A Brief History Of Words Unique To The Northwest | KUOW News and Information

A Brief History Of Words Unique To The Northwest

Dec 23, 2014

Duff. Fish wheel. Skid Road.

Long butt.

Few of us here know the Northwest words listed in the Dictionary of American Regional English because they harken to a time when fishing and logging reigned in Washington state – when skookum described a tough, hardworking guy and Skid Road was a street in downtown Seattle where logs were sledded down to the waterfront.

Corinne Holmberg, 28, knows these words. She grew up in Washington and Oregon, and her family has lived in Pacific County for generations. Her grandfather, a tall, taciturn Finnish fisherman, relished teaching her the word long butt, the lower part of a tree trunk, because he thought it was a funny word for a little girl to know.

“A lot of this comes out of industries – fishing and logging, those are the big two,” Holmberg said. “It’s somewhat isolated from the rest of the state, so you get more of people speaking their own jargon down there.”

Related: Do Pacific Northwesterners Have An Accent?

On a reddit post recently, Holmberg wrote definitions to words listed in the dictionary, known as DARE. (The dictionary requires a subscription, and fellow redditors were curious about the meanings to words listed on the site.)

Tin pants sold by Filson. According to Corinne Holmberg of Seattle, who grew up around the Northwest, men stick with tan, to go with their brown Romeos.
Credit Screen grab from Filson.com

Tin pants, for example are waterproof canvas pants worn logging or fishing.

“There’s a fashion to it; these fishing guys only get the tan pants,” Holmberg said. “You only wear them with boots called Romeos. Every single man ever wears them – only the brown ones, again.”

She had additional words for the dictionary:

“Pukers – that’s what they call tourists,” Holmberg said. “They go out fishing on a charter boat, they can’t handle the waves.”

And clam guns: “We lived at Long Beach, that’s where all the razor clams are. A clam gun is not cool. It makes it too easy. Tourists use them.”

The dictionary’s first quote for clam gun is from 1927, according to dictionary chief editor Joan Hall. But back then, it was a kind of shove rather than a tube, Hall said.  

Pukers, the word, likely became popular after the dictionary had been researched, between 1965 and 1970. At the time, DARE sent interviewers to 1,002 communities in the U.S.

Take our quiz: Do you have a true Northwest accent?

DARE found that the Northwest is distinctive when it comes to naming flora and fauna. We say boomer for mountain beaver, and avalanche lily for dogtooth violet. But the Northwest, and the West in general, has a less distinct dialect than elsewhere, according to Hall.

Source: Dictionary of American Regional English
Credit KUOW/Kara McDermott

“The farther West you go, the more mixing among immigrant streams,” Hall said. “It’s not only a matter of different streams of people, but a matter of time. As time goes by, unless you’re in an isolated area, your language will change because you happen to talk to more people.”

In 1966, DARE sent David Goldberg, a 22-year-old New Yorker, to Washington, Oregon and Northern California. Goldberg wore a ponytail and arrived in a Dodge camper van with the University of Wisconsin logo emblazoned on the door. It was called the Word Wagon.

Goldberg’s first stop was typically the police station, where he announced his work. Sometimes he stopped at the library where he asked about people who had been around since the town was founded – or people who loved Scrabble, and therefore had an affinity for words.

Goldberg conducted 12 one-week interviews in Washington state. He drove out to Port Townsend before it was posh, Raymond, Skykomish, Snohomish, Vancouver, Castle Rock, Malott, among other places.

Malott was a highlight. There he met Reuben Malott, 86, who arrived by covered wagon from the Midwest.

Malott was a farmer who tended his vegetable garden in later years. In his notes, Goldberg wrote, “His activity seems to be limited to sitting in his chair and staring out the window.” On the second day, he asked Goldberg not to come back for several weeks. 

Goldberg is now associate director of the Office of Programs at the Modern Language Association in New York City. He keeps the interview sheets from his year working for DARE, but he doesn’t recall the words he learned. But he remembers the people fondly.

“I stayed with a couple that had hard times but were very welcoming,” he said. “They had a wonderful hazelnut tree. He was a shake maker – he made cedar shakes. We would sit around and crack hazelnuts from his tree and talk about things.

“It was eye-opening to talk to people who had different lives than mine … I discovered that I was a provincial Manhattanite.”

An avalanche lily - known as a dogtooth violet elsewhere. The Northwest has particularly distinct language for flora and fauna.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

For Hall, tracking language is a means of studying culture. She also delights in the dictionary’s unlikely roles – in helping doctors (the heart referred to as a ticklebox, pain called jags) and in fighting crime.

It’s a favorite story among linguists: A child had been kidnapped, and the kidnapper demanded that $10,000 be dropped off at the devil strip at 18th and Carlson.

“Devil strip is in no standard American dictionary, but it is in DARE,” Hall said. The dictionary says the term – called a “parking strip” in the Northwest – is used in northeastern Ohio.

“There was a suspect on their list who happened to be from Akron,” Hall said. “This kind of work had helped in a tangible way.”

(They saved the girl.)

For Holmberg, who works for the Seattle Police Department, old Northwest words are a nod to days gone by, but she doesn’t feel overly nostalgic.

People "don’t have a reason to be talking about long butt anymore,” she said. “But it is a cool, colorful part of the state history, particularly of that area.”

By the way:

Duff = The decaying vegetable matter, especially needles and cones, on a forest floor.

Fish wheel = A wheel with nets, put in a stream to catch fish; sometimes used to help fish over a dam or waterfall.

Skid Road = (1) A roadway along which logs are dragged, especially one provided with skids consisting of logs laid transversely at regular intervals and notched to form a guide for the logs. (2) An area of town frequented by loggers after working hours; a red-light district.