Tuesday, July 15, 2014

That Polecat Stinks To High Heaven

My home is located in the valley formed by the South Dry Run creek (pronounced crick, rhyming with 'pick'). Our three to four mile long valley, originating with a number of springs in the vicinity of Smith Corner, and culminating where it empties into the valley cut by the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River, is one of the many hollows that cut into the Appalachian mountain range in this south-central part of Pennsylvania. On the other side of the hill that forms the south wall of my hollow lies Singer Hollow, and on the other side of the hill that forms the south wall of Singer Hollow lies PawPaw Hollow. Benton Hollow and an unnamed hollow lie farther to the south. And then, about three miles south of my home, "as the crow flies," stretches the Polecat Hollow.

And, in case you haven't guessed it yet, the polecat is the subject of this blog post. Many people, even many of those who have lived in this corner of the world all their lives, believe they know what a polecat is. Polecats, they believe, are those stinking varmints covered in black fur with blotches of white on their heads and stripes of white down their backs or sides and sometimes on the tips of their tails. What most of those people, who believe they know what a polecat is, don't know, is that those black and white animals are skunks; they're not now, nor ever were polecats.

The polecat ferret, or rather Mustela putorius, a member of the Mustelidae family (which includes otters, badgers and weasels), was common in Europe. Skunks, which were somewhat unique in the animal world for their jet black and pristine white fur, were native to North America. The skunk was originally believed to belong to the Mustelidae family, but more recently was moved to the Mephitidae family (which consists of mammals having a stench). Although the polecat ferret was similar to the skunk in many ways, it differed in that it bore cocoa brown fur over its back and lighter colored fur on its belly. The polecat ferret, having a strong musk odor, could easily be mistaken for a skunk at first smell.

When our ancestors came from the Old World, they found the black and white animals that sprayed an horrendous smell when startled, but they also found similar stink-spraying animals covered in fur that was a dark cocoa brown color with tan stripes or spots. They apparently weren't true skunks but they smelled alot like skunks. The immigrants from the European regions of Germany and Switzerland remembered the 'polecat ferret' of their homeland. When those immigrants encountered the foul-smelling brown and tan varmints, they associated them with the polecat ferret they knew back home. They probably assumed that the two animals, black/white and brown/tan were two different things, and so they called the black/white ones 'skunks' and they called the brown/tan ones 'polecats.' What the early European settlers in North America did not know was that the skunk did not necessarily have to be covered in black and white fur: the animal can bear cocoa brown and tan fur, just like the European polecat ferret. And so, the names of skunk and polecat became intermixed here in the wilderness of America. Eventually, as such things sometimes go, the names got so intermixed that the Euro-American settlers tended to call them all 'polecats'. It has come around to the point that today a large percentage of Americans call the black and white animal: polecats, and don't even know that a brown and tan variety exists (unless they encounter one in the forest).

The name polecat is believed to have been derived from a combination of the French word poule, meaning 'chicken' and puant, meaning 'stinking'. On the other hand, the name skunk is believed to have been derived from an Amerindian word seka-kwa, meaning 'urinating fox.' An English translation of that word, squunck is claimed to have been used as early as the 1630s in New England. 

Polecats (or rather, skunks) are generally avoided if at all possible. The threat of startling one, and being sprayed as a result, contributes to their being avoided by human beings. But in the past not all of them were avoided; sometimes baby ones would be treated as pets. In more recent years, laws have been enacted protecting these mammals, but in the past the scent glands would be removed from baby polecats. The animal, without its noxious odor, acted like an affectionate cat (that is if such a thing could actually exist ~ please don't hate me, cat-lovers). My mother told me stories about how her brothers would 'unscent' a baby skunk and it would become a very playful and fun pet. The current laws prohibit removal of the scent glands, and so you can't legally own polecats as pets. Unfortunately for them, polecats / skunks have very poor eyesight. They can only see about ten feet away, and that is a contributing factor in why most people only see one when it is lying dead on a road (having been hit by the car it couldn't see and from which it could not get away). The title expresses the concept that the polecat's odor was very strong ~ strong enough to reach as high as Heaven ~ which is indeed a very long distance away.

Monday, July 7, 2014

If You're Going To The Store, Get Me A Poke A Cherries

In 1978 Trevor Horn, Geoff Downes and Bruce Woolley wrote a song that was first recorded by The Camera Club, and later by the Buggles. That song took its title from its opening line: Video Killed The Radio Star. The song bewailed the end of the popularity of radio occasioned by the rising popularity of video. My lament is that 'television killed regional dialects'.

In the United States, where the primary, though not official, language is English, there are a number of regional dialects and accents. An accent is a variation in the way certain words are pronounced, whereas a dialect is a distinct variation within a language that encompasses more than just pronunciation. Pennsylvania Dutch is a well-known dialect within the English language. I'm sure that most people reading this post already know what is meant by 'Pennsylvania Dutch', but for those who do not, I'll provide a brief explanation. The word 'Dutch' in the name Pennsylvania Dutch is commonly believed to have been derived from the German word Deutsch, meaning German, or the German people. Although that sounds good in a folklore sort of way, in actuality the word Dutch had been in use for centuries (by the English, that is) as a name for the people who settled all along the Rhine River, which flows from the Swiss Alps in Canton Graubunden, Switzerland to the Netherlands, where it empties into the North Sea: the Low Dutch for those residing in Liechtenstein and Netherlands and High Dutch for those residing in Germany and Switzerland. Most of the Mennonite immigrants to the New World came from Switzerland and the German principalities of Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Wurttemberg and Hesse (i.e. High Dutch), and they settled primarily in Pennsylvania. Those emigrants retained their appellation of "Dutch" even after they established their new homes in Pennsylvania: hence they became known as Pennsylvania Dutch. As noted, Pennsylvania Dutch is a dialect of the English language, and therefore employs English words, albeit in variations of grammar and syntax. There are even dialectical variations of the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect ~ the Bedford sub-dialect, variously called the Central Pennsylvania dialect, being one of them. This region was settled by many Ulster-Scot, Irish and Scottish families in addition to German and Swiss ones who migrated westward from the Pennsylvania Dutