Touchous, honeyfuggle, and whoopensocker

Posted by on March 18, 2013

We’ve looked before at dialectal vocabulary – those regional words and phrases peculiar to, or characteristic of, particular geographic areas. My earlier post focused on UK and Irish terms, but American speakers are no slouches in the regional expressions department.

A good source of these is the US public radio show A Way with Words, whose listeners ring in with colourful colloquialisms – local sayings, puzzling slang, rhymes they learned as children, and so on. Each episode features a bunch of examples discussed with evident pleasure by the hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett. It’s a consistent treat for word lovers and etymology fans.

For instance, a recent episode touched on touchous, a word new to me but immediately intelligible in context: it means painful or tender to the touch (either emotionally or physically), as in Martha’s line “My toe’s so touchous I can hardly walk.” In some places it can have negative connotations, similar to touchy and oversensitive.

The riches of informal US speech are impressively collected in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), the final volume and index of which were recently published. Decades in the making, the complete print edition has more than 60,000 entries. In short – or in one word, at least – it’s a whoopensocker (something extraordinary of its kind).

The DARE website and publisher’s page have lots of background information and reviews, while this page of sample entries is an excellent place for a rantum scoot. Chief editor Joan Houston Hall spoke about the dictionary’s origin and contents in two interviews with the Wisconsin Englishes Project, and you can also enjoy its lexical treasure on Twitter (you don’t have to be registered to read the tweets).

A curious recent example is unthoughted, meaning thoughtless, with the related adverb unthoughtedly and noun unthoughtedness (heard mainly in the South and South Midlands, according to DARE). Given another spin of the language-change wheel, it’s easy to imagine this being the normal morphology and thoughtless the obscure one.

More exotically, consider the BFG-esque honeyfuggle, an old-fashioned term meaning (among other things) “to flatter, sweet-talk; to wheedle; to ballyhoo”. There’s a related noun, equally fun to say: honeyfoogler, meaning a flatterer. Semantically this sense of honeyfuggle is very close to the Irish plámás, a word with some currency in Hiberno-English.

Some people worry that English will become homogenised, but this is unlikely – old words may fade from usage, but new ones keep materialising; dialects may converge in certain ways, but they also naturally diverge. We can all do our bit by using the regional words and expressions we like. What are yours?

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For more posts on American English, see this page.

Comments (3)
  • Stan:
    Among my favorites:
    sockdolager (with a hard g) – mid-nineteenth century; something or someone, really special, a deal-closing action.
    disremember – forget, early 19th century.
    fangle – make or fashion; back-formation from new-fangled
    warmish – a bit warm (I first heard it one summer over forty years ago in Maine) pronounced kn the Down-East Dialect as “WAH-mish.

    Posted by marc leavitt on 18th March, 2013
  • Those are great, Marc. Sockdolager is a wonderfully weird word, and looking it up I see its origin is suitably mysterious. (I notice that several dictionaries give a soft-g pronunciation for it.) Fangle deserves wider currency. I’ll try not to disremember it.

    Posted by Stan on 18th March, 2013
  • Stan:
    Just to clarify: what I meant by “hard” g was a mis-characterization. I should have said that the “g” was pronounced like the “j” in jar.

    Posted by marc leavitt on 19th March, 2013
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