opinion Newport Rhode Island

I looked out a backyard window the other day and saw a teewhitey digging up acorns that were covered with gorch and gurry. I got so caught up in the proceedings that I dreened my coffee.

When I began a column this way years ago, there was editorial suspicion that I had truly lost it, but this was simply an exercise in speaking “Swamp Yankee.”

That’s right – Swamp Yankees back in the day put their own spin on English with a glossary of terms that only they understood.

In this case, a “teewhitey” was a squirrel. “Gorch and gurry” translated to “dirt and grime.” To “dreen” was to spill something.

When I say “back in the day” I mean B.F., Before Facebook, where a recent posting raised a question to which there is no specific answer: Just what is a “Swamp Yankee?”

Facebook got involved because someone unearthed an old Associated Press clipping from a few days after the deadly 1938 hurricane that said this: “GALILEE, R. I., Sept. 24  – Charles Keville walked into a temporary morgue and looked at a body which had been identified as his. 

‘Nope,’ he said, ‘that ain’t me,’ and walked out again.”                                     

The person who shared this said Mr. Keville’s observation was “exactly how a real Swamp Yankee would respond.” 

The late chowder master and jonnycake-maker Bob Smith, a Swamp Yankee to the marrow, defined a swamper as one “whose family roots go way back, who is painfully frank, subscribes to honesty and doesn’t like upstate politicians meddling in local affairs.”

When I put the question to the late Barbara Bristow Hackey, a nurse and community leader who could trace her South County roots back to 1724, she replied, “Swampers are natives, they don’t put on airs, they’re hard-working, blunt and they don’t care whether people like what they say.”

She might have added that any serious Swamp Yankee was frugal with words, dispensing each one as if it would cost him a dollar.

Mrs. Hackey said her forebears were so “swampish” – living in remote areas – that some of the words they did use (like the ones she defined for me above), were unintelligible to others.

As to where the term “Swamp Yankee” came from, there are as many theories as there are quahogs in a swamper’s chowder. The one that makes the most sense to me is that they once wrung a living out of winter, when it was too cold to fish and farm, by cutting wood in the frozen swamps and selling it. I won’t argue if you have a better idea.

One expressive Swamp Yankee-by-heritage, who happened also to own a law degree, told me you could define the genuine article by using the words “stubborn, wicked-wise, assiduous, mindful, and parsimonious.” He said he swore by that because combining the first letter of each word spells out “swamp.”

When I checked my notepad later, I realized it actually spells “swwamp,” but who’s to argue with a canny South County lawyer? 

As for the long-ago and laconic hurricane survivor: My similar experience writing up a swamper came as I was reporting the story of an escaped peacock in Matunuck. It took up residence on the roof of a house and shrieked at night, driving the occupants crazy.

Knowing that a Swamp Yankee living nearby kept a few peacocks, they called him and asked if one had escaped.

“Yup,” he responded, promising to come by with a net. When he got there, he eyeballed the peacock, turned around, and walked away.

“Ain’t mine,” he said expansively.

Gerry Goldstein (gerryg76@verizon.net) is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist.

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