It has been a few weeks since I recounted my brief visit to Boonville in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley.  At the time I took an interest in the old local language, Boontling, and have been reading through “Boontling: An American Lingo” by Charles C. Adams.  It’s a language book with wonderful historical and anthropological context.  I admit to skimming over some of the more technical linguistic parts (I’m not likely to ever speak it), but the book has painted a very colorful picture of the early culture and life in Boonville.

Boontling refers to the language (ling) of Boonville (Boont). Based on English it was an elaborate jargon that made the people of Boonville unintelligible to even the residents of Philo, just six miles away.  It most likely started from young men working in the hops fields as a way to have private conversations amongst other people and, more specifically, to freely use nonch harpin’s (objectionable or “dirty” words).  In the forty years (1880-1920) that the language was prevalent it spread through much of the community.  It wasn’t considered “proper” in formal places like church but it was spoken so much that some Boonters (speakers of Boontling) had a hard time speaking plain English on command. 

The structure of Boontling was basically English but the jargon’s vocabulary exceeded more than 1000 words. Some of the words were adopted from Scotch, Irish, Pomo Indian and Spanish but more significantly Boontling had a set of unwritten rules.  These rules enabled Boonters to make up words on the fly by abbreviating, condensing or combining English words in a set way.  This was something of a game amongst speakers, sometimes in formal sharkin matches (shark was derived from card shark and meant to “stump” another Boonter in the lingo).  They also created a myriad of nicknames for people and places. Almost everybody who was anybody had a nickname.  Neef was a guy with no finger and also the term used to describe anybody without a finger (neef was derived from a blending of “no” and “finger”).

The early demographics and economy of Boonville contributed a great deal to the evolution of Boontling.  It was a pioneering agricultural society of mostly Scotch and Irish descent.  The population was small and families closely intertwined through marriage and relationships.  They had little means to travel outside their community and not much need.  Even within the valley the “southern and Democrat” Boonters kept their distance from the “northern and Republican” Poleekers (residents of Philo, derived from the tendency of Philo’s political issues to be decided at the polls by close votes, i.e. they eked out their poll results). This division was further emphasized by a rocky gulch that separated the two towns, referred to in Boontling as the Mason-Dixon Line. 

When World War I broke out the tight knit community was turned upside down by men leaving to serve the military and others leaving for economic opportunity. The automobile made coming and going easier. The characteristics of the community that cultivated Boontling would never again be the same.  Prior to World War II logging came to the region and with it a flood of itinerant workers that came and went.   By the time “Boontling: An American Lingo” was researched in the 1960’s there weren’t many original speakers left. Amongst the remaining Boonters there was the popular notion that the language should die with the people who created it.  The sentiment is understandable but I am glad that this unique lingo was captured and documented so that future generations could get to know the people who once lived, loved, and laughed in the borough of Boont; an intimate society of hardworking pioneers with a good sense of humor, strong sense of pride, a bit of mischievousness and defiance, and while they weren’t highly educated (high schools didn’t exist until 1912) they were intelligent, creative and worldly in their own way. 

About 100 pages of the book is a dictionary of Boontling.  There are many humorous nonch harpin’s but here are some less offensive entries:

barney v. To embrace or hug; to kiss; to “smooch.” {An affectionate Boonter named Barney addressed women he knew with such names as “darling” and often kissed them in greeting them and in saying goodbye.}

barneys n. Cowboy boots; Western riding boots. {A local resident named Barney wore cowboy boots for all occasions – work, dress, or play.}

deejer; deeger n. A degenerate; anyone who is dirty or violates local mores. {Combination of a root derived from degenerate and the noun suffix –er.}

fog-eater n. Pejorative designation for a coast dweller. 

greysk n. A grey squirrel; the California tree squirrel. {Phonemic reshaping of gray squirrel.}

high git v. To become drunk; to be addicted to drink. {Inversion of the combination of get high – get drunk}

iron moshe n. A locomotive; a train. {Combination of iron and moshe (machine or device)}

laychee n. Milk {From Spanish leche}

nonch mod. Objectionable; bad; inferior; taboo.  {Apparently a reshaped combination of non (verb of negation, q.v.) and much}

peerl v. To rain; to drizzle. {An analogy between the shape of a pearl and a drop of rain.}

skype; skipe n. A preacher; a minister of a church. {Phonemic reshaping of sky pilot, a dialectical slang term for preacher.}

underst v. To understand; to comprehend {Phonemically reshaped understand.}

wee mod. Small. {From Scotch usage.}

zeese n. Coffee; esp. brewed coffee. {Boonter Zeese was the official coffee brewer on hunting excursions. He made very strong coffee – “It would float an egg” – especially when, in keeping with his habits, he used all of the ground coffee he had left for the last brew of the trip.}

The ling isn’t found much in Boonville these days but the Anderson Valley Brewing Co. advertises “Boontling spoken here” if you’re ever in the valley…

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