‘Harpin’ Days’ Are Dying Out for Boont


To the old-timers who gather for afternoon coffee at the Redwood Drive-in, there are few pastimes sweeter than sharkin’ a bright-lighter with a slib of Boont.

Take the yuppie in his BMW, up from San Francisco for some weekend wine tasting. He approaches the men with a smile, asking directions to a local bed and breakfast inn. The response is quick--and earnestly polite:

“Take your wee moshe, pike toward the Deep End and you’ll deek on the Big Crick chiggrul and sluggin’ region. And jape easy!”


The hapless tourist might not appreciate it, but he has just been given directions in one of the most unusual homemade languages in the world--Boontling, hatched by settlers in this remote Mendocino County valley more than a century ago.

At its peak, the colorful lingo was used by virtually all of the 500 people who once made their living raising sheep and apples here. But now, only eight or 10 old-timers can speak Boontling with ease, and they are gradually passing on, taking the language with them to the grave.

“God has thinned us out, and we’re getting thinner all the time,” said Bob Glover, 74, one of those who occasionally “shark”--or play games with--an unsuspecting city slicker (bright-lighter) passing through town.

“A few of the words--especially the dirty ones--will probably be around forever,” said Donald Pardini, 65. “But I don’t honestly see much of a future for Boont.”

Pardini has reason to worry.

Boontling’s decline has not exactly set off alarms. In Boonville, population 1,200, high school teacher Ken Jones planned a course in Boont this year, but dropped the idea when students greeted it with a collective yawn. The valley’s elders have passed on some words to their children, but members of the younger generation don’t speak the language enough to keep their skills sharp.

One small effort to preserve the language was made by Pardini, who included a poem in Boont in a time capsule buried in the town some time ago. The poem--a nostalgic ode to Boontling--urges those who eventually dig up the capsule to bring the language back to life.


“It makes you sad, seeing it die out,” Pardini said.

If the curious sounds of Boontling do indeed fade away, the Anderson Valley will have lost a piece of heritage few other places can claim. There are many blended languages--such as the merging of French and Cree Indian by trappers in 17th century Canada--and numerous forms of jargon, like that found among thieves and carnival workers. Twins sometimes invent secret codes, and island populations often have their own dialects.

But experts say Boontling’s history, durability and extensive original vocabulary make it stand out: “I don’t know of many examples like it--if any at all,” said Leanne Hinton, a professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley.

On top of its anthropological value, Boontling is fun. Its words and phrases--an estimated 2,000 in all--are colorful and tend to have amusing origins, often relating to local characters out of the past and their occupations or habits.

A prostitute is a “madge,” after a madam in nearby Ukiah, while a “tom bacon” is a handlebar mustache, in honor of a man who could twirl the ends of his whiskers around his ears. A “buckey walter” is a pay phone--a combination of “buckey,” meaning nickel, and “walter,” for Walter Levi, who owned the valley’s first telephone.

A cup of coffee is a “horn of zeese,” a tribute to a hunter with the initials Z.C. whose coffee was so thick it could reputedly float an egg. And to be embarrassed is to be “charlied.” A local Indian named Charlie Ball--an exceptionally bashful fellow--was said to inspire that term.

About 15% of Boontling is made up of dirty words, or “nonch harpin’s,” permitting its speakers to gossip about sex, bodily functions and other taboo matters without sounding vulgar or offending others. Wes Smoot, a retired state road supervisor who is fluent in Boont, explains how useful this can be:


“If I were in a mixed crowd I could say, ‘That mink and kimmie were burlapin’,’ and it wouldn’t sound bad. But you’d never catch me saying those same words in English.”

(Translation: A “mink” is a woman, especially one of loose morals, and a “kimmie” is a man. As for “burlapin’,” legend has it that a store patron once caught a clerk and his lady friend in a compromising position atop a pile of burlap bags in a storeroom. Thus did the witness exclaim, “They’re burlapin’ in there!”)

Just how Boontling got started is a matter of lingering dispute. The leading explanation suggests that adults invented it around the 1880s so they could discuss delicate matters in front of children. Pardini and others subscribe to a more specific theory, involving women who were picking hops and wanted to gossip about a pregnant--and unmarried--girl in their midst.

Whatever the spark, Boontling quickly caught fire in the valley. During its heyday early this century, some locals became so comfortable with Boontling that they used it as their primary language. Indeed, during World War I, several GIs from Boonville reportedly had to relearn English when they left the valley to fight. At one time, members of a local baseball team used Boontling to yell signals, which sounded like crazy babble to visiting players.

As with island dialects, the lingo thrived largely because of the region’s isolation, 120 miles north of San Francisco. When cars and telephones linked the Anderson Valley more closely to the outside world, Boontling began to fade. Hastening its decline was a minor community backlash; some newcomers mocked the language as “backwoodsy,” while other residents feared that it might supplant standard English, putting local children at a disadvantage.

In 1971, Boontling got a lift when an English professor from Cal State Chico shined an academic light on the language. After winning the confidence of Boonters (proficient Boontling users) over a period of years, Charles C. Adams wrote a book called “Boontling: An American Lingo,” which includes a comprehensive glossary.


Unlocking the mysteries of Boontling was a painstaking task. The most difficult part, Adams said in an interview, was persuading wary locals to share what they knew. After all, a young anthropologist from UC Berkeley had already tried and failed. Boonters roll their eyes when they talk of him, describing a hippie whose looks and lifestyle bore no resemblance to their own.

But Adams--who has a quiet, unassuming manner and shares hunting and other hobbies with the Boonters--eventually broke through.

