Appalachian Lexicon

I was steeped in the speech of the mountains.  I grew up listening to conversations, dwelling in the midst of speech with patterns as old as the people who settled these hills before us.  Tazewell2  It was a symphony really, of words and sounds and inflections that made up the music that ordered our lives. With the modernization of communications, these Appalachian words and ways are quickly disappearing, soon to be no more.  But I am thankful for the speech (and doggedly determined to use it in spite of the so-called intellectuals who would like to stamp it out) of my home, kith and kin.

One of my favorite word usages is the possessive use of the letter “n” at the end of words, as in his’n and her’n.  “Is that blanket your’n or is it his’n?”  Linguists would say the origin of this probably comes from the Scottish “ain” which is a corrupted form of “own.”  “His own” became “his’n.”  It makes a lot of sense, even though it’s old fashioned.

A pocket of mountain people along the border of Virginia and West Virginia and Kentucky speak an even more complicated construction, with “you’ns.”  Example:  “You’ns are welcome to come on in the house.”  It is a contraction of “You” and “Ones.”  You’ns.  I heard a friend tell me once that when someone he knew was in this area doing a mission of some kind he was awakened to find a child (which is commonly called a “young’un”), staring at him.  He said hello to him and the kid replied “Did you’nses young’ns come?”  This is a complicated construction.  Plural of “one” is “ones” but in the possessive construction becomes “oneses”, kind of like a reduplicated plural.  “You ones-es.”  It’s a comic sounding sentence, but it makes sense when you take time to understand it, and it isn’t uncommon in these beautiful mountains.

My mother-in-law introduced me to a word I had never heard before, “Sworp.”  It evidently means “to exert inordinate amounts of energy.”  I first heard it in reference to kittens, who were  being extra playful:  “They’ve been just a-sworping all over the porch today.”  But it is also used to refer to people driving too fast or even working hard.  “He’s just a-sworping!”

From a Wikipedia Article on “Appalachian English” (some of which appears in the Encyclopedia of Appalachia) [with my personal annotations in brackets]:

