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WHEN I RECENTLY UNEARTHED Charles Fry Haywood’s Yankee Dictionary, I naturally turned to René, Maine pal/family member to learn which of these New England expressions were familiar to her.
Published in 1963, Haywood’s book is one of those “selected by scholars as being culturally important and part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.” As such, it has been reissued in 2021.
Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits gleaned from my original Yankee Dictionary.
Afoot or Ahossback. Haywood observes, “When a Yankee says ‘He don’t know whether he’s afoot or ahossback,’ he means that the person to whom reference is made is in a bemused and bepuzzled state…. Note carefully that anyone who lets the sound of the letter ‘R’ creep into this expression is no Yankee.”
Bone Dish. “A narrow, curved dish meant to fit close to a dinner plate,” Haywood explains, “to provide a place of disposal for bones and other inedible bits.” The bone dish, it seems, followed the fish fork into obscurity.
Bought his Thumb. “This one,” Haywood says, “belongs with the remarks about sugar stretched with sand, well watered milk, sawdust in the coffee and wooden nutmegs.”
I’m reminded of New Englander Henry David Thoreau’s remark in his Journal 11, November 1850: “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find trout in the milk.”
Cape Cod Turkey. Haywood says it’s “A phrase to describe salt cod, invented by some fellow who believed in making the best of things…. In these parts, cod are much cheaper to raise and easier to keep. Most families kept a king size salt cod hanging by its tail on the wall of a shed, well out of the way of both the cat and the mice. The lady of the house would hack off a piece, put it to soak, and serve it with boiled potatoes and beets, with perhaps an egg sauce if there was company for supper.”
Church Stick. “In Colonial days when the minister who could deal with sin and damnation in less than an hour was a rarity,” Haywood says, “many church goers had a tendency to snooze a bit.” Deacons discouraged this with “a light staff, on one end of which was a rabbit’s foot and on the other a foxtail.” It was just the thing for tickling the chin of the dozer.
Fish, Cut Bait or Go Ashore. Haywood says, “Along the Yankee coast this means ‘make up your mind; do one thing or the other or get out of here.” There’s another phrase with the same meaning; this New England one, though, can be used in polite company.
Longer Than a Wet Week. Having been in homes that featured mud rooms, I understand the sentiment of this one.
Mackerel Sky. This, Haywood describes, is a “pattern of equally spaced narrow white clouds with blue sky showing in between, not unlike the regular markings of the skin of a mackerel. Those who think they can foretell the weather by the various cloud formations and other signs say ‘mackerel sky, never long wet, never long dry.’ ”
We’ll continue our New England chatteh tomorrow. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022