While wandering a local antique shop in search of Christmas gifts the other day, I spotted an item I couldn’t resist — even though I try not to buy things for myself this time of year. The book, with red lettering and gently curling pages, read “Maine Lingo: Boiled Owls, Billdads, & Wazzats” by John Gould.
I gently opened the cover to discover it had been published in 1975 which, if you can believe it, is 46 years ago. While I wouldn’t exactly call it an “old book,” it was aged just enough that I hoped some of the words and phrases collected by the author would be entirely new to me.
I was born in Maine and have lived here my whole life. I’m familiar with the thick (and to me, wonderful) accents that people have in different parts of the state. I’m sure there are words and sentences that I use in my day to day life that are complete Mainer-isms. But, I’m eager to know more and perhaps carry forward some of that colorful language.
So I took the book home. (Well, I paid for it first.)
It was exactly what I’d hoped. In the book, Gould lists hundreds of terms and phrases from A to Z. Well, actually, he starts with B.
“In early Maine days,” the first entry read, “amongst deep water sailors rather than fishermen, there was a superstition about naming a vessel anything which commenced with an A … So, ‘Begin with B!’ has its meaning in Maine, almost a pleading. (The A’s in this compendium will be found betwixt the B’s and C’s.)”
That entry sets the tone for the entire book. It isn’t just a dictionary of terms. Gould is cheeky and clever, which makes him the perfect writer for describing Maine lingo.
As I leafed through the pages, I noticed that many of the explained words and phrases were inspired by life spent in the woods or on the water. Maine lumberjacks and river drivers seemed to have had particular talent for inventing terms and sayings, as did sailors, fishermen and local hunting and fishing guides.
I decided to jot down some of the outdoor-inspired lingo that made me chuckle, and while reading, I shared a few with my husband.
“Derek, what do you think an ‘essence peddler’ is?” I asked.
Understandably, he was stumped.
“A skunk!” I replied, still flipping through the pages.
Meanwhile, a porkprick is a porcupine, a moosebird is a Canada jay and a stake driver is an American bittern.
Moving on from Maine wildlife, a “struggle-string” is a humorous term that Maine guides have long used to describe the cord of an outboard motor. The word was first used by veteran Maine guide and author Bill Riviere.
While I enjoyed adding those new words to my language arsenal, I was more interested in learning full phrases, and boy did I find some. Among my favorite outdoor-flavored phrases in the book include “tougher than a pitch knot” (to describe a tough person), “smooth as a smelt” (a pleasant situation or thing) and “as cold as a clamdigger’s hands” (very, very cold).
A lot of old Maine lingo has to do with the weather. For example, a “flirt of snow” is just a light dusting of snow, while a “robin’s snow” is specifically an inch or two of snow in late spring. A harsh, cold wind is “blowin’ fit to make a rabbit cry.” And if it’s freezing outside with a wind chill factor, it’s “twice as cold as zero.”
The book also taught me that Maine is home to a horde of mythical creatures. There’s the billdad, fillieloo, shagimaw, sidehill winder (or gouger) and tree-squeak.
“[The shagimaw] has two feet like a moose and two feet like a bear and can make tracks that confound the sport,” Gould explains. “Conditioned by watching surveyors, it goes 80 rods like a moose, shifts, and goes 80 rods like a bear.”
I’ll end with a term in honor of the season: turkey-turd beer. Apparently, it’s a very bad drink. The expression is: “meaner than turkey-turd beer.” Find a way to use it this holiday season. I dare you.