Folk Sayings of the Hudson Valley

@drandy (13)
United States
December 17, 2006 2:50pm CST
Linguists and cultural scientists receive a great deal of attention when they speak of the disappearing languages of the world such as Gaelic or the American Indian tongues. But, has anyone ever mentioned the long forgotten Jersey Dutch and related dialects? In Wilfred Talman's book, "How Things Began" he speaks of a university professor studying the language around the turn of the century. I have some knowledge of this and consequently I feel I have a duty to share it. The Jersey Dutch Talman briefly mentions that there was a term used around these hill which was at one time a widely accepted word for an everyday object. The word "sprukkels" meant kindling wood or sticks. This was a locals dialectical adaptation of the Dutch word for the same thing. Another commonly used term was "spouk" which meant ghost or spirit. This is where the name for the landmark Spook Rock came from. My grandmother was a descendant of this heritage and she used to use some handed down Jersey Dutch phrases. She often would say things like "What are you spooking (pronounced like book rather than the long oo sound) around for"? This meant sneaking about. Still another Dutch sounding word was "cathauling". This meant tugging, yanking around, or rough housing, and it was usually used to describe when young boys were wrestling or otherwise horsing around. A term which I occasionally use is "catterwalling". I always took it for granted because I heard people say it so often, but I usually get quizzical looks from others when I say it. Catterwalling means bellowing, bawling, whining, or just about any irritating racket one can make verbally. This term is one of those which actually sounds like that which it describes such as murmur, clatter, cacophony, or tintinnabulation. One word which is definitely not Dutch in origin which I've heard elders say is the word which is pronounced "randyviewing". It meant a secret or clandestine date. It was obviously based on the word rendezvous which is French. This was probably just an Anglicization. But I have no concrete evidence of this other than an educated guess. Old English Influence There were some terms which don't sound Dutch-like and probably are derived from old English. One of these is "dassn't". It is fairly obvious that this is some sort of contraction of dare not because this is exactly what it means. Another one which possibly comes from English is the word "afeast". This term means that something was unclean and a person was afraid of contact with it. In the common lexicon it would be used as, "They were poor housekeepers and I'm afeast to eat anything in their house". There was a term which I've heard from some locals which was also rather descriptive. this word is "bulling" which means chasing after women (or men if the object was a woman). Old Sayings About Nature Some of these terms come from proverbial axioms about animal behavior, weather prediction, and others. Generally they range from superstition to home-spun philosophy. Often they're rooted in a very rudimentary brand of deductive logic, but in today's terms they may seem silly or child-like. Aristotle, himself, was the father of some examples of this type of early reasoning. For instance, he prescribed marriage as a cure for the so called "female hysteria because he believed that it was due to a roving uterus. This "sign of the times" fingerprint often betrays the origin of many terms. In this region of the country there were once folk idioms which no doubt originated in a similar fashion. I've heard a passed down adage about children being born with a strawberry birthmark. It was said that these children had the blemishes because their mother's had craving for strawberries when they were pregnant. Similarly, there was a saying that a pregnant woman would "mark" the baby if she witnessed certain events such as an epileptic seizure. In other words, if an expectant mother saw a person in the throes of a seizure the child would be born with this or another disorder. This is no doubt related to the now extinct Freudian belief that people would obtain phobias in utero if their mother had been frightened by dogs, snakes, or something else. Good Luck and Bad Luck Other local words of wisdom are of a less clinical nature. There are many relating to good and bad luck. Occasionally, I will still hear someone say that it is bad luck to go in a different door than you came out of. I don't know how many times I've heard while growing up that it was bad luck to rock an empty rocking chair. I recall that there was one about it being bad luck to open an umbrella in the house. As a child I was sometimes scolded for sitting on the table as this was supposed to be bad luck. Animals and Wildlife Being that the early days of our nation relied on agriculture, it's not surprising that many proverbs relate to domesticated animals. When I was growing up we raised chickens at various times. I recall that once we had a hen which actually crowed like a rooster. My mother told me that she always heard the old folks say that a crowing hen was bad luck, and it would be killed in those days. I also recall others saying this when they heard the hen crow. There was another saying about a rooster crowing in front of a door as being a sign that company would arrive soon. It was also said that a howling dog was a harbinger that someone would die. One which I still hear on occasion is that if a bird flies into a window it would also portend a death. Animals are frequently present in lore and there are many passed down in local families. I recall many houses having hornet's nests thing on porches because they were thought to bring good luck. I've also heard that if a cat comes to your house it's also a sign of good luck. I have never heard, however, if chasing one away brings bad luck. But, a sure sign of bad luck was a mourning dove cooing near one's house. Indeed, it supposedly predicted a death. I knew one woman who went into a panic whenever a dove came to her house. I imagine that old timers must have had a special and close relationship to the land and the animals that only a modern farmer could appreciate today. Accordingly, quotes about these are possibly the largest category of all. There were many beekeepers and beeliners in the area. The farmers saw bees as allies. Local folks used to say that bees in the chimney were good luck. Perhaps this feeling has been passed won to me as I go out of my way to safely remove a honeybee or bumblebee from a dangerous position. I've never been stung for it either! Farm animals are naturally present in this lore too. I recall hearing a rather amusing adage that said that stepping in horse manure was good luck. Somehow I can't see this as being very lucky. There was an old phrase that went "Whistling girls and crowing hens will come to no good ends". Sayings of Frugality and General Interest As a collector of these axioms, words or wisdom, and credos I've gone as far as recording some in foreign languages. Very frequently I'll find that one from another nation have similar adages to our own. An example of this came up last year during a conversation with a friend from Dusseldorf, Germany. we were trading a few back and forth when I began to list some from Ben Franklin. I mentioned the one about "Waste not, want not" and "A penny saved is a penny earned". I stated that many of our early American sayings dealt with frugality. My friend said that his country had a credo which roughly translated means "He who the penny doesn't honor is unworthy of having money". The words are altered somewhat, but the message of frugality is still there. There are also many terms which have foreign counterparts, but the original texts appear to be particular to our region. One of these is that if an extra place is inadvertently set at the table, it would mean that company was coming. Another one is that if one's feet itch it portended that they will soon walk on strange ground. There is no doubt a variation on the many sayings about itchy feet. The term itself is synonymous with wanderlust. I've often heard my elders say that if someone's nose itches it meant that they'd soon have a fight. This one has some variations as well. It's said that an itchy nose can mean they will kiss a fool or meet a stranger or even be in danger. Dreams apparently are the subject of fascination in many cultures and the local lore is well represented in this department. I've heard the old folks say that if a person dreams about blood, that person will see blood before the end of the day. Another one is that if a someone dreams about a wedding, they'll soon attend a funeral. Cultural and historical research is sometimes hampered by modern man's separation from his past. The greatest barrier, I believe, is inadvertently caused by the tremendous and rapid developments of science in the last century. It's impossible for a person born today to understand what it was like to live in a world prior to cars, antibiotics, and atomic energy. A person like my grandfather, who was born in horse and buggy days and lived to see the space shuttle, was in a position to know both worlds by virtue of his life's experience. I can only read about the good old days and try to gain some semblance of perspective. This handicap often causes us to have a jaundiced or prejudiced view of life in those days. It shouldn't come as a surprise that some archaic terms are snickered at by some. There used to be a saying in the local countryside that said that it was bad luck to comb one's hair after dark. This is obvious baseless scientifically, but someone sometime must have had a bad experience after doing so. This is how things of this nature are born. There was another one that went that if two people dried their hands on the same towel at the same time they'd soon have an argument. One holdover from those days which I stil
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