A wee deek on Boont harpin'
Shortly after quitting time in the Anderson Valley, loggers in plaid wool shirts and steel-toed boots park their pickup trucks and track mud across the floor of a restaurant here. Inside the old-timers play pinochle, the radio plays Johnny Cash, and lumberjacks inhale homemade huckleberry pie and slurp down a horn of zeese.
Here in Boonville, a remote hamlet 100 miles north of San Francisco, a "horn of zeese" means a cup of coffee and the term derives from a local hunting camp cook in the 19th century whose initials were Z.C. He made a bitterly strong pot of java. At this restaurant -- also called the Horn of Zeese --you can also order jeffered (hot) and fridgy (cold) sandwiches, fridgy charl (ice cream), scrambled easters (eggs), mashed boos (potatoes), boont butter (gravy), a teesle and borp slibs broadie burger (bacon burger with cheese), or the "fogeaters special": sertle and boarf boos (fish and chips). The menu further announces the rudy nebs (water) is free, and that "It's bahl to deek on you. Hope you enjoy harpin' tidric and are plenty scottied" which, for the uninitiated, roughly translates: "It's good to see you. Hope you enjoy a chat and that you are plenty hungry."
This apparent jabberwocky, tossed around the Horn of Zeese, is more than short-order slang; it is a unique local language called "Boontling" or "Boont." The lingo has been around since the 1880s, has a distinct vocabulary of at least 1,500 words, and is a colorful regional quirk which defies both the melting pot theory and standard Walter Cronkite English, and has attracted the attention of linguists and anthropologists alike.
At the turn of the century nearly 500 people living in the vicinity of Boonville spoke the language. Today, while most anybody in town can order a meal or greet somebody at the post office in "Boontling," only a couple dozen of the oldtimers like Buzzard, Wee Ite, Weefus, and Deekin are fluent and can, as they say, sit around "harpin' a heelch of the ling of the land of the Beeson tree."
Bob (Chipmunk) Glover is one of those men. His great-grandfather, born in Switzerland, was one of the first homesteaders in the Anderson Valley. He arrived in 1855 and Chipmunk has taken it upon himself to preside as self-appointed historian, linguist, and staunch defender of Boonville's language and culture. You might say Chipmunk is to Boontling what the Academie Franaise is to French.
He writes a weekly column in Boont for the town's Anderson Valley Advertiser. The column is called "Chipmunk Harpin'" and its author claims the ability to speak both "deep" and "light" Boontling, depending on the occasion and erudition of his audience. He advises, for instance, "If you're going to write a song in Boontling that you want to become a nationwide No. 1, you wouldn't do it in deep Boont."
Chipmunk, who draws his nickname from a miserly grandfather, is a small man, barely 5 feet 2 inches, with an acerbity and intelligence sufficient to compensate for his size. The day we met for lunch at the Redwood Drive-in across Route 128 from the Horn of Zeese, Chipmunk ordered a "chipmunk burger," and as it arrived in one of those red plastic mesh baskets, he began his lecture on the region's language and geography.
The Anderson Valley, like all Gaul, is divided into three parts. Three towns to be exact: Boonville, Philo, and Navarro. "And the people from Boonville are a different breed of cat," confides Chipmunk, bearing down on his burger. The pioneers who settled in Boonville in the mid-19th century were largely Southern mountain folk. Many came from two counties in appalachia: Washington County, Va., and Ashe County, N.C. They brought with them Scotch-Irish brogues and Southern Democratic politics. During the Civil War they cheered for Dixie.
The people, however, who settled in the lower end of the valley, in Philo and Navarro, were Germans, Italians, Swiss, and Swedes, from northern Republican regions like New York and Illinois. They were Yankees at heart. And so, throughout the 19th century, Anderson Valley carried on its own backyard civil war with the "Boonters" on one side, and the "Poleekers" (as the residents of Philo were called) and the Navarroites on the other.
Denmark Creek, which separates Boonville from the other two towns, is still known in the valley as the "Mason-Dixon line." Even the wildlife seems to respect the border. "There are all kinds of rattlesnakes around Boonville but never has a rattlesnake crossed the Mason-Dixon line," says Chipmunk.
Separated by only six miles, Philo and Boonville remain worlds apart. Even the weather is different. Philo's annual rainfall is 10 inches more than Boonville. Consequently, the lower end of the valley is characterized by fog, towering redwoods, and luxuriant undergrowth, while Boonville is a dryer, brushier terrain. Settlers in the lower valley went into logging, but Boonters stuck primarily to subsistence farming on small plots with a few pigs, chickens, sheep, and apple trees.
