Do you need an Appalachian Dictionary?

Do you ever have to pull out your dictionary or Google a word when you’re reading?  I’ve been reading through the Psalms and recently hit a word that I had to look up – twice.  And that got me to thinking about my own writing and use of Appalachian English. 

I think my marker got moved from my Bible and I read Psalm 45 more than once.  Verse one starts out, “My heart is inditing a good matter…”  I knew I had recently read that Psalm because I had to look up “inditing” both times. (If you’re wondering as I was, it means ‘overflowing with’.)  Thankfully, my study bible has a handy-dandy column that defines these words so maybe I’m not the only one who needs it. 

When the King James Bible was originally translated in the seventeenth century, maybe words like ‘inditing’ were so common that no one would have cocked their head when they read it.  Well that’s the way I feel about the Appalachian terms that dot my works of fiction.  But I can’t help but wonder how many readers find those words that easy to read and understand.  So today I want to take the question to you faithful blog readers:  Do you need and would you use a glossary of terms in a novel?

A couple of my favorite authors do include this aid and I sometimes enjoy glancing through it when the story involves immigrants from another country or speakers of another language.  However, I usually read through it only after I’ve finished the book.  I guess most of the terms are explained in the context of the story and I really hope that’s the case in my stories as well.

If you’ve read Replacing Ann then maybe you will be best able to answer the question.  A couple of people have asked me questions about the terminology in that book.  For example, one cold morning, Harry asked his brothers, “Din’ you bank that far?”  Well, there are a couple of questions there. 

“Banking” a fire is both a common practice and word on our mountain because a stove or fireplace has to be prepared for the night when no one will tend it for several hours. A search tells me that lots of folks are using that verb. 

What about the pronunciation of fire as far?  Here’s where it’s hard to write out the things we all say and understand so easily.  A far will keep you warm in the winter and the tars on your car roll smoothly on the road.  And you can har some help to waar your house for electricity.  Now if you’ve spent any time at all on the mountain, all of these terms are very familiar to you.  But isn’t it a little harder in written form?  I find it difficult even to write phonetically.

Millard and Emma Stepp Millard's story of the first time he saw the girl who would become his wife is the inspiration for the novel, Plans for Emma

Millard and Emma Stepp
Millard's story of the first time he saw the girl who would become his wife is the inspiration for the novel, Plans for Emma

I’ve just finished a novel that is set at the turn of the twentieth century in Roslin and Martha Washington communities.  As I quickly scanned the manuscript thinking I would include an excerpt I find I’ve used our familiar pronunciation of names (dropping the ending letter and applying a “y” to anything ending in “a”) and I’ve rarely applied the “g” on words ending in “ing”.  So you take a look at it and let me know if you can hear the mountain accent but still understand what’s happening and what’s being said.


Sunday morning was so cold there was a thin sheet of ice on the top of the water bucket.  Only a handful of the men were moving about as Millard stirred up the fire and set the copper wash-pan on the iron stove to warm the icy water. He thought to himself, The good thing about cold mornings is they make a fella’ get to movin’ faster. 

 The brisk wind smacked at his freshly shaved face as his long stride covered the few paces to the kitchen’s back door.  He knew he could get a cup of coffee to fortify him against the walk to Jonesville.  The homey smell that greeted him at the door brought a smile and the threat of a tear as he instantly remembered his mother as well as the dreams he now had of his own household with Emma at home in the kitchen.

 “Mornin’ Mrs. Goodell, any chance a cold fella’ could get a hot cup of coffee?”

 She was normally a little sharp of tongue but Millard was always kind to the old cook and she generally helped him out if she could.

 “I reckon you can have a cup if you can he’p yourself.  I ain’t got time to be waitin’ on nobody.”

Millard smiled as he lifted the heavy coffee pot from the back of the stove.  It was strong and this morning he was glad of it. 

 “What’re you about this morning Millard?”  Mrs. Goodell didn’t look at him as she continued her work.  She already had a row of pans filled with dough and sitting near the iron stove to rise.  Her hands were still covered in flour as she patted out dozens of biscuits to feed the loggers. 

 “Perty early for a young man to be up on a Sunday mornin’ and I don’t reckon you gotta feed the stock, do ya’?”

 “No Ma’am, I’m a’goin’ to church.  Gonna walk to Jonesville so it takes me a little bit to get there.”

 “Jonesville?  Well I reckon there’s a girl at the root of this.  That’s the only reason a boy like you’d walk that fur on a mornin’ like this.”

 Millard hung his head for a minute as he pondered how to explain it to her.  He was certain that he must explain.  “Well now, that’s how it started but then the good Lord got ahold of me and made me to understand that I had to be in his house on account of him or else nothing good would come with that girl.”

