10 Appalachian Slang Words You’ve Never Heard Before

On this week’s episode of Filthy Riches, ginseng hunter Billy Taylor and his family trek deep into the Appalachian Mountains for a late season haul. While the frustrating nature of ginseng hunting requires patience, the Taylors turn the trek into a celebration: roasting pork on the fire, capturing rattlesnakes and getting into mud fights. And when the family gets together, their colorful, lively accents come out even more than usual.

The family’s rich, distinctive dialect is a strain of Southern English referred to as Appalachian English. Although the Appalachian Mountains stretch all the way from Alabama to Canada, Appalachian English generally is heard in the mountains’ central and southern areas, including parts of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. A linguistic derivative of the Scottish and Irish settlers who originally populated the mountains in the 18th century, contemporary Appalachian English broadly describes many regional dialects, with many local flavors and innovations. Despite linguistic erosion due to global communications and the internet, the dialect remains a foundation for a proud cultural heritage.

To many Americans outside of Appalachia, the dialect is defined by the accent. The final g is omitted from many words ending in -ing. Many vowel sounds are held longer, and some are even added: “Tell” becomes “tey-ul,” “said” becomes “say-ud.” “I” sounds are flattened – “pen” and “pin” are the same sound. “Th” sounds are occasionally dropped, and sometimes even replaced with a “ch” sound, resulting in “chare” rather than “there” for some residents.

Beyond pronunciation, Appalachian English is also defined by colloquialisms unique to its territories. Like other regional dialects across the US, Appalachian English has many inventive slang terms which have evolved to represent activities and topics relevant to the area. Where outsiders may describe Billy Taylor’s job as ginseng hunting or digging, Appalachians have a much more concise term for this: sangin’.

And don’t think that this is a niche dialect. According to the 2010 census, over 25 million Americans live in what what the federal government classifies as the Appalachian region.

Here are just a few other particularly unique terms which you may find in Appalachia:

Airish – chilly outside (adjective)

Cathead – a large southern biscuit (noun)

Gaum – to clutter, make a mess (noun)

Liketa – almost, nearly (adverb, sometimes)

Poke – a bag (noun)

Scald – a dead thing (noun)

Sigogglin – unusually crooked. (adjective)

Skift – light covering, usually referring to snow

Whimmy-diddle – a contraption, object or toy. (noun)

Work-brittle– in some Southern regions this can mean eager to work or energetic, while in other parts of Appalachia, this term can mean quite the opposite, synonymous with laziness. (adjective)

Don’t miss this week’s episode of Filthy Riches on Sunday at 10P.

Comments

  1. morn
    United States
    May 24, 2014, 12:08 pm

    I grew up in georgia and most of these I have never heard of and quite frankly look like words invented for the program.
    Arsh, is southern for irish- at least in my circle of friends families- scald quite simply means being burned with boiling water or steam.
    There are many Irish words that survive here, and english, such as ” idn’t” for innit, eejit for idiot. I watch loads of Irish/British television series and have far less difficulty understanding them than people from nyc

  2. Al
    Zamboanga City, Philippines
    May 24, 2014, 12:14 pm

    I heard sigogglin in a documentary film in YouTube 😀

  3. Rachel S.
    May 25, 2014, 12:37 am

    I’m from Indiana and know several of them…and whimmy-diddle is just another way of saying doohickey or thingamajobber

  4. Marissa
    Upstate NY
    May 27, 2014, 8:01 pm

    We are on the very upper border of the Appalachian region and no one around here speaks remotely like this. However, my grandmother and her oldest daughter had a particular way of speaking that I’ve never heard anywhere else, and I’ve always wondered if anyone ever studied it or recorded it. I wish that I had paid more attention to it or written it down. The only specific one I remember now is that instead of “whats-her-name,” (when speaking of someone whose name she couldn’t recall), she would say “hussername.” My grandmother was born in Steuben County in 1901. Her parents were of German and Dutch descent (Welty and Schoonover), but had been in this country for quite some time.

  5. mountainDude
    Tennessee Cumberlands
    May 27, 2014, 9:13 pm

    I’m from Tennessee. Airish, cathead, liketa, poke and skift are part of the dialect where I’m from by the definition given. Although skift is pronounced skiff, no t. Scald is specific to an area of dead vegetation. A dead animal is kyarn (one syllable). The rest of them I’ve never heard of.

  6. Robert Thompson
    Wayne, WV
    September 2, 2014, 10:55 am

    I’ve heard almost all of these, and they definitely aren’t made up. Usually, it’s older people who still use them around here.

  7. debra thomas
    arizona
    October 3, 2014, 6:37 pm

    Please bring back the taylors. I miss the show and I learned from it and enjoyed watching something without filthy language and was able to let kids watch the show also.

  8. Philip
    South East Ohio
    December 23, 2014, 1:58 pm

    I never heard of these and I grew up 10 miles from WV/PA border.

  9. Amber
    Southwest Virginia
    January 6, 2015, 9:56 pm

    I am from Southwest Virginia. All of these words are used frequently here. If you haven’t heard them, you’re most likely not a part of the Appalachian region, which is a completely valid reason for not recognizing most or all of these words.

