Maine Lingo

Paul Doiron here —

One of the most difficult decisions an author must make is how to render colloquial speech in dialogue. How do you announce that a character has an accent? Do you do it through diction and the careful use of regional expressions? Or do you go the “Full Huck Finn”*?

“Say, who is you? Whar is you? Dog my cats ef I didn’ hear sumf’n. Well, I know what I’s gwyne to do: I’s gwyne to set down here and listen tell I hears it agin.”

Early on in my writing career, I decided that I couldn’t bring myself to go down Mark Twain’s road with my Maine characters. Instead I aimed to suggest that, for example, Chief Warden Pilot (Retired) Charley Stevens has a Down East accent through the use of various phrases and neologisms one only finds in this part of the world.

This wasn’t hard, as I have always been a collector of Maine lingo, both at Down East magazine, where I write up occasional entries for our “North by East” section, but also for my own personal amusement.

Here are a few of my favorites. They might make it into a novel someday (but probably not):

CAT SPRUCE: White spruce (Picea glauca), so named for the odor it gives off, especially when burned, reminiscent of a litter box. As in, “That fool Harris threw some cat spruce on the fire and stunk up the whole camp.”

DRESSING: Manure spread as fertilizer on agricultural fields. As in, “Those people who just  moved in next door called to complain about the smell of my dressing, and I said, “Then why the hell did you buy a house beside an organic farm? What did you think we spread out there—Miracle-Gro?

MOLLYHOCKED. Broken beyond repair. As in, “Loaned the F150 to my numb-nut nephew Travis the other day, and the kid took it over to North Anson to go muddin’ with his friends. Now the shocks are all mollyhocked.”

PRAYER HANDLE: The knee. As in, “I knocked a prayer handle on Len’s trailer hitch, and it’s still smarting like a son of a bitch this morning.”

PRIT’NEAR: Just about, almost. As in, “Melvin prit’near had a heart attack when he saw the bill for that pantsuit I bought over to Reny’s.”

TRUSTAFARIAN: A spoiled young person whose bohemian lifestyle belies the trust fund that makes it all possible. As in, “Well, he calls himself an artist, but really he’s just another one of those trustafarians you see along the coast.”

YARD ART: The wheel-less cars and nonfunctional kitchen appliances many Mainers use to decorate their front lawns.  As in, “If Carl and Debbie wants to sell their trailer, they might want to get rid of that yard art first.”

There are dozens more, of course, many first record by the great John Gould in his classic Maine Lingo (now out of print, alas).
What are some of your favorite Maine expressions?
* Yes this is an oblique reference to Ben Stiller’s film masterwork Tropic Thunder.
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15 Responses to Maine Lingo

  1. Brenda Buchanan says:

    “Spleeny” is a good Maine word, as in “I didn’t expect her to get all spleeny about speakin’ at town meeting.”

    “Dooryard” is another favorite, as in “he had nerve coming right into my dooryard with that shotgun”

    When you get caught stealing apples from an orchard you “book it” out of there.

    A teenager might tell his folks he has no particular plans for a Saturday night other than “dubbin’ around.”

    Trying to wallpaper a dormered bedroom is a project that inevitably gets “all bollixed up.”


    • Paul Doiron says:

      “Cunning,” meaning cute is one of my all-time favorites, as well. “That new kitten of Mabel’s is some cunning.” Mainers would drop the “g” from the end of that.

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Grew up with John Gould as a household name.

    I don’t have the ear for it that you do…but for sure people would say, overhome, to refer to going to the family place. In Union, we went “down to the village” to go to the store, and the store was “on the common.” Things that got busted were stove in. There were no basements–we went down cellar. Oops…I mean cellah. And in the fall, we were kept busy “putting things by.”


  3. Larry Lombard says:

    Since I moved to CT. I have been told by many people I don;t have that Maine accent….
    But, I really still do..
    Now retired.. I am asked by some, “What are doing today?”
    I just reply ” I’m just gonnah do some putrin, and i am wicked good at it…”

  4. I had never heard “Numb as a hake” or “Colder ‘n a witch’s tit/Norwegian well-digger’s ass” before coming to Maine.

    The packy/the package/the package store is still used by middle aged and older Mainers, from the days when liquor was only available at the state-owned store. Boy, wa’an’t that a pain, trying to make it before closin’ to get your Allen’s.

    And wicked, while so well known as to be almost a parody, is still a–well–wicked useful intensifier. Plus, when used unironically, it serves to identify we easternmost New Englanders. Years ago, Ross and the kids and I were picnicking on a beach in Oahu and I happened to remark, “This chicken is wicked tasty.” The woman sitting a little way over said, “Are you from Massachusetts?” Turns out she and her husband were Marines stationed at Kaneohe Bay. She was from Saugus. “I knew you were New Englanders when I heard you say ‘wicked.'” She sighed. “I miss home.”

  5. Joyce Shaw says:

    We kept the “cah” out’n the g’rahge” Got our gas at the “fillin’ station” Well, ain’t that a “pissah” “Come in an’ sit a “spell”..”. He’s numbern’a “pounded thumb”
    In the old days we used “shank’s mare” to get around….

  6. As a native and after “spendin” thirty five “seasons” as a law enforcement officer in the “williwacks”, I’ve accumulated a few, too.

    “Gormy” – awkward. “She’s a cunnin little thing but some gormy.”

    “Go wrathy” – become angry. “Now don’t go all wrathy on me!”

    “Fired” – threw in disgust. “Numb chainsaw wouldn’t staaht, so I fired her into the back of the pickup.”

    “Skunk spruce” – another name for “Cat Spruce” (mentioned by that writer fellah down there on the coast).

    “Ate up” – afflicted with something. “He’s ate up with a case of the dumbasses.”

    “Foddah” – food. “She puts out some fine foddah for a skinny girl.”

  7. “Elegant.” This may not be heard so much in southern Maine, beans it’s a Washington County (or even Charlotte County, New Brunswick) expression. “Ayuh. That chowder was elegant. Beans you’re up, get me another helping.”

  8. Charley Boynton says:

    My great grandmother always refered to children as “cuttars”. If the child was really cute they were a “bessie cuttar”

  9. Sarah Graves says:

    In Eastport, if we are working hard without much break, we’re “right out straight.” Don’t know if that’s just a downeast thing.

  10. sooz says:

    overstreet, upstreet, or downstreet, were common directions, regarding your destination, describing it from where you started…as in, “i’m going downstreet”, which for me meant, downtown…

    and yes, i think “pissah”, “cunnin'” (ain’t he cunnin’?) you can hear any day of the week…

  11. I hear (and even use) all of these expressions in Camden — except for “cuttars.” Twenty-five years and I’ve never, ever, heard that. Charley’s great grandmother musta made that up.

  12. MCWriTers says:

    My grandmother used to refer to an agreeable child as “biddable.” I never was.

  13. Michael Robinson says:

    “Oh, he’s an old son of a hoah.” An affectionate description of a man’s good friend.

    Michael Robinson

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