The University of Wisconsin at Madison earlier this year completed its long-in-the-making Dictionary of American Regional English, or DARE, and the fifth and final volume was released March 1 by Harvard University Press. The dictionary attempts to collect the colorful and varied words used in Americans’ everyday lives, across the country, organized by region — including Maine and New England. The regional variations go far beyond which places call it “soda” and which places call it “pop” — and reveals much about our past and our present.
“We think of American English as being pretty homogeneous, but with our spoken language, there are still thousands of differences,” says Joan Houston Hall, editor of the dictionary. “It’s those kinds of differences we’re trying to record with DARE.”
DARE is based on interviews that researchers from UW-Madison conducted in more than 1,000 communities across the country between 1965 and 1970.
In Maine, they visited Allagash, Augusta, Bar Harbor, Beals, Masardis, North Berwick, Port Clyde, Presque Isle, Readfield and Rockland.
After the fieldwork was done, editors in Madison spent four decades studying the more than 2.3 million responses collected, capturing in DARE the diversity and richness of the American language, from “Adam’s house cat” (an expression, “he wouldn’t know me from Adam’s house cat”) to “zydeco” (a kind of dance music associated with Louisiana Creole culture).
On the website, there are several pages featuring audio and video taken directly from the fieldwork — including an interview with a 70-year-old man from the Washington County town of Beals. In the dictionary itself, there are hundreds of words specific to Maine and New England, from the well-known “fiddlehead,” referring to the springtime edible fern, to the rarely-used “loup-garou,” an Acadian French word for werewolf.
It’s certainly not the only research done on Maine vernacular. Pauleena MacDougall, associate director of the Maine Folklife Center, said a book published in 2007 by researcher Marion Stocking, titled “I Got the Idear: My Love Affair With Maine Language,” also includes a number of Maine-specific words.
“She was an English teacher at UMaine, and she took the things her students wrote and studied they way they and others spoke in real life,” MacDougall said. “There’s a lot of words of farming, and logging, and fishing and ocean terms. Every area has its own special vocabulary. It takes anyone a while to figure it all out.”
We’ve gone through the DARE database available online, as well as worked with the staff at DARE, and amassed a selection of some of these Maine words. Bear in mind, they’re from a sampling from a five-year period in the late 1960s — some are still in use and some have fallen out of the language.
What words do you recognize? What would you add to the list? How would you update it? Please suggest your favorite Maine words, sayings and slang, either by comment online or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll update this story at a later date to include your suggestions.
For more information about DARE, visit http://dare.news.wisc.edu.
culch: any kind of trash or rubbish; occasionally used of a person held in low esteem.
gaumy: awkward, inept, stupid.
larrigan: A type of long-legged moccasin or boot; also adjective larriganed, larrigan-clad.
barvel: A fisherman’s apron made of leather or oilcloth.
finest kind: Used variously, as a general indication of approval; also used ironically.
money cat: A calico cat, especially one with at least three colors.
pull-haul: to argue, contend.
tide walkers: a log floating, often with only one end at the surface, in coastal waters.
short: an illegal, undersize lobster.
eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death: the period of 1816-17, one of the worst winters Maine ever experienced.
putty: also with around; to occupy oneself with trifles, to idle.
slip one’s wind: to die.
fog mull: a heavy, stationary fog bank.
groaners: a whistling buoy or foghorn.
dry-ki: dead timber, especially that killed by flooding; dry branches; driftwood; land where such timber predominates.
scrod: a method of salting and preserving codfish.
ploye: traditional Acadian buckwheat pancake.
larrup: to give or receive a beating.
An early version of this story requires correction. Beals is in Washington County, not Hancock.