Do You Harp Boontling?

No, you do not harp (speak) Boontling unless you grew up in Boonville, California, and learned the locally-invented dialect in elementary school (the state actually sanctioned the teaching of Boontling); you’re a linguist who studied the language and wrote a book about it*; or you decided to master this curiosity for the sheer fun of it.

The name pairs Boont, a nickname for the Mendocino County town, with ling, from lingo. In Boontling’s half-century heyday (c.1880 through the Roaring Twenties) about 500 residents of Boonville and vicinity made use of the dialect.

Linguists and locals have at least three theories for the origin of Boontling’s 1,000-odd words and 300 specialized names (personal and place names alike): 1) They grew from the earliest settlters’ languages – Gaelic, Spanish, and Pomoan, an umbrella term for the indigenous languages of the region. 2): Female hop-pickers were loath to speak of a pregnant but unmarried workmate in her presence, so they coined words she wouldn’t understand and then passed them on to their husbands. 3) A few clever young men invented Boontling as a secret tongue to fool their elders.

Say What?

What is certain is that the words were rarely picked out of thin air; rather, most were inspired by Mendocino County’s natural features, wildlife, and townspeople. For instance, blooch — “to chatter aimlessly – comes from “blue jay,” and bucky walter (“pay phone”) was named for the man who owned the town’s first telephone and charged locals a nickel to use it. A number of other coinages make sense even to modern ears – among them bright lights for “city”; codgy for “old and somewhat senile”; dumplin’ dust for “flour”; log-lifter for “heavy rain”; rout for “scold harsly”; and sol for “sun.” Still, the lion’s share of the language was – and remains – opaque to outsiders, as the twenty Boontling words below confirm.

  • applehead  a girl, especially one’s girlfriend
  • bahl good, of excellent quality (from Ball Shoes, a premium brand)
  • beark  aggressive or overactive person (from “bearcat”)
  • chapport  to challenge to a fight
  • chipmunk  as a verb, hoard; as a noun, a hoarder
  • deek  to look or examine
  • frattey  wine (frattey shams = “grapevines”)
  • glimmers  eyeglasses, specs
  • higgery  a bank (higgy = “wealthy”)
  • jape  to drive**
  • jeffer  a fire
  • lock  to marry
  • neeble  bad, inferior, defective
  • reel  a relative
  • skiddley  doubtful, worrisome
  • skype  a preacher (from ”sky pilot”)
  • teebowed  deaf, hard of hearing
  • tidrick  a gathering, meeting, or party
  • whittlin’  politics, politicking
  • yink  a young man

 *Former English professor Charles C. Adams, who researched and wrote Boontling: An American Lingo (1971).

 **In more than one language (English included), the infinitive “to drive” was the root of terms for sexual intercourse — and, by coincidence (?), one of those terms was the now-obsolete jape.

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