Wondering what you’ll find in the forthcoming “Delaware from Railways to Freeways” book, to be released November 2023? The wait is over! Here’s a sample segment for your perusal.
Delaware speech has long harbored rich traditional idioms. Many customary First State expressions showcase a keen sense of observation and a deep connection with nature. Vivid descriptions like “pert as a cricket”, “tadpole” for small children, and “happy as a June bug” reveal the state’s affinity for natural imagery.
Conversely, local folkloric idioms don’t shy away from illustrating human foibles and frailties. One of the more colorful figures of speech for intoxication, “High as a Georgia pine,” borrows from the southern landscape to aptly describe a state of lofty inebriation.
Plenty of Delawarean colloquialisms have evolved in parallel with general American usage. The term “gumshoe,” for example, originally referred to rubber galoshes. Its meaning shifted over time due to the footwear’s stealthy, sound-muffling qualities, ultimately signifying a surreptitious detective.
Language sometimes strays far from textbook rules. This is evident in Delmarva slang that implies a less formal education. For instance, instead of saying ‘perfume,’ locals might use the more descriptive phrase ‘bottle of sweet smeller.’ The transformation of “waistcoat” to “weskit” shows how poor enunciation creates first, shortcuts, then, locally accepted usage.
Delaware’s exclamatory utterances, like “By granny!” and “I declare to kings!”, form their own category of idioms, allowing strong emotions to be expressed while maintaining decorum.
Some traditional dictums can trace their lineage to literary sources before eventually becoming common parlance. The word “druthers,” for instance, is a linguistic retooling of “I’d rather” and found its way into everyday Delaware language thanks to American writer Bret Harte penning “drathers” in 1875.
Many of the area’s rural maxims weave astute insights of human behavior with elements of the natural world. Adages such as “If the draught is not right in your stove, the heat ebbs and flows,” or “He’s independent as a wood sawyer,” emerged as regional proverbs rooted in everyday experiences.
Agricultural life has also undeniably left its mark on Delaware’s local dialect. Take “gee-hoppled”, an early 20th-century turn-of-phrase describing an off-balance individual. This phrase draws upon “gee and haw,” commands used to guide horses, and “hopple” (or “hobble”), a device used to prevent a milking cow from kicking. Another phrase, “Dressed in his dismals,” evocatively describes one in their worn and patched work clothes.
Delaware figures of speech from the dawn of the 20th century still exist that have persevered over time and continue to be used today. The term “honey,” used as a term of endearment for a spouse, continues to sweeten many a Delaware home. Though rooted in time, the First State’s distinctive early 20th century voice still lingers.