when sailing southwest. The term “Down East” obviously originates from sailing downwind with the prevailing westerlies when traveling from Massachusetts ports to those along the Maine coast. However, one can go up to Bangor from Massachusetts. Correctly.

“Up” is a hard-working little word. It’s added to brought, banged, warmed, let, picked, dressed, turned, and countless others. Also you find up and did it, up and coming, up and around, and even what are you up to? Banks in Maine have drive-up tellers (Connecticut banks have drive-in tellers). You can shine up to someone, but that isn’t quite the same as taking a shine to that someone.

“Take” is used in many situations, too. I can take another job, take after someone, or take sick, during which time I ought to take it easy. A person can take off another person, meaning mimic, or take him down a peg. “Take” can also be added for seemingly no reason at all — such as, “I’ll take and give him a good lesson.”

Well, I guess with that I’ll take a break ’til next month …

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Learning the New England Language

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