  • Afeared: afraid. [“I’m afeared the preacher might come if I mess the living room up.”]
  • Airish: cool or chilly  [“Oo, it’s a-feelin’ mighty airish out here today, I’d better go get a sweater.”]
  • Ary: any [“i’m going to see if there’s ary meat left for my biscuit.”]
  • Bald: n. a treeless mountain summit [I started my ministry in view of the “Beartown Balds” on the Clinch Mountain range]
  • Cat-head: a large biscuit.
  • Chancy: doubtful.  [“You can go ahead and buy a lottery ticket if you want too, but winning’s a bit chancy.”]
  • Chaw: chewing tobacco. [“Did Granny share a chaw of tobacco with her daughter?”]
  • Clean: verb modifier that is used to mean entirely completing an action. Can be used in place of ‘all the way’, e.g., “He knocked it clean off the table.”
  • Coke: short for Coca-Cola, but applied to all flavored, carbonated sodas, regardless of brand, flavor or type. Coke is used primarily in the southern half of the dialect region, whereas the more northern-influenced pop receives more usage in Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and most of Southwest Virginia.
  • Cornpone: Skillet cornbread made without eggs.
  • Counterpane: bedspread.
  • Cove: a valley between two ridges.
  • Directly: later, after a while, when it becomes convenient, soon, immediately (largely depending on context).  [“I’m going to cook supper directly, but right now I’ve got to finish cleaning up after these young’uns.”]
  • Fit: used in place of the word “fought”.  [“That supper I et last night fit me like a sworping kitty cat.”]
  • Fixin’:
    • a serving or helping of food. Can I get a fixin’ of dumplings?,
    • an event, party or social function where food is served. They’re having a fixin’ at church next Friday.
    • about to, They’re fixin’ to get hitched.
  • Gaum: n. mess. gaum (gôm); also used as a transitive verb: “to gaum up” (i.e., “to mess up”). [“I’d do a whole lot better with the vacuum cleaner if I could keep it from getting gaumed up on these old stringy throw-rugs.”]
  • Haint: used in the context of “ghost” or “spirit” not the derivation of “aint” [“So many haints and boogers in this holler, I think I’ll go back to the house.”]
  • Holler: n. hollow, as in a valley between two hills, e.g., “…I…continue to travel between hollers and cities.”
  • Hull: v. shell, as in to shell beans.  [“I was a-fixing to cook supper, but Pappaw won’t finish hulling the shucky beans.”]
  • Ill: bad-tempered.  [“He’s been acting ill at me all morning for serving him cold coffee.”]
  • Jarfly: cicada.
  • Kyarn: (Carrion) Dead flesh, such as roadkill. That smells like kyarn. [and it stinks to high-heaven too!]
  • Lamp oil/coal oil: kerosene.
  • Lay out: to be truant (e.g., to “lay out of school” or “lay out of work”).  [This one can also mean, “start out.”  as in “I laid out to go to town, but had to come back home since it was fixing to get dark.”]
  • Meeting: a gathering of people for religious purposes.  [“They’re fixing to have meeting at Salem tonight, are you’nses’ young’uns gonna come?”]
  • Nary/Nary’ne: none  [“I ain’t nary seen sech a sight, not nary’n here nor back yonder in the holler.”]
  • Piece: distance (e.g., “He’d have went up the road a piece to get on the main road”).
  • Plum or plumb: completely (e.g., “Son, you’re plum crazy”)
  • Poke: n. brown paper bag [“Why don’t you pick you a poke of peas before they dry up and get past picking.”]
  • Poke sallet: n. a type of salad made from boiled greens (usually pokeweed). Spelled variously salatsalit, and similar variations.
  • Quare: Queer (totally unrelated to sexuality), strange, odd (as in, “He’s shore a quare ‘un”). [“I don’t know what color it was, but it was between s__t and a quare color!”]
  • Reckon: suppose. I reckon you don’t like soup beans.  [I reckon I do if you fix ’em right]
  • Right smart: good deal of (e.g., “a right smart piece” for “a long way”).  [“It’s been a right smart piece since I had ary soup beans.”]
  • Sigogglin: not built correctly, crooked, out of balance  [“Is the smoke house looking sigoggling to you, or am I looking at it all catawampus-like?”]
  • Skift: dusting of snow. [“Hit ain’t snowed a bit this winter, just one or two skifts.”]
  • Slap: full, complete (e.g., “…a fall in the river, which went slap-right and straight down”).
  • Smart: hard-working, “work-brickle.” Example: “She’s a smart woman—always a-cleanin and a-sewin and a-cookin fer ‘er famly.”
  • Sop: gravy.  [Also used as a verb, as in “I sopped my plate with the last piece of bread.  You’ns have any more?”]
  • Springhouse: n. a building (usually positioned over a stream) used for refrigeration before the advent of refrigerators.
  • Sugar tree: n. Sugar Maple tree.
  • Swan: (also swanny) swear; declare to be true. [“Well, I swan, she shore is a-sworping round the back of the house.”]
  • Toboggan: n. A knit hat or tuque; rarely used to describe a type of sled.  [“Git your tobaggan on and we’ll go sigogglin down yonder hill on our sled.”]
  • Yonder: a directional adverb meaning distant from both the speaker and the listener (e.g., “Look over yonder”).

Well, I don’t know if this is the way your family talked, but it was the way I heard a lot of people talking growing up.  And I still hear it today.  I missed it dearly when I left the region to get my “book-learning” at seminary.  It took me a while to recover it when I got back from the Carolina piedmont region.  When I was in school they still processed tobacco in the plants in downtown Durham.  It smelled like pure kyarn some days.  But youn’s wouldn’t understand that unless you’d ever smelled pure kyarn.  But it’d sure make you go sworpin’ back acrost the mountains to get you some fresh air, if they was ary air up there, around Mt. Airy somewhere.

Do you know any Appalachian words and usages?


About Brad Scott

An Appalachian CrossFitter who loves Jesus and is happily married to Tammie. I have a son and a fine little grandson. In the peak of middle age, trying to figure out the rest of this journey.
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