There’s a general misunderstanding that Mainers are tight-lipped and taciturn.

If you are “from away,” it’s more than likely that attempts at conversation with the longtime locals won’t produce much beyond a few “ayuhs” and “nopes.”

After all, natives of New England are all too familiar with clumsy efforts by writers and moviemakers to capture the region’s distinctive dialect. Too often it’s done for laughs, and that makes us “madder ’n tunket,” or madder than hell.

Maine dialect has served a number of accomplished writers very well. Tim Sample is a respected purveyor of Maine-isms. The “Bert and I” comedy recordings by Marshall Dodge and Bob Bryan are classics.

In the early 1900s, Holman Day wrote for the Lewiston Evening Journal and he mastered the area’s speech in several books.

There was another writer who studied the speech of Northern New England for about 10 years. To George Allan England, the native New Englander’s ability to turn a phrase was held in high esteem. He wrote mostly in New York and Maine, and he produced some early science fiction stories. In 1912, he ran unsuccessfully for governor of Maine on the socialist ticket.

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England set down hundreds of slang expressions in a long article written for the Lewiston Evening Journal’s Magazine Section on Oct. 17, 1914. It is a compilation of unique regional terms used in everyday life.

Here’s a sampling of the casual manner of speaking that was heard at that time throughout the Twin Cities and the neighboring farms. You may still hear these expressions wherever members of the area’s old families gather.

If you were asked, “How are you?” the possible replies were endless.

“Sick abed in the wood box” really meant good health.

“Smart,” “full o’ sprawl,” “spry,” “fat ’s a tick,” and “fatter ’n a settled minister” all meant you were in good condition.

On the other hand, “pale ’s dishwater,” “peaked,” “thinner ’n a hay rake,” thin ’s vanity,” or “tuckered” meant ill health.

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England noted that the area’s slang featured some colorful comparisons.

“Excited as a cat at a mouse show,” “thick as fiddlers in hell,” or “poor ’s poverty in a gale of wind” were just a few.

There were plenty of phrases related to farm life and labor. A lazy hired hand was said to be so slow “you have to sight by suthin’ to see him move.” In other words, “he won’t do a shovelful of work” unless you “prong at him” or “ding at him.”

A “chanst” was a place to work or board. “Ridin’ shank’s mare” meant walking, and “legging it” inferred moving along in a hurry.

If you were stingy, it might be said you were “snug ’s the bark on a tree.”

I often wondered why the neighborhood on Center Street in Auburn at the intersection with North River Road was called “the logan.”

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England said a logan was “wet, low marshy land,” and so it was at that location in the early 1900s.

This list is a small part of George Allan England’s “Dictionary of Maine Slang” published here more than 100 years ago. England said of the unusual manner of speaking, “It may appear merely ungrammatical and crude. Carefully studied, however, it shows the intimate interaction of environment and folks, and thus it is well worthy of our attention.”

Discussion of old expressions always leads my wife, Judy, to recall fondly a familiar saying of my mother and my grandmother. After a meal, especially large family gatherings, it was time to clear the table and begin the dishwashing. To those wives of farmers and woodcutters, the household chore borrowed a phrase from the men’s work.

“Let’s yard up the dishes and get busy,” the ladies might say. In the woods, the newly fallen logs were “yarded up” at a central area.

Most areas of this country, and many others, have distinctive characteristics of language. Sometimes, a particularly apt saying has a definite local origin. Other phrases are lost in the haze of history, and some are still around if you keep your ear tuned for them.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to [email protected]


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