Tennessee Mountain Stories

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 Bing.com 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.