In Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, “the husband sees a woodchuck looking through the window at them. It is with great joy that they discover that another name for this creature is ‘the whistle pig.’”
I wonder if they would be disappointed to learn that this colloquial name for Marmota monax is disappearing from the dialect it calls home, which is primarily in the Appalachian mountains. It’s among 50 regional words that the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) has identified as endangered.
Does the impending loss of “whistle pig” make you sad? Should it?**
Colloquialisms add to the unique character of a community. However, communities change. Demographic, cultural, and technological shifts result in the creation of new words and the retirement of others.
How many regionally-based synonyms of words do we need in our global world these days? For example, DARE’s list of 50 regional words on the “cusp of extinction” includes three alternatives for “pine needle”: Shat, Spill, and Tag. In my neck of the woods, “shat” has nothing to do with trees. It’s the past and past participle of “shit.” Obviously.
It’s natural for word lovers to feel a pang of nostalgia when a word they grew up with disappears from common usage. According to Electric Lit (where you can find the full list of endangered American slang):
If you’re from Delaware, Maryland, or Virginia and think having shat fall from your pinetrees is abnormal, then we have news for you: you are among the many Americans losing touch with your historical regional dialect.
However, what one person laments as “losing touch with [a] historical regional dialect,” another person sees as progress. I tend to be in the latter category, often finding the nostalgia associated with language preservation and purity disturbing. Underneath the sadness associated with the loss of archaic words may lurk resentment for the newcomers who have contributed to the linguistic changes.
Still, there are a few words I’ve wanted to resurrect over a cup of chatter-broth, but what’s the point if no one would understand me?
*For my thoughts on Dept. of Speculation, see Dept. of Speculation: A Short, Unusual, Wonderful Puzzle; for Mr. AMB’s take on it, see Dept. of Speculation: Being Thirty-Something Sucks.
**Mr. A.M.B. adds, “I doubt ‘whistle pig’ is going anywhere, considering WhistlePig is arguably ‘the best rye whiskey in the world.’ Similarly, ‘barn burner’ is on the list, but, checking my email, I’ve used it twice in the past year (and received an email from someone else using it), albeit for a different meaning than ‘a wooden match that can be struck on any surface.’ That’s a ‘strike anywhere match.’”
***A.M.B’s response to Mr. A.M.B: Clearly, I don’t go camping enough because I don’t think I’ve never used “strike anywhere match” or “barn burner” in a sentence before. I’m the one who hails from the same region as “barn burner.” Mr. A.M.B. is the transplant.