The Boonters' Dogpatch life style, their isolation, their clannishness led the people in the neighboring towns to label them hicks, hillbillies, and "squirrel bacon." (The last is an apparent reference to the large quantities of wild game Boonters consumed.) The Boonters, in turn, showed their disdain for the outside world by calling city folk "bright-lighters" and "turkey necks" (gawkers), and labeling coastal dwellers "fogeaters," "ab (abalone) chasers," and "briney kimmies." ("Kimmie" is Boontling for man, probably from the Scotch-Irish kimmer or "comer.")
Thus the language grew in part from the Boonters' xenophobia, and it was used as a defense mechanism, a way of gossiping about strangers in their presence without being understood. It was also a means of passing time in a town that was long on time and short on entertainment. After the summer sheepshearing and hops picking the winter rainy season brought mudslides that made roads in and out of the valley nearly impassable. In these pre-radio days, young men in cabins or deerhunting camps would sit around making up new Boont words as part of an improvised game that sounds like a forerunner of Password.
"You'd find a bunch of sheepherders going up the side of Bald Mountain," says Chipmunk, "to a cabin with an old sawed redwood table and all sitting around a kerosene lamp, talking and developing this coded language. The game was to 'shark' each other, which meant to say a new word in the proper Boontling structure and make the other person ask, 'What does it mean?'"
"You see, a Boonter is a bragger, a theatrical person, playing on the stage of life, playing it to the hilt and hoping someone is watching," says Chipmunk with the aplomb of a Henry Higgins playing to an audience of Eliza Doolittles. "Context, context is everything in Boontling. Take, for example, the word mossy which as a verb means to change the subject rapidly in a conversation. But as a noun it means a kitchen apron.
"An old-timer at the Anytime Saloon once had said he had taken all he could from the boss, so he reached back, untied his apron and threw it in the air. The boys said it just sailed like a butterfly, and ever since, when you say somebody 'butterflied their mossy,' you mean they quit their job," says Chipmunk , who between paragraphs is making quick work of a chocolate-covered donut.
Dr. Charles Adams is a former English professor at California State University at Chico in northern California who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Boonville language, which was eventually published by the University of Texas as a 272-page book called "Boontling, An American Lingo." In strict linguistic terms, Boontling is not actually a language, says Adams.
"It's really a jargon because the linguistic structure, the phonology, grammar, and syntax are essentially English. And yet Boontling is far more complicated than, say, the sort of jargon used by baseball players or plumbers with a specialized vocabulary to talk about their particular business," Dr. Adams explains. Dr. Adams, who now is associate vice-president of the university, spent three years doing research, boarding off and on with Phocian McGimsey, a local oldtimer who proved to be one of Adam's chief informants.
What makes Boontling distinct, of course, is the vocabulary. In addition to borrowing words from Spanish, Pomo Indian, Scotch-Irish, and what Dr. Adams calls the Midland America dialect, Boontling's "other productive sources of words were individual coinages based on local anecdotes, imitation of common sounds, and the distortion of English words and expressions, mainly by merging words, dropping or adding syllables, and shifting the natural accent," he writes.
One rich source of Boont vocabulary is the names of local residents. Boonter Jeff Vestal kept a big fire going in his fireplace even in the summertime, so a fire became a jeffer. Charlie Ball was a local Indian too shy to speak, so if you charlie ball someone, you've embarrassed them. A buckey walter is a pay telephone because the first phone in the valley was owned by Walter Levi and a call back then only cost a buckey -- a nickel. A Beeson tree is a riding saddle because they were made by local saddlemaker Henry Beeson, who carved them out of buckeye wood. Nettie Wallace was always adorned to the hilt, so anyone overdressed is said to be nettied. If you're ot'n, you're working hard because an old Swede named Otto always kicked up a lot of dirt and sweat when he worked. (The term white oakin', the antonym of buckeye -- to loaf -- also means working hard because white oak is difficult to split.)
In the Boont, Leo (Sandy) Sanders is a "Poleeker," because he resides in Philo, on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line. He lives in a pink house on the edge of a cow pasture that is part of the 160-acre homestead his grandfather settled in 1864. Sandy recalls as a youngster learning Boontling on the sly, against his mother's wishes. "One of my classmates in high school went to Boonville on weekends and came back on Mondays with new words. Soon all the boys around school were harpin' Boont. Philo people, of course, were never welcomed in Boonville. There was no love lost between us. The baseball games usually broke up in fist fights, the dances likewise."
