EVERY REGION HAS certain words that reflect its history, its geography — and its personality. For instance, Southerners seem to me to be immediately open and friendly, even with total strangers. “Y’all come!” they’ll say, which would appear to include mankind. We New Englanders are more reserved about extending invitations, or anything else, and our language reflects it. In fact, as far as I can ascertain, New England does not possess any word or expression that is the equivalent of “Y’all come.” There are simply no circumstances imaginable in which it would be desirable to have everyone, particularly strangers and their uncles, included. Our tendency is to qualify our statements, minimize our emotional commitment, and reduce the chance of error. In short, we feel compelled to be careful.
In response to someone inquiring about our health, we’re apt to reply with such phrases as “Fair to middlin’,” “Makin’ out,” or “Guess I’ll survive for another day.” We might agree that it’s a nice day, but “We’ll pay for it tomorrow,” or “It is unless it rains.” A bumper crop season is “fair,” an excellent job “will do,” and “I might mosey on over to Jake’s house by and by.” We simply don’t want to be trapped or held to anything that can change due to circumstances beyond our control.
Also, we seem to have revulsion for any use of language that slops over with emotion or sentimentality. One hears about the local youth who graduated cum laude from MIT as a right smart boy. That’s enough. “Pretty as a picture” is about the ultimate in feminine personal appearance. Instead of utilizing adjectives to describe a situation, person, or thing, New Englanders feel more comfortable making simple, graphic comparisons. Somehow, that’s less emotional.
It’s as black, for instance, as a crow, ink, one’s hat, or even the ace of spades.
It’s as clear as a bell, crystal, noonday — or mud.
It’s as fresh as a bird, a daisy, or paint.
It’s as clean as a hound’s tooth or a pig’s whistle.
Actually, I know about a clean that’s cleaner than even a hound’s tooth or a pig’s whistle. While having my hair cut a couple of years ago, I asked my barber and friend, Bill Austin, a native of Peterborough, New Hampshire, if he knew a really clean joke I could tell during a talk I was scheduled to make that evening at the Peterborough Women’s Club.
“Sure, I’ve got a clean one for you, Jud,” Bill said with a twinkle in his eye.
“It’s got to be really clean, though, Bill,” I warned.
“Clean! Well, now, this joke is so clean, Jud, that you could tell it to your grandmother sitting on the john.”
Now, that’s clean!