The Vocabula Review

July 2011, Vol. 13, No. 7 Friday, April 29, 2016

Book Excerpt

Wicked Good Words: From Johnnycakes to Jug Handles, a Roundup of America's Regionalisms Mim Harrison
Web version

You Say Hello

Globalization goes only so far. You can still spot Americans abroad by using your ears instead of your eyes: they're the ones who say "hi" as a form of greeting. Its linguistic ancestry is older than Columbus, being a variant of "Hy!," an exclamation used in the Old World back in 1475. The first American to say "hi" instead of "hello" — or at least, the first one recorded — was a Kansan, in 1862. That makes it an American word by just a year: Kansas was granted statehood in January 1861.

"Hi" is within linguistic shouting distance of hey, which made it into Webster's Compendious Dictionary of 1806 as "a word of joy or exhortation." We're usually glad to see the person we're greeting, so that's the joy part of it. As for the exhortation — if you heard someone in Missouri shout hi there in 1892, that person was most likely trying to herd cows.

"Hey" hewed to its exclamatory nature through the nineteenth century, particularly in the Midwest and Southwest. A Californian in 1899 said, "Well, it's a go then, hey?"

As a greeting, "hey" is more Southern and dates back to at least the 1930s. "Tell him hey for me," says a character in To Kill a Mockingbird. Another Alabaman, baseball legend Willie Mays, was nicknamed the Say Hey Kid in the 1950s for his way of greeting folks. Hey, how you? inquires the South Carolinian.

Click to order Wicked Good Words

Wicked Good Words: From Johnnycakes to Jug Handles, a Roundup of America's Regionalisms
Author: Mim Harrison
Publisher: Perigee
PubDate: 2011
ISBN: 9780399536762
Binding: Paperback
Price: $12.95
Pages: 208

"How do you do" started as early as 1697. (Does anybody say that anymore?) From "how do you do," it's barely a linguistic hop to "how-d'ye," ye being an old form of you. Say "how-d'ye" fast and you have howdy.

Americans got a hankering for "howdy" in the mid-1800s. It may sound Western today but it started off in the South, where it was a common greeting by the end of the Civil War. Even back then, Americans exhibited that penchant to verbify, and they'd turn "howdy" into a verb, as when they said in Kentucky, we've howdy'd but not shook. In Florida, a burrowing owl known for its vigorous bobs of the head is sometimes called the howdy owl.

"Howdy" and "hi" occasionally get together, as when the Texan says hidy, the Californian says hidy-doody, or the Alabaman says hidy-do. No wonder Americans are often characterized as friendly — we have so many greetings. But "greeting" didn't always mean what we think it does. In the 1960s and '70s, you might hear greeting used jokingly in Georgia and Tennessee to mean subpoena. (Your mother told you not to talk to strangers.)

But — hello-o-o, you say, what about hello? It comes from a French term for "stop," the way you'd say it if you were trying to hail a carriage. A version of hail-as-hello could be heard in the 1940s along the outer Northeastern coast, primarily Long Island, Cape Cod, and Maine. Instead of saying "call me," you'd say give me a hail. Hello May, which a Southerner or Southwesterner might say, was a gentle damnation popular in the 1960s that suggested "Hail Mary."

Americans started saying "hello" in the 1860s. As a way to show surprise, people in the Midwest were exclaiming "hello!" back in 1917. Today we might say "whaddup" or "zup" and think we're cool, but our ancestors were saying what's up as early as the 1880s.

What's new and whadda you know are New Yorkisms, as is how's by you. Shalom aleichem is a Yiddish greeting, meaning "peace unto you." The rejoinder, aleichem shalom ("and unto you, peace") is also a way to say farewell.

Most of us say "good-bye" in one form or another. The word was just catching on when the Pilgrims were saying good-bye to all that in Europe. It was a contraction of "God be with you." In Appalachia, a plant that blooms in the fall is called a goodbye-summer. In Arkansas, an aftertaste is known as a goodbye-taste. And in Georgia, someone found another way to say "hearse" in 1969: good-bye wagon.

What to Say if You're Dead

We Americans have a number of lively ways to say "dead." Dropped off is one way to say it in Appalachia. (The rest of us use a watered-down version to refer to someone whom we haven't seen in ages — someone who's dropped off the face of the earth.) Standing in the drop-edge of yonder is how you're likely to hear it said in Tennessee. All anymore is what the Pennsylvania Dutch have said since at least 1859, or simply all, as if to say, "She's all gone."

Buck out, say Westerners, with a nod to the doings of the cowboys and their bucking, kicking animals. Kick off is another such Westernism, although this can be heard in the Midwest as well.

Once you're in the misty beyond (more cowboy-speak, this time from Idaho), they're apt to put you in a bone orchard — aka cemetery. Contrast that earthy orchard with the kind some Northerners head to, the marble orchard — inspired, of course, by all those marble headstones and crypts. In Boontling, the funeral is the croaking, reminiscent of the slang "to croak," or die. "Croak" was slang as early as 1812, an onomatopoeic way to describe what the death rattle sounded like.

Death has a certain self-serve quality in the Ozarks. You dig your grave with a fork and spoon, they say — a bouncier way to say "you are what you eat." I like to die, say Southerners, even though they don't enjoy it one bit. They're simply saying, "I thought I'd die."

If you do die, the old cowboy talk would say you got a halo gratis, and the boys would put you to bed with a pick and shovel, another take on the idea of digging your own grave. If the person doing the digging is Texan, he's just opened himself up a worm farm.

There goes hoss and beaver, laments the old mountain men from the Rockies — the horse and the beaver being among the few living creatures these trappers would see. He's finished his circle, says the old cowhand.

He's bought the farm, maintains the Ozarks mourner. The expression is heard in other parts of the country as well, and it may be one of the linguistic legacies of World War II. (Either that or it's a really good not-so-urban legend worth perpetuating.) Many of the military personnel, particularly air force, either hailed from a farm or spoke about buying themselves one when they retired. The government issued life insurance policies for the soldiers. If they were killed, the insurance money could be used to pay off the mortgage on the farm. Thus, the dead soldiers bought the farm. The equation of farm (grave) with soldiers dates back even earlier, signifying the last bit of land a soldier could call his own.

Those who've bought the farm have turned up their toes, another Ozarks expression, and gone to Boot Hill. This frontier term for cemetery was inspired by the fact that many of its rough-and-ready residents really did die with their boots on.

But it's not just the West where footwear plays a part in having one's foot in the grave. Hanging up your boots is heard among old-timers in Maine, where rubber boots are a common sight near the sea. He coiled his ropes, these same folks are apt to say of a shipmate who has died, alluding to the tidying a seaman would do on board before leaving the ship.

She's going over in her book is another Maine expression, meaning she's not yet dead but is getting darn close. She'll peg out is another northern New England expression, anticipating the same.

And when she does, the Southerner will announce that she passed, a more laconic way of saying "passed away." It's how Shakespeare himself would have said it — and did: "Disturb him not; let him pass peaceably" (Henry VI, Part II).

Reprinted from Wicked Good Words by Mim Harrison by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright 2011 by Mim Harrison and the Stonesong Press LLC. Available wherever books are sold.

Authors, editors, publicists are welcome to submit excerpts of books about words and language for possible publication in Vocabula's "Book Excerpt."

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Mim Harrison

Mim Harrison :: Move me   Mim Harrison is also the author of Words at Work: An Insider's Guide to the Language of Professions and Smart Words: Vocabulary for the Erudite.

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