 Mrs. Goodell paused in her biscuit-making and looked him directly in the eye.  “I hope that girl knows what she’s got.”

 He took a last sip of the coffee, drinking so quickly he got a bite of grounds in his mouth.  He set the cup in the deep wash tub and pulled his hat down on his head.  “Thank you Mrs. Goodell.”

 She shoved a handful of bacon toward him and winked as he stepped out the door.

 Emma pulled from her hair the thick woolen rags Mama had carefully wound the night before.  After she returned from her walk Mama spent most of the evening talking with her but never asked a single serious question.  She’d helped Emma wash her hair in rainwater they’d caught in the big wooden barrels and warmed on the kitchen stove.  Then brushing the long brown tresses just like Emma was a little girl, she parted out thick sections and wound them with the rags.  Now they revealed volumes of loose curls and Emma couldn’t help smiling as she remembered how beautiful the curls had made her feel when she was younger.  She carefully drew them up into a loose bun at the crown of her head.  She was just pinning a few loose strands when Lena stepped into the doorway. 

 “Are you still working on your hair?  My goodness, me and Mama have breakfast on the table and we’re waitin’ on you.”

 “Oh Lena, I didn’t realize it had gotten so late.  Mama pampered me so last night that I’m still bein’ lazy this morning.  I’ll have to get the milking done so I will skip breakfast I guess.”

 “Metie’s done the milkin’.  Took her twice as long as it does you, but there’s fresh milk on the table and that’s all that matters.”

 “Oh, thank you – or I guess I’ll have to thank Metie.  There was a mud stain on the hem of my Sunday dress and it took forever to get out.  Here, will you pin these last bits behind?”

 Lena obliged with a deep sigh, “There’s mud everywhere Em, why did you waste your time on that stain?”

 “Mama always says God deserves our best.”

 “I’m thinking it ain’t God your doin’ this for.”

 Emma smiled as she stood to follow Lena downstairs. 

 She chastised herself as they went, Lord, I guess she’s right.  Am I tryin’ to win this man with my looks now?  Please forgive my vanity.

 The family was already seated when the girls made it into the kitchen.  Rhoda looked directly into Emma’s eyes fearing she was not well. 

 “Em, you had me worried.  Are you feeling well?”

 “Oh yes, Mama, I am just fine.  Just lost track of the time.”

 “Well you are dressed for church so I guess you are feeling well enough to go?”

 “Yes, of course I’m going to church.  Metie, thank you for taking care of the milkin’ for me.”

 Almeta was already reaching for the gravy, “Well it’s perty cold out there but we have to help each other out, don’t we?”

 The whole family smiled at her echoing the lesson Rhoda had taught them again and again.

Tom had scarcely slowed eating when Emma and Lena joined them.  “We’ve already returned thanks so you’ll need to pray for your food yourselves.”

 Emma nodded her head and silently bowed it to pray over the food, and the day.  Lord God, thank you for these blessings and please bless Millard Stepp this morning.  Lead him to the preaching service I pray.  Amen.


Let’s talk Laundry

Children are a precious, wonderful, miraculous and infernally MESSY gift from God.  Let’s talk laundry!

I’ve mentioned here before how much I value some of my modern conveniences, especially major appliances.  Well if you ever doubted the value of your washing machine, you’ve never had seven children in your home.  As I told you several weeks ago, our household swelled to twelve when we were blessed with the addition of a missionary family.  This has really opened my eyes to some of the life my great-grandmothers must have lived. 

My children love to play outside and I’m thrilled that we live in conditions where they can.  My son says his favorite thing is dirt and he routinely brings a supply of it inside on the seat of his pants.  He’s probably not unique in this affinity.  So I know that any mother of young children will no doubt completely relate to the endless stack of soiled clothing I battle almost every day. 

Now I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, there is another mother here taking care of her own children’s needs.  So between the two of us, the lines are always full and while I know the crops and the stock need a little more rain than we’ve been seeing, I’ve been awfully happy for the sunny days that provide such perfect drying conditions. 

In thinking about this chore in historical terms, I took a look at the Foxfire book number two (Anchor Books, 1973) where there Dickersons share the process of washing clothes in an iron pot.

First is the location.  It’s easier to take your clothes to the branch than to pack the water to the house.  Ah, for a good source of water.  Old homes were positioned where water could be found.  If something happened to a spring or a well the family might well leave the place.  You just can’t live where there’s no water.

