My latest column in the Malaysia Star.
In all the talk in this space about slang, it’s easy to forget about dialect.
Dialect is that language of a specific group of people from a particular ethnic or geographic background. It’s the kind of English – a word, a turn of phrase, a special pronunciation – that is passed from parents to children, unlike slang which is passed between members of a generation and tends to become outdated rather quickly.
We get a lot of questions about dialect on the radio show. Often, they are about something an elder used to say.
My go-to resource (the place I trust the most) for answering dialect questions is the Dictionary of American Regional English. The editors are now finishing the fifth and final volume of the work, which will complete what I believe to be one of the great feats of English-language dictionary-making. DARE, as it is abbreviated, tends always to have the answers I need.
For example, one caller wanted to know about the word “dauncy”. She told us it was what her grandmother used to say when she was not feeling well but didn’t have anything obviously wrong with her.
In other words, she was “poorly”, a word that looks like an adverb because it ends in “-ly” but is an adjective meaning “unwell”.
The older spelling of “dauncy” is “donsie”. Among all the reference works I checked, there are at least 10 spellings. Widely varying spelling is characteristic of dialect, which tends to be mostly oral, and, therefore, more susceptible to an author’s imagination when written down.
About 20 years ago, Vic Weals wrote about “dauncy” in the Knoxville (Tennessee) Journal. I thought he described it very well.
He said that the word “appears to have meanings that differ when it is applied to self and when it applies to another person. ‘I feel donsie’ might mean I feel dizzy, or slightly ill, or nauseated. When put on somebody else, ‘donsie’ can mean, at least in some localities, that the person is intoxicated, addled, silly, stupid, or, according to some local interpretations, quick-tempered, and even saucy or pert.”
Under the spelling of “donsie”, DARE shows that the word has been used to mean “vaguely unwell” as far back as 1874. A map shows that usage of the word is clustered roughly around the Ohio River valley. DARE also suggests “dauncy” comes to American English from Scots Gaelic.
Checking the online Dictionary of the Scots Language, I find additional coverage of the word, as well as in the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English, edited in part by Michael B. Montgomery, and in Montgomery’s book From Ulster to America, which covers the influence of the Scot-Irish on American English.
Montgomery believes the dialect word comes from the Irish word “donas”, meaning “bad luck or misery”, and its Scots Gaelic equivalent “donas” or “donais”, meaning “mischief, harm, or bad luck”.
DARE shows another, older meaning of “donsie”, dating back to 1805 that means “fastidious” or “squeamish”, which is likely from the Scots word “daunch” which means fastidious.
“Dauncy” is just common enough that it was used in the 1950s in an episode of the old television sitcom I Love Lucy where the main character is pregnant. Instead of saying that she has morning sickness, she says she’s “dauncy”.
As you can see, it’s easy to get lost in dictionaries when researching dialect.
Another word a listener recently asked about was “faunch”. DARE has it as far back as 1970 and defines it as “to fret; to show irritation or impatience”.
An older meaning by some decades is “to rant and rave”, which goes back to at least 1911. That use is particularly associated with horses, who might be said to be “faunching at the bit” or “faunching around” when they’re restless or unsettled.
Finally, one last dialect term: “jockey box”. That’s another name for the glovebox or glove compartment in a car. It dates to as early as 1881 and is common in Idaho.
However, when in 1961, Roberta Hanley wrote about truck drivers’ language in the journal American Speech, she suggested that “jockey box” was used throughout the country.