DARE Is Fleeching You.

Alison Flood reports on a clever initiative:

It’s not quite as vital as the battles to save the likes of the Amur leopard and giant panda from extinction, but a campaign to preserve a host of endangered regional American words and phrases has been launched, looking to save the likes of “wamus” to “sonsy”, and “spouty” to “bonnyclabber”.

The list of 50 words and phrases was compiled by the Dictionary of American Regional English, a project that has been running since 1965, when almost 3,000 face-to-face interviews were conducted with people across the US to map the thousands of differences in dialect across the states. DARE has chosen the words it believes to be “on the cusp of extinction” and teamed up with podcasting platform Acast, asking its producers and presenters to “adopt” an endangered word or phrase and use it on their shows.

The words and phrases range from to “be on one’s beanwater”, a New England phrase that means to be in high spirits or to feel frisky, to the south Atlantic verb “to fleech”, meaning to coax, wheedle or flatter. A heavy rain is described as a “frog strangler” in the southern states and south midlands, or a “goose drownder” in the midlands; “to vum” is to swear or declare in New England; “the last button on Gabe’s coat” is used in the south to refer to the last bit of food.

“Although language change is inevitable, it’s too bad to see some of our most colourful expressions going out of use,” said Joan Hall, former editor of DARE. “It would be fun to see them revitalised.”

I agree, and I hope people will take them up on it; the piece ends with a list of “the 50 endangered words and phrases.” A couple of quibbles: they should have made more of an effort to separate out “cute dialectal terms that nobody else is ever going to use” (e.g., Racket store: a variety store; Skillpot: a turtle) from words that one can imagine being adopted (Cuddy: a small room, closet, or cupboard; Fogo: An offensive smell; Sonsy: cute, charming, lively). Also, Shat: a pine needle? Get serious. (Thanks, Trevor!)


  1. Trond Engen says

    Skillpot: a turtle. Chiefly District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia.

    It’s interesting, though. Norwegian/Danish skilpadde is borrowed from German Schildpatt. The American word with preserved [k] must have a different origin. Dutch is an obvious candidate, but not in the Virginias. Is it a Caribean trade word, from the brief period when Batavia ruled the American seas?

  2. But Standard Danish doesn’t do palatalization before front vowels (unlike Norwegian, and Jutish dialects), and ‘corrects’ loans from German accordingly. Skildpadde is currently [ˈsg̥elˌpʰæ̘ð̠̤ː], and I see no evidence that the second vowel used to be further back — still ‘skillpot’ looks plausible as a folk-etymological adaptation.

  3. As I am presently in the market for a popular type of boat featuring a cuddy cabin, which is called that because, as you might guess, it has a small enclosed area, I wonder how carefully DARE did their research. The word is not disused or rare or in any danger of disappearing.

  4. I was surprised to see ‘counterpin’ on the list — I assume it’s just a regional pronunciation of ‘counterpane.’ Although it may be that counterpane is itself an old-fashioned and endangered word.

  5. For what it’s worth, I know “counterpane” only from reading—I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone refer to something as a counterpane.

  6. “Fair fa yir honest sonsie face / Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!”

  7. I think it’s not the word so much as the thing that is obsolescent. A counterpane, technically, is a bedspread with a double, or even single, layer of material but with no filling between them. As such, any warmth it provides is from the fabric alone, which therefore must be heavy. People who sleep in centrally heated bedrooms normally don’t want or need something heavy on their bodies as they sleep. (I myself can’t tolerate any cover at all: even if I wake during the night to a cold room and cover myself, when I next wake up I find I have invariably pushed it off again.) Thus R.L.S.:

    When I was sick and lay a-bed,
    I had two pillows at my head,
    And all my toys beside me lay,
    To keep me happy all the day.

    And sometimes for an hour or so
    I watched my leaden soldiers go,
    With different uniforms and drills,
    Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

    And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
    All up and down among the sheets;
    Or brought my trees and houses out,
    And planted cities all about.

    I was the giant great and still
    That sits upon the pillow-hill,
    And sees before him, dale and plain,
    The pleasant land of counterpane.

  8. Jim (another one) says

    “It’s interesting, though. Norwegian/Danish skilpadde is borrowed from German Schildpatt. The American word with preserved [k] must have a different origin.”

    Yeah, Trond, like something Scandinavian probably. TA significant percentage of “Scotch-Irish” came out of the Danelaw and areas northwestward, and sure enough, W Virginia and West Virginia are the areas where the word occurs.