    Morn, these words were not invented. They are real and people use them often. The Appalachian region only extends into the northeastern tip of Georgia, which explains why you don’t recognize most of this slang in spite of being Southern. However, in the Appalachian region, airish does mean that it’s cold outside and does not refer to the Irish in the slightest, although it may sound as though most people are saying “Arsh” when they pronounce “Irish.”. Scald has two meanings here as well. As for not understanding my dialect, it’s difficult at first, but it gets easier once you grasp the basic vowel sounds.

    Rachel, a whimmydiddle is a toy that children play with. They rub a short stick against the ridges of another stick that has a small wooden propeller at the end, Their goal is to make it spin.

    Marissa, dear, you are from upstate New York which is also not a part of the Appalachian region.

    mountainDude, I think it’s rather interesting that you haven’t heard of most of these terms, but here “scald” refers to generally anything that’s been too hot. “Kyarn” here usually means “corn,” though.

    Phillip, Ohio is not part of the Appalachian region, nor are the westernmost borders of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Therefore, it makes sense that you have not heard these terms used.

    Overall, this show is another negative representation of the people of the Appalachian region. The people on this show were presented as uneducated, uncouth hillbillies for the American public to laugh at, and I find that unacceptable. There is rampant poverty in the region, but the culture and heritage of the Appalachian Mountains is strong. I hate being stereotyped as a dumb hick simply based on my accent, and this show reinforces the stereotypes in play that allow that to happen.
    Oh, and by the way, it’s pronounced “App-uh-latch-un”

  10. Bobbie Jo
    Eastern Ky
    February 20, 2015, 3:25 am

    I hear these (and use these) all the time, but I can make the word gaum into an adjective or verb too! And it honestly breaks my heart that people are using the word “poke” a lot less these days. I think it’s because no one uses paper bags around here anymore.

  11. Peter Tully
    February 20, 2015, 8:34 pm

    I’m from good ol’ west Virginia and iv heard and use these words every day. Polecat, lolly-gagin, plumb and tons more

  12. muskat antonopolis
    no. florida
    April 3, 2015, 5:58 pm

    wall hey young’un..aint youal nefer herd sech atalkin afore?
    bless my breeches youuns shore take the cake..i went down ta tha crick in my old ford truck to fetch home some frish water bud I had a flat tar and I hed to get oud ma tar arn ta
    fix hit…took ma dawg wid me bud he done run oft with that
    ol sow dawg of homer jets…I betcha I fix his axel when he gets ta tha house…wont be no vittles fur his sorry hide and
    that’s fur shur….well this saddaday is provisions day at tha
    court house so I rekin ill bea gonna go in and get me some..
    I jest hope that they don’t have no more of them thar grapefruit thangs from floridie..I have baked um and fried um and even biled em but them thangs jes anit no good fur nuthin……..

  13. Anna Blackwell
    Black Mountain North Carolina
    May 20, 2015, 7:48 am

    I grew up in Western North Carolina close to the Indian Reservation and all of these terms are very familiar to me. I use some of them myself but my grandmother used almost every one of them

  14. Liz
    Waverly,Ohio
    September 18, 2015, 8:43 pm

    I live in southern Ohio and my family says all of these things except scald (only when burned) and sigogglin. We also have roots in Kentucky.

  15. Liz
    Waverly, Ohio
    September 18, 2015, 8:51 pm

    To Amber you need to check Wikipedia to see where the Appalachian line goes again…. smh?

  16. Jenny-O'Callaghan
    NC
    October 4, 2015, 11:41 am

    I agree that these are words not used by most southerners anywhere. Nobody says poke anymore. Thats too old but most southern mountain dialects come from old pronunciations rather than slang alone. The fact that many people are Scots-Irish descent is correct. Chair can be cheer or char- for example. Just dialect. Not slang! But this list of words is incorrect and making fun of southern mountain people is a disgrace. Glorifying ignorance is a disgrace. Real mountain people are NOT hillbillies and can be some of the kindest folks youll ever wanna meet. See? I used “wanna” cause thats proper slang. Ya get me?

  17. Anonymous
    United States
    January 15, 8:33 am

    I’m disappointed in you, Nat Geo, for saying, “… a linguistic derivative of the Scottish and Irish settlers who originally populated the mountains in the 18th century…”

    The ORIGINAL inhabitants of this area were NOT settlers. They were indigenous peoples who were forcibly removed to make room for those settlers. And they were there long before the 18th century.

  18. Mick
    Tn
    February 9, 11:56 pm

    My fathers folks are hill folk. The best line I heard up there was from my daddy’s cousin asking if the 2 kids in the truck were mine. He asked, after staring at them for 60 seconds, “hey Mick, em youngins yourin?” Which to my wife sounded like urine(I married a Yankee). He then asked “How youins doin?” I didn’t realize at the time it might sound odd to some but to me it was magical

  19. C...
    April 9, 9:36 pm

    A poke is tobacco. “I’d like a poke of Redman and a can of skoal.” Catheads are the best homemade biscuits ever. A fairy diddle is a chipmunk and a dry land fish is some of the best mushrooms you will ever eat.

  20. nicole
    West virginia
    May 12, 3:52 pm

    I have heard every one of these words in southern West Virginia. I have travelled the country extensively. What I have experienced is that these words are not popular all across the Appalachia. Certian places may only use a word or two some places none. Some places all of them.