Whistle Pigs, Nostalgia, & the Evolution of Language


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.



  1. I find the loss of old phrases and words sad on one hand, more for nostalgia sake, but do understand that language evolves. It’s a natural process. And it’s kind of exciting in a way.

    Really though, I’m still hung up on schools not teaching cursive writing anymore. Someday someone will look at the letters I wrote to my husband when I was home on summer break from university and need a translator to decipher the strange old writing. Haha

  2. I’m all for language evolution and don’t believe it could or should be set in stone and never change, but I am concerned over the loss over regional dialects and slang words. These are the things the create and hold a community together. Also, their loss flattens out language in general, it means we all start to sound alike and talk alike and where’s the fun in that? We lose the gentle poking at family gatherings when my parents in California call a coke “soda” and I call it “pop” (Minnesota), or me teasing my Wisconsin friend for calling a drinking fountain a “bubbler.” 🙂

    1. I love the idea of calling a water fountain a “bubbler”! I admit I’d be sad if people in region stopped saying “soda” and “hoagies,” but maybe those words will be replaced by something equally distinctive? Who knows.

  3. It’s a difficult area, as you mention, because there are some old-fashioned words we’re clearly better off without. I love “whistle-pig” but I doubt I’ve said “woodchuck” very often, even!

    I do try to retain some words my West Country gran used, and I’m always pleased when my cousins who are still down there use region-specific words and phrases. And among people my age, at least, we retain the pleasingly different words for “shoe worn for light sport or leisure”, “alley up the side or back of terrace houses” and “small loaf of bread” that immediately demonstrate where in the country you come from (plimsoll, alley and roll mark me as a South-Eastern transplant to the Midlands, for what it’s worth).

    1. Regional differences are certainly interesting, and even I would feel a little sad if people in my area stopped calling a long sandwich with deli meat inside of it a “hoagie.” If the item itself hasn’t disappeared, though, maybe newcomers to the area will introduce new words that will retain the character of our regional dialect.

  4. I do fret about losing regional dialects — it isn’t that I oppose progress or that I have some kind of commitment to the kind of isolation that preserves pockets of languages/dialects. I want the progress to happen! I just wish it could happen while also preserving those languages. I see this happening near me with Cajun French and loanwords from it. Within a few generations it’ll probably be gone, and it’s sad. Even if it means increased urbanization and diversity of experience, which are likeable good things, the side effect of losing Cajun French is really sad.

    1. You raise an interesting example. Most of what I see in my area comes from locals resenting newcomers who bring different words into the region. I would miss some of our regional words, like hoagie, but to me, the loss of those words is a small price to pay for increased diversity here (which is different from what you’re seeing). Thanks for adding this perspective!

  5. It’s essential language change as societies do, but it would be nice to keep some of the old slang alive, if only because it’s colorful. 🙂 Still, reading a book published one hundred years ago may be a little confusing because of the language then used. Best to let progress have its inevitable way.

    1. “Best to let progress have its inevitable way.” I agree. Regional differences aren’t what they once were, but it isn’t like American English is losing its flavorful words. New words join the dictionary all the time, replacing old ones that have lost their relevance. I have no problem with that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s