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This California town invented its own language

A hillside vineyard above a redwood and fir forest in Boonville (Photo: George Rose/Getty)
A hillside vineyard above a redwood and fir forest in Boonville (Photo: George Rose/Getty)

With more than 5.2 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you’re throwing a term paper together at the last minute or penna tine on my damie kays. We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,289,827-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Boontling

What it’s about: Like an entire town of middle-school BFFs, the town of Boonville, California, made up its own private language. Around 1890, the town was an isolated farming and ranching community and didn’t have much interaction with neighbors. So its peculiar slang was able to take hold in a relatively controlled environment, and 125 years later, some Boontling speakers are still hanging on, although Boonville only has 700 current residents and only a handful of those are keeping the argot alive.

Strangest fact: While Boontling borrows from Scottish Gaelic, Irish, Pomoan, and Spanish, a lot of its words come from people’s names. Syrup is called “Bill Nunn,” after a man who put syrup on nearly everything. “Charlied” means embarrassed, and “Charlie Balled” means bashful, after a particularly shy man by that name. Wine is called “Frati” after the man who owned the local vineyard. Telephones are called “Joe” after the first man in town to own one, but phoning someone is “Levi,” after the first man to make a call with one. A roaring fire is a “Jeffer,” as Jeff Vestal used to light them often. Prostitutes are called “Madges,” after a madam of that name; visiting a house of ill repute is called “madging.” A “Jenny Beck” is a tattletale, after a well-known gossip. Even a horse got into the act, as the animals are referred to as “cykes,” after a local horse named Cyclone.

Biggest controversy: No one can agree on just how Boontling got started. One theory is that adults working in the fields made up new slang terms to pass the time, and children who grew up hearing Boontling spoken kept on using it. The other theory is that kids invented the language to talk behind adults’ backs and continued to use it when they grew up.

Thing we were happiest to learn: There are some great turns of phrase. Boontling speakers don’t get angry; they get “can-kicky.” Someone with lots of money (“higgs”) is “high pockety,” and someone willing to lend you some higgs is “fair and right a person.” A heavy rainstorm is a “trash mover,” while a winter storm is a “log lifter.” Fighting is a “sharkin’ match,” and to get a woman pregnant is, for reasons we’ll never be able to unpack, to “rout the kimmie in the boat,” “kimmie” also meaning stranger.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Boontling includes some vulgar language of the sort rarely heard outside a presidential campaign. “Bilch” is sex, while “bat” is masturbation. “Burlapping” also refers to sex, after a couple caught doing the deed on a pile of burlap sacks in a store’s back room. “Hog rings” refers to a loose vagina; a tight one is a “mouse ear.” “Mate” is a (presumably) milder term for either gender’s genitalia. “Mate gormin’” refers to oral sex performed on either mate, and “Molly gormin’” is what Wikipedia delicately calls “oral contact with the female breasts.” At least we English speakers have some decorum.

Also noteworthy: A lot of Boontling words simply combine other words, some Boontling and some not. “Bahl” means good; “bahlness” is an attractive woman, and “bahl” and “show” combine into “beemsch,” a good show. A rabbit is a “beeljeck,” combining Belgian hare and jackrabbit. “Chigrel” means meal, or to eat, and comes from “child’s gruel.” Old women are disparagingly called “eeld’m,” from “old dame.” “Nonch” means bad, abbreviating “not much.” And Native Americans are called “buck-inj,” from “buck Indian”; although “buck” seems to have several meanings, as a “bucky” is a nickel, and a “buck pasture” is when a man’s wife is pregnant.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: One Boontling speaker who found some fame was Bobby “Chipmunk” Glover, who made regular appearances on the Johnny Carson-era Tonight Show. Carson hosted the late-night institution for 29 years, and in that time became the gold standard of television hosts. Until 1980, the show was 90 minutes long, and Carson would frequently book human-interest-story guests like Glover alongside the parade of actors, comedians, and musicians.

Further down the Wormhole: Because it still uses the basic structure of English and swaps in words and phrases, Boontling is less its own language, and more a collection of sobriquets. A sobriquet is a nickname well-known enough to stand in for a name, whether it’s Bill Nunn, the Big Apple, Babe Ruth (whom no one ever calls George), or Honest Abe, one of our greatest presidents. The race for president is always contentious, and before this year, one of the most disputed was the election of 1876, in which we celebrated our nation’s centennial with an absolute and utter debacle. We’ll wade into at least one Electoral College mess next week.