Any true Mainer who claims descent through four or five generations of residence in this state is well aware of the distinctive dialect that sets us apart from outlanders.

There are many words and phrases that bring instant memories of evenings in my grandmother’s kitchen or recollections of my grandfather “jawing” with a neighbor. I was delighted to find a Lewiston Evening Journal article from Oct. 17, 1914, titled “A Dictionary of Maine Slang.”

It was written for the Journal by George Allan England. Even at that time more than 100 years ago, the writer bristled at “absurd imitations found in many books and magazines.” As a matter of fact, “bristle” is one of those words he included in his lighthearted compendium of local dialect.

He knew that northern New England speech had “extraordinary force and color.” For 10 years, that writer had been compiling observations on this region’s “quaint words and picturesque turns of phrase.”

Here’s an assortment of rural language that England found of interest.

Descriptions of health were particularly expressive, ranging from “tough and rugged” or “fatter’n a settled minister” to “pale as dishwater” or “thin as vanity.”

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Maine dialect is rich in lumbering and logging terms, many of which are casualties of time. Would you know what “a driving-head” might mean? It was sufficient current in a river to “drive” logs.

Farming also bred an abundance of odd words. There was the “breachy critter” with the “pesky” habit of jumping fences and running away.

“Comp’ny” meant summer boarders. It also referred to the rural lads who “set up with” the local lasses. Sometimes that discussion might lead to comments such as, “You look like you been courtin.'” England’s interpretation was, “it means that you look weary or played out … a shrewd observation!”

Come fall and come spring need little explanation, but come wheelin’ would not be heard these days. It meant the winter’s snow had melted enough to reveal bare ground on the roads, and wheels were mounted in place of runners.

Old-timers had hundreds of ways to make comparisons … “accommodating as a hog on ice, thick as fiddlers in hell, poor as poverty in a gale of wind.” Our ancestors spoke about things “no bigger than a pint of cider,” “slower than stock-still,” and “like all git-out.”

There was one short phase in that list of comparisons that is still heard often today … “sure as shootin.'”

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It’s no mystery where I picked up my appreciation for real Yankee dialect. My father had written poetry in many genres since his high school years at the original Edward Little High School.

Many of his poems came from his firsthand knowledge of Maine farm life. He collected those poems and published them in a book he titled “Homespun,” and it’s seasoned liberally with the Maine vernacular.

He wrote of “syrupin'” and “dustin.'” Of course, the first was about producing maple syrup; the second was about broadcast-spreading of powdered chemicals to kill potato slugs that he called “those pink pot-bellied sons-of sinners.” 

He wrote about flocks of birds in late summer “making their southing.”

He wrote of the farmer’s call to the cows at milking time … “Come Boss, come Boss.”

In a description of a winter sleigh ride, my father told how the “rigs” (big farm sleds with double sets of heavy runners) were pulled by a two-horse “hitch.” The driver sat in “the box,” which was a combination seat and container for feed and tools.

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He “reined” the team left or right. With no brakes on the farm sled, the horses had to hold back on down-slopes “in their breeching” to control the descent. Steep slopes called for “bridle chains” around a runner to create more drag.

Even under heavy “buffalo” robes, the frigid air chilled feet to the point where the sled was halted and the passengers jumped off and were allowed to “train.” That was a term for some rough and tumble frolic in the snow.

As George Allan England said at the beginning of his article about Maine slang, “Long residence in this section convinces me that nowhere else do such singular provincialisms still survive.” He said the older generation still clings to the archaic forms, probably in many cases reaching far back into the dialects of Old England.

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

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