A Quest to Save America’s Dying Regional Slang

The podcast network Acast is attempting to resuscitate endangered terms like bat hide, bonnyclabber, ear screw, fleech, whistle pig, and popskull.

Pedestrians attempt to shield themselves from a "frog strangler," or downpour, in New York City. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

The fluidity of human language is what makes it lively and effective, but it’s also the force that constantly makes words and expressions obsolete. Nowhere is this more obvious than in compilations of local slang, which have a tendency to sound at least half made-up—even when you know the region really, really well.

That may be, in part, because language evolves simultaneously within and outside of set geographic boundaries, making either phenomenon difficult to track. The demise of niche localized slang has long been accelerated by broadcast and publishing technologies that create mass audiences—first radio, then television, then the internet, with slang from different areas emerging and spreading quickly on digital platforms.

Now, one podcasting network is experimenting with whether it can help prompt a reversal—using its reach in an attempt to save rare slang, rather than displacing it. The network, Acast—which hosts podcasts from companies like BuzzFeed, Ikea, Virgin, Financial Times, as well as individual hosts—asked the Dictionary of American Regional English to draw up a list of the 50 most endangered dialectic words and phrases from around the United States.

The list includes terms like to “be on one’s beanwater,” a New England phrase that indicates someone’s in high spirits or feeling frisky. Acast is sharing the list with its clients and partners, and asking podcast hosts to consider reviving regional slang from around the United States by using it in their shows. The effort isn’t meant to be subliminal—listeners won’t just hear casually peppered-in references to “bat hides” (dollar bills, according to Southwestern slang) and “skillpots” (turtles, to folks in Washington, D.C., apparently). Instead, says Karl Rosander, the president of Acast Stories USA, these endangered terms will be contextualized and pronounced correctly in a return to public discourse that just might save them.

“Learning through audio is a hugely effective educational method,” he said in a statement provided by a spokesman, “and so, as they say in New England, ‘I vum’ that this project should help restore these words and phrases to their former glory.”

To vum, of course, meaning to swear or declare.

Here’s the full list:

Barn burner: a wooden match that can be struck on any surface. (Chiefly Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, Maryland)
Bat hide: a dollar bill. (Chiefly Southwest)
Be on one’s beanwater: to be in high spirits, feel frisky. (Chiefly New England)
Bonnyclabber: thick, sour milk. (Chiefly North Atlantic)
Counterpin: a bedspread. (Chiefly South, South Midland)
Croker sack: a burlap bag. (Chiefly Gulf States, South Atlantic)
Cuddy: a small room, closet, or cupboard.
Cup towel: a dish towel. (Chiefly Texas, Inland South)
Daddock: rotten wood, a rotten log. (Chiefly New England)
Dish wiper: a dish towel. (Chiefly New England)
Dozy of wood: decaying. (Chiefly Northeast, especially Maine)
Dropped egg: a poached egg. (Chiefly New England)
Ear screw: an earring. (Chiefly Gulf States, Lower Mississippi Valley)
Emptins: homemade yeast used as starter. (Chiefly New England, Upstate New York)
Farmer match: a wooden match than can be struck on any surface. (Chiefly Upper Midwest, Great Lakes, New York, West Virginia)
Fleech: to coax, wheedle, flatter. (South Atlantic)
Fogo: An offensive smell. (Chiefly New England)
Frog strangler: a heavy rain. (Chiefly South, South Midland)
Goose drownder: a heavy rain. (Chiefly Midland)
I vum: I swear, I declare. (Chiefly New England)
Larbo: a type of candy made of maple syrup on snow. (New Hampshire)
Last button on Gabe’s coat: the last bit of food. (Chiefly South, South Midland)
Leader: a downspout or roof gutter. (Chiefly New York, New Jersey)
Nasty-neat: overly tidy. (Scattered, but especially Northeast)
Parrot-toed: pigeon-toed. (Chiefly Mid Atlantic, South Atlantic)
Pin-toed: pigeon-toed. (Especially Delaware, Maryland, Virginia)
Popskull: cheap or illegal whiskey. (Chiefly Southern Appalachians)
Pot cheese: cottage cheese. (Chiefly New York, New Jersey, northern Pennsylvania, Connecticut)
Racket store: a variety store. (Especially Texas)
Sewing needle: a dragonfly. (Especially Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Massachusetts) [Folk lore says that it would sew up one’s eyes and mouth, or fingers and toes, if one fell asleep outside.]
Shat: a pine needle. (Chiefly Delaware, Maryland, Virginia)
Shivering owl: a screech owl. (Chiefly South Atlantic, Gulf States) [Its cry is said to portend a death in the family or other ill omen.]
Skillpot: a turtle. (Chiefly District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia)
Sonsy: cute, charming, lively. (Scattered)
Spill: a pine needle. (Chiefly Maine)
Spin street yarn: to gossip. (Especially New England)
Spouty: of ground: soggy, spongy. (Scattered)
Suppawn: corn meal mush. (Chiefly New York)
Supple-sawney: a homemade jointed doll that can be made to “dance.” (Scattered)
Tacker: a child, especially a little boy. (Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania)
Tag: a pine needle. (Chiefly Virginia)
To bag school: to play hooky. (Chiefly Pennsylvania, New Jersey)
Tow sack: a burlap bag. (Chiefly South, South Midland, Texas, Oklahoma)
Trash mover: a heavy rain. (Chiefly Mid Atlantic, South Atlantic, Lower Mississippi Valley)
Tumbleset: a somersault. (Chiefly Southeast, Gulf States; also Northeast)
Wamus: a men’s work jacket. (Chiefly North Central, Pennsylvania)
Whistle pig: a groundhog (also known as woodchuck). (Chiefly Appalachians)
Winkle-hawk: a three-cornered tear in cloth. (Chiefly Hudson Valley, New York)
Work brittle: eager to work. (Chiefly Midland, especially Indiana)
Zephyr: a light scarf. (Scattered)