They heated their water in a big iron pot over an open fire – a whole other discussion when the temperature is 82 degrees as I’m typing this.  The cold water that serves the first rinse would be a welcome break until you started beating the clothes or battling them and that would work up a sweat without the fire to contend with.  This of course assumes you don’t have a factory-made wash board which was patented in 1833 – I wonder how long it took for that idea to catch on?

Of course, any heavy stains will have to be rubbed out with the aid of your strong lye soap.  You made the soap another time and kept a good supply on hand of course.

By now the water’s boiling in your iron pot so in go the properly beaten garments.  Agitating is done manually with a long pine paddle.  While they’re simmering, you’ll need to empty the battling water and refill the tub for rinsing.  Whew, this will be cold water again and I’m betting there’s sweat a’pourin’ off your face after stirring the iron pot over the open fire. 

After a couple of rinses – because you sure don’t want to leave any lye-soap-suds in there, you can start hanging.  Oh, wait, you’ll need to wring them out well or otherwise it’ll take forever to dry them. 

Whew, I’m sorry I complained!


The Faithful Farm Sled

My Daddy recently built a great little toy for my children – a sled.  When I mentioned Ruthie wanted to be pulled on the sled, a friend asked how you could play with a sled in the summer?  Well, if you didn’t already know it, sleds are not just for snow and fun.

In fact, the farm sled has been a mainstay of Appalachian farms from the beginning – and in fact it’s a tool they brought with them from the old country for examples can be found among Viking artifacts as wells as ancient Egypt where they are thought to have been used widely in construction of the pyramids.

For the fiercely self-sufficient Appalachian farmers, this was a conveyance they could build themselves.  Sure, iron runners are a nice addition but every piece of the sled could be sourced from the forest.  Runners could be sawn or formed from large trees but they often utilized naturally bent saplings.  One of my great uncles explained to me that when they were in the woods, they were always watching for trees that would make good runners.  When they found one they would cut it and hang it in the barn for the day a new sled would be needed, or an old sled would need repair.

These sleds could be quite large, as those used to pull logs from the woods by as large a team as could be assembled, or very small and pulled by hand.  The wonderful thing about a tool you can build yourself is that you can customize it to your particular needs.

The Farm Hands Companion website gives general directions for building a farm sled.

The Farm Hands Companion website gives general directions for building a farm sled.

I’m sure there’s a lot of history to these humble vehicles and maybe someday I’ll get around to really researching them.  In the meantime, the Farm Hands Companion website wrote an article about sleds way back in 2012 and I found it very interesting.  He shows several examples of sleds as well as instructions for building one.  That author is from Arkansas and his people  called them “slides”.  Have any of you heard that term on the plateau?

In my novels, characters often use sleds in their daily lives.  I wonder how many readers will really understand how common that practice has been?

I loved this sled picture which looked like a sled Daddy built for us to break a pair of colts to harness work.  We didn't have the draft horses but it was intimidating enough to be that close to the ground behind a feisty young horse.

I loved this sled picture which looked like a sled Daddy built for us to break a pair of colts to harness work.  We didn't have the draft horses but it was intimidating enough to be that close to the ground behind a feisty young horse.

A Pound’s a Pound, Right?

Am I the only one that’s flabbergasted at the soaring costs of food?  I recently remarked that either we are eating a lot more or the prices have really gone up – could be a little of both and I need to work on one of those! 

I made a birthday cake this week – a chocolate robot and his arms and legs were Swiss Cake Rolls.  I decided to use the Swiss Cake Rolls after buying a box of strawberry filled Shortcake Rolls.  Then we had a little communication breakdown and two of us bought two different boxes of Swiss Cake Rolls.  They were both the same brand so imagine my surprise when the cakes in one box were considerably larger than those in the other box.  It’s the sort of thing where you think one store has a better price until you look really closely at the details. 

I’ve seen a similar trend in restaurants.  Of course, in America our portion size is so large that we could do with a little downsizing.  However, the price didn’t come down with it and that kind of makes you feel short changed, doesn’t it?  I used to frequent a little tea room where the Victorian Tea Service would more than feed two adults.  Imagine my surprise when I took my young teenage neice and we ordered that standard meal only to discover there was barely enough for one.  More food had to be ordered and the bill was significantly higher than on previous visits.  Smaller portions is an easy way for restaurants to raise their prices without reprinting their menus – or alerting patrons too quickly. 

A quick internet search shows me other folks have been noticing this since 2009 – about the time I started noticing that portions were smaller in restaurants.  But that was a tough time for business, they were doing whatever they could to stay afloat.  Anybody want to comment on whether the portions have increased with the growing economy?

