american English linguistics and lexicography Love English

Touchous, honeyfuggle, and whoopensocker

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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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Touchous in East Texas also means that something, such as operating a complicated mechanism, requires a delicate touch. That is, it requires a careful manipulation to use.
    A true example, “This Polaroid camera is touchous.” circa 1970s. This was said by an elderly uncle, but I heard the word from other people who were in their 70s and 80s in the 1950s.
    Probably derived from touchy, meaning someone has to be treated delicately.

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