  9. But for Schildpatt to be borrowed through the Norse spoken in the Danelaw seems anachronistic — the Hanse came to Norway after the Vikings left.

  10. As a child (Boston suburbs, to New Yorker parents) I called a dragonfly a “darning needle.” I’d never heard or seen “sewing needle” until today.

  11. “Darning needle” was a sufficiently ordinary term in Massachusetts that I picked it up during the three years that I lived in Charlestown for graduate school. “Sewing needle” sounds like something I would hear from somebody making a sad attempt to mimic the local argot.

  12. If I ever get a pet turtle, I am definitely naming it Skillpot. In fact, I may get myself a stuffed turtle or a knicknacky turtle and name it thusly. (That is, I’d name it Skillpot. I wouldn’t name it Thusly, which is the name of my jar of attack jelly.)

  13. I wonder if “skillpot,” with that distribution, has anything to do with the New Sweden colony on the Delaware?

  14. David Marjanović says

    is borrowed from German Schildpatt

    But that refers (rather obsoletely) to the horn layer of a turtle shell as material for combs and the like, and is an obvious borrowing from Dutch schildpad “turtle” with the usual shift to a much narrower meaning. So, while I’d certainly expect American traces in NY rather than VA or WV, Batavia ruling the seas must be the explanation.

    Pad, incidentally, means “toad”, so schildpad is analogous to the German “turtle” word Schildkröte.

  15. @Uly: Is that a No Coins, Please reference?

  16. @David, when Trond says German he obviously mean Middle Low German, because that’s where the Scandinavian languages got their loan words from when they started needing a word for turtle.

  17. David Marjanović says

    Dutch, on the other hand, got reasonably close to Virginia.

  18. The case for “Skillpot” as borrowed from Dutch “Schildpad” is even stronger when it is remembered that in the colonial Dutch spoken in New Amsterdam the cluster /sx/ coexisted with a variant /sk/: it has been argued that the “sound change” which turned colonial Dutch /sx/ into /sk/ in Afrikaans (cf. “skilpad”, the Afrikaans word for “turtle”) was simply the triumph of this variant: or, at least, that the presence of this variant greatly facilitated the change in question.

    Thus, even if you do not believe that English speakers would have replaced /sx/ with /sk/ in a loanword from Dutch, the existence of a /sk/ variant in Dutch itself would have made it much likelier that English speakers would have adapted /sx/ as /sk/.

  19. J. W. Brewer says

    Possibly relevant to Rodger C’s question is the existence of Shellpot Creek in the bit of northern Delaware (Brandywine Hundred) where I spent my childhood. Back when the area was part of Nya Sverige, the name is said (by at least some sources on the internet …) to have been Sköllpadde (= turtle). Although there was a brief period of Dutch rule in between the Swedes and the English, so early Dutch influence on toponyms can’t be ruled out either …

  20. Stephen C. Carlson says

    Back when the area was part of Nya Sverige, the name is said (by at least some sources on the internet …) to have been Sköllpadde (= turtle).

    The Wikipedia article for Shellpot Creek indeed spells it with a double ‘l’, but the referenced source spells it as Sköldpadde, which is closer to the (now) standard spelling of sköldpadda. I’m not sure what the deal with the final vowel is: another mistake or some dialectal variant, perhaps from parts nearer to Denmark?

  21. Here’s a post from someone whose yard backs up onto Shellpot Creek who collected quite a variety of different names and variant spellings from old maps. http://honesthypocrite.blogspot.com/2007/07/filpot-kilpot-or-shellpot-history-of.html. Some of the spellings (e.g. Schillpades and Schilpatts) definitely have a Dutchish look to them.

  22. Sköldpadda at Svenska Akademiens Ordbok. Forms in -e are attested 1559 – 1704, no need to invoke dialects.

  23. Stephen C. Carlson says

    Thanks for that. On top of that, I also guessed wrong about which part of Sweden: It turns out that the Swede who erected the first gristmill on the creek, John Stalcop / Johan (Andersson) Stålkofta, hailed from Strängnäs, which is not near Denmark at all but near Stockholm in Södermanland.

  24. I’d never heard or seen “sewing needle” until today

    I’ve only heard it in use when someone wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t some other sort of needle. Normally “needle” alone means sewing needle. But there are situations where you would interpret “needle” to mean something else and that’s where you’d make it clear that, yes, you really mean a sewing needle, like, I don’t know, “the nurse accidentally jabbed herself in the finger with a needle” and you want to reassure everyone that she did it when she was mending her clothes, not because she was careless with a syringe.


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