Well you know I’m always comparing these realizations to history.  It occurred to me that our grandparents would not have had such a surprise because buying a boxed cake was nearly unheard of on our rural plateau.  Even in more metropolitan areas, purchased foods would have been made by a local baker to whom you could clearly voice your complaint if you suddenly thought you weren’t quite getting your money’s worth.

The packaged cakes we all take for granted now came about in the mid twentieth century.  Little Debbies started in the mid-1960’s and Twinkies were first created in the 1930’s but I wasn’t able to learn when they were first boxed.  More likely they were sold in a bakery.  Remember that grocery shopping as we know it, strolling along aisles and filling a cart, didn’t come about until the early 1930’s and their growth followed the popularity of the automobile.  Just think, have you ever seen a picture of a Kroger parking lot filled with horses and wagons?

Still, the question at hand is whether shrinking product size and rising prices is a modern invention.  I doubt it.  After all, King Solomon declared way back in 947 BC (according to the Reese Chronological Bible’s [Bethany House, 1977] estimation of the timeline) that there is nothing new under the sun. 

Businesses and businessmen have always had a reputation of fairness or the lack thereof.  Wiley housewives have long known that the cornmeal lasted a little longer if this mill ground it or that a pound of coffee made an extra few cups if you got it from that grocer.  Again, not a new problem.  Moses addressed fair weights and measures in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 25:13) as an absolute command – “Thou shalt not have in thine bag divers weights…” and verse fifteen gives a promise of long life for fair dealings.

I didn’t mean to get started on a sermon, but I wonder if the snack cake manufacturers ever read those verses?

Tent Graves

Two weeks ago I shared Highland Cemetery with you and some of the pictures prompted further research and comments from readers.  (You can’t imagine how happy that makes me!) The comments are always available for everyone to read but I thought today I’d share with you some of the research it led me to.

Shawna asked me what are the graves that are covered with large slabs of stone.  Believing I knew the answer, I confidently explained these tend to be among the oldest graves in the cemetery and were certainly placed before the availability of airtight coffins and vaults.  The stones would secure the burial site from digging animals.

She kept looking.

Sure enough, a simple Google search revealed a website which asserts that these types of graves are predominately found along the Highland Rim and especially in Overton County, Tennessee.

I found a blog article here That shared lots of pictures of these graves and lots of information but no hard and fast conclusions.  The Tennessee Sate Library has a photo collection of these tent graves dating through the 19th century, with a few as late as the 1920’s. 

The Hutchison blog noted that these graves are more prevalent in family cemeteries and most often represent the first and second generation of immigrants to the area.

Irish Cemetery:  Don't those little houses look a lot like our Tent Graves?

Irish Cemetery:  Don't those little houses look a lot like our Tent Graves?

My first thought on reading these articles was that I knew I’d seen pictures of similar graves in Europe.  We know that the area was predominately settled by Scots Irish so isn’t it logical that this is a tradition that simply immigrated with them?  However, I guess the absence of these graves in North Carolina and Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains precludes the immigration theory since that population was even more directly Scots Irish. 

Plaque Graves near Culross Scotland

Plaque Graves near Culross Scotland

Looking online, I found several pictures of old European cemeteries with covered graves, but one in particular whose coverings look so much like the tents we’re familiar with.  I didn’t actually find examples among Scottish cemeteries which surprised me because I would have thought the Scots Irish would have brought more Scottish traditions than Irish.  However, there are examples of unique approaches to graves in Scotland.  Near Culross are three graves of siblings who died on the same day in the seventeenth century.  They are known as the Plaque Graves and do seem to have a huge plaque atop each one. 

The greater European area has lots of examples of covered graves, although they all seem more ornate or finished than the slabs we have around here.  Could these Appalachian Tent Graves represent a crude, frontier representation of the tradition the people observed in the old country?

These graves always seem to represent a lot of work to me.  Often the cemeteries are far from established quarries and these are big, heavy slabs of stone.  However, in so many cases the names were either never clearly inscribed or never maintained so now we have these very visible grave sites with no idea just who they are memorializing. 

Finally, it occurs to me that the very tradition this blog seeks to celebrate and perpetuate fails in this area.  Our oral tradition has preserved family details carried for centuries.  We’ve learned and continue to use skills that our ancestors brought from their foreign homes.  Yet here is a tradition that no one seems to have explained as the years passed.

Old West Kirk of Culross, Scotland This professional photo (used with permission)  is representative of work available at

Old West Kirk of Culross, Scotland

This professional photo (used with permission)  is representative of work available at

What do you think?  Does it seem like these are just a style of burial site?  Or do you think it’s some tradition that came with early immigrants but didn’t last very long on American soil?