Kimmies Harpin’ Boontling: A Dying American Dialect?

Boontling, a home-grown American dialect, may soon go the way of dinosaurs and beepers.

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A thin layer of ground fog forms along the ridges and vineyards of the Anderson Valley on September 9, 2012.

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Reporters and language geeks have long made pilgrimages to a hamlet in Northern California where rustics refer to men as “kimmies” and talking as “harpin’.” In Anderson Valley, an isolated corner of Mendocino County about two hours north of San Francisco, people speak in a hinterland dialect called Boontling. On Tuesday, the San Francisco Chronicle warned that Boontling, one of America’s few homegrown dialects, may be near extinction. By the Chronicle’s count, only 12 speakers remain. In this week’s Wednesday Words, we provide a brief history of the language and the people who speak it.

The name Boontling is a fusion of the name Boonville — a tiny Anderson Valley town — and the word lingo. The invention has been traced to the late 1800s, when the town was filled with Scotch-Irish ranchers and farmers. Locals started using slang words for the standard English equivalents, many anecdotally tied to characters in the town. One origin story, relayed by a TIME correspondent who made the pilgrimage in 1969, is that local townsmen created Boontling so the womenfolk wouldn’t know what they were harpin’ about.

TIME’s Timothy Tyler provides some examples of how local people inspired words: “It was more fun to call coffee zeese, because it recalled old Z.C., a cook who made coffee so strong you could float an egg on it,” he writes. “Or to call working ottin’, after an industrious logger named Otto.” Legend has it that the verb for taking a woman to bed became burlap because one day someone walked into the general store and found the clerk getting down with a young lady on a pile of sacks. (Ah, romance.)

Other words, such as kimmie for man, were taken from the Scotch-Irish dialects the settlers of Boonville brought with them. Others were euphemisms, such as “white spots” for “dead lambs.” In a language anthology published by MIT in 1988, Edna L. Sanders explains that Spanish, the local Pomo language and onomatopoeia also played a role. The term for riding on a train, for instance, is kelockity — just like the sound a train makes rolling down the tracks. All told, the Boontling vocabulary added up to something around 1,500 words, about 15% of which are reportedly “notch harpin’,” i.e. vulgar terms. Which seems low if Boontling indeed began as man-code.

Retired English Professor Charles C. Adams, author of the 1971 guidebook and dictionary, Boontling: An American Lingo, is the recognized authority on the dialect. He and other scholars conjecture that while everyone in Boonville may have once spoken Boontling, an influx of new arrivals to the area made the secret talk less popular in the mid-1900s — as did the spread of TV and radio, broadcast in standardized English. According to the Chronicle, the language is on red alert today because younger locals aren’t interested in carrying on the Boontling baton.

But there is some hope: MIT is developing a master’s program to help protect “threatened languages.” And even if Boontling pikes to the dusties (goes to the graveyard), we can comfort ourselves with the rich regional differences that remain in the good ole U.S. of A. After all, depending where you’re standing, pancakes could be flapjacks, hotcakes, griddle cakes, flitters, hoecakes, johnnycakes, crepe suzettes, cookies, dough gods, sinkers, friskins, puffers, spoon bread, stove lids, morning glories, pancooken, brown dollars or stacks. All of which a Boontling speaker would pour “bill nunn” on, because ol’ Bill Nunn sure did like his syrup.

Wednesday Words is a weekly column that delves into the way we wag our tongues and wield our pens.