“One night I was at a meeting of the Boontling Club and one of the leaders, sitting on his heels by the fire, said, ‘Well, I think this guy is all for poison oak.’ That was his way of saying they should help me, and so they did,” said Adams, now retired.

After months of research, Adams concluded that Boontling is not, technically speaking, a language in itself. Its sounds, grammar and morphology--or word-building techniques--all fit the pattern of standard English. What distinguishes Boontling is its peculiar vocabulary, which makes it indecipherable to outsiders.

Some terms are borrowed from Pomo Indian, Spanish and the Scotch-Irish dialects spoken by some early immigrants to the valley. Sounds also were a common source for words. The digger squirrel was called a “squeakyteek” in imitation of its distinctive bark. A small-caliber rifle is a “spat,” reflecting its short, cracking report.

Brevity is one of Boontling’s most cherished features, leading to words formed from odd contractions and abbreviations. To wit: Whiskey is “skee,” Grizzly bear is “leeber,” and a schoolteacher is simply a “skoolch.” Even Boontling, the name of the language, is a blend, of “Boont” (for Boonville) and “lingo.”


Although the future looks dim, through the years Boontling enthusiasts have fought the odds to keep the language alive. For a time, a local teacher taught Boontling as part of her English classes, but that ended when she retired more than 20 years ago. Boont speakers occasionally make guest appearances in valley classrooms, but lament that the kids “just don’t seem interested any more.”

In the 1960s, a Boontling Club was formed. Among its missions was deciding whether to embrace new words--always a heated topic. Boontling purists believe that the language should be limited to terms coined by its original users; others insist that it should be a dynamic thing, open to new words so long as they fit its characteristics.

The purists, it seems, have mostly held sway, as few new terms have passed muster. One that was accepted is “posey tweed,” or flower child, which proved a useful label for the hippies who invaded the valley in decades past.

It has been 10 years since the Boontling Club last met, and around the Anderson Valley--now home to a growing industry of highly respected winemakers--remnants of Boontling are increasingly difficult to find. The local microbrewery sells beers with Boontling names, and the pay phones still say “Buckey Walter” on the booth. At the local market, tourists can still buy a souvenir coffee cup marked with Boont words.

But if you want to hear Boontling spoken, it is nearly too late. Each year, a couple of the old-timers perform a brief skit in Boontling at the valley’s spring festival, but they may boycott the event this year.

“Last year,” Glover says with a scowl, “they wanted us to do it in rap. Can you believe that? I think this year we may have other plans.”


For now, the only Boontling to be heard bubbles forth when the few fluent speakers who remain meet for gabfests at the Redwood Drive-in. Keeping with tradition, they all have nicknames. Glover is known as Chipmunk--after a grandfather who hoarded his money--and Pardini, caretaker of the valley’s four cemeteries, is Ite, the Boontling word for an Italian. Smoot’s alias--Deekin--takes some explaining.

“When I was a tweed (child), I was half-charlied (shy),” Smoot said. “So the other kids said I was always just ‘deekin’--or just looking--and was too scared to say a thing.”

Boontling’s chronicler, Charles Adams, knows that the lingo’s days are numbered. But he is philosophical about its fate.

“If Chaucer were to walk among us now, nobody would understand him,” Adams said. “Language changes, cultures change and societies change. That’s just the way it is.”

Pardini is less resigned. He turns melancholy when musing about Boontling’s grim prospects--but holds out hope for a rebirth. Toward that end, he penned his poem--the one tucked in the time capsule buried by townspeople in 1983.

The verse--accompanied by a translation--closes with a poignant exhortation:

“We’ve all piked for dusties now, our harpin’ days are gone. But we’ll never be tebow, if Boont is pikin’ on.”


(We’ve all died off now, our speaking days are gone. But we’ll never be deaf, if Boontling is carried on.)

“Maybe somebody someday will find a use for Boont,” Pardini said. “It would sure be nice for it to survive, even in a small way.”


A Boontling Primer

There are an estimated 2,000 known words, names and phrases in the Boontling vocabulary. Here is a partial glossary:

apple-head: A girl, especially one’s girlfriend. From a reference to a Boonter’s girlfriend whose head was noticeably small.

bahl: Good; of excellent quality. Possibly from Ball Band shoes, once the best brand available.

barney: To hug or kiss. After a Boonter named Barney known to greet women enthusiastically.


bill nunn: Pancake syrup. Boonter Bill Nunn ate syrup on nearly every food.

bluebird: To buck off a rider (said of a horse). Figurative allusion to flying through the air, like a bluebird.

doll: To foul something up. After a Boonter nicknamed Doll who was personally unkempt and confused.

fence-jumpy: Prone to adultery. Allusion to straying from one’s pasture.

haireem: dog. Merging of hairy and mouth .

itch neemer: A person who no longer craves drink. Merging of itch no more .

keemwun keemle: A call to entertainment. From “come one, come all.”

packem-out billies: Dirty socks. Origin unknown.

peerl: To rain. From the shape of a raindrop.

pusseek: A cat. Merging of pussy and cat .

set ‘n ear: To scold. Reference to form of punishing sheep dogs by twisting their ear.

shoveltooth: A doctor. After a physician who had wide, protruding teeth.

skipe: A preacher. Merging of sky and pilot .

toobs: Twenty-five cents. From two bits .

trashmover: A heavy winter storm.

white oak: To work hard. After a tree that is difficult to process into firewood.

Source: “Boontling: An American Lingo,” by Charles C. Adams