Over the last couple of decades, however, the people of Boonville, Philo, and Navarro have foregone their McCoy-Hatfield feuding, and joined hands to preserve the valley's unique lingo, which many fear is dying out. Mr. Sanders's wife, Edna, whom he affectionately calls skoolch (schoolteacher), taught Boontling throughout the 1960s to third graders in the Anderson Valley Elementary School.
Her students wrote stories in Boont, plays in Boont, and divided Boont words and syllables the way one might dissect any new language. Ironically, not only did they learn Boontling but, according to Mrs. Sanders, their English reading scores were 9 percent higher than those of the children who didn't study Boontling. While teaching she compiled two Boont booklets which are sold at the Horn of Zeese: "A Slib of Lorey" (A Bit of Folklore) and "Bahl Gorms in Boont" (Good Eating in Boonville), a collection of local recipes.
At that time the Sanderses also helped form an informal group called the Boontling Club for the expressed purpose of protecting the local language and culture. The use of Boontling had fallen off dramatically after World War I, when many of the language's inventors went off to fight or work in shipbuilding and never returned home. The dilution of Boontling was furthered by the lumber boom in the 1940s, which brought in thousands of bright-lighters (in five years, the valley's population tripled) who looked down their noses at the backwoodsy lingo. For nearly two decades Boontling was driven underground. During the mild revival in the 1960s Charles Adams arrived in town to work on his dissertation.
In 1964, when he started work, the Boonters were still defensive, somewhat ashamed, and afraid another outsider might write them off as a bunch of country bumpkins. "I took it slow," says Dr. Adams. "We first talked about hunting and rifles, which I know something about. Then I struck a bargain with the club. I would provide them a scholarly record of the language, if they would provide me an opening to the oldtimers. They cut a deal and the rest is history."
Dr. Adams worries that Boontling is rapidly on the way to becoming "an artifact, a historical curiosity." But Chipmunk and the other Boont loyalists reassure themselves "use of the language has always been cyclical" and soon it will be back in vogue.
Part of keeping any language alive is molding it to the changing needs of its users. While the addition of new words to Boontling is a "highly sensitive subject among the oldtimers," says Chipmunk, he makes a point of trying to liven up his weekly column with fresh Boont terms much in the old Password game style, which promoted use of the English language in the late 19th century.
One new word is "grale." "That's what all the young people are trying to save now, the gray whale," he says. 'Posey tweed' is another, and it means a flower child, or hippie." Unfortunately, most of the posey tweeds who have been settling in the valley are not seriously studying the local language, and as Chipmunk says, "Boont is not like learning to ride a bicycle; you've got to keep it up." A Boontling glossary
Though Boontling is largely a spoken rather than a written language, Dr. Charles Adams compiled a dictionary of some 1,500 Boont words, of which the following is a "wee deek" (brief look):
ale A letter. (Reshaped "a letter.")
beljeek A jack rabbit. (Combination of "Belgian" --Belgian hare -- and "jeek" for "jack.")
bohoyk To laugh loudly. (Imitative).
boshe Deer; to hunt deer. (From Pomo Indian bishe, "deer.")
buckeye To loaf. (From the longer expression "cutting buckeye." The buckeye shrub is soft, brittle, and cuts easily.)
buckey A nickel. (Nickels once had the head of a "buck" Indian on one side.)
chigrel Food; to eat. (Related to the Scotch-Irish chig and chiggle "to chew.")
doolsey Candy, sweets. (Spanish dulse.)
eeld'm Wife; old woman. (Reshaped Scotch-Irish "old dame.")
featherleg A cocky person. (Bantam roosters have feathers on their legs.)
forbes Fifty-cent piece. (Reshaped "four bits.")
haireem A dog. (Reshaped "hairy mouth.")
higs Money. (From "hig," a local term for a "hog dollar," a silver dollar.)
itch neemer A person who no longer craves drink. (Reshaped "itch no more.")
lockin' A wedding.
pike To travel.
seertle A fish; a salmon. (Reshaped "sore tail," local word for spawning salmon.)
skipe A preacher. (Reshaped "sky pilot.")
smeelch Coins; small change. (Reshaped "small change.")
squeakyteek A digger squirrel. (Imitative of its bark.)
tidrik A party; social gathering. (Probably from "tea drink.")
trashmover A heavy winter storm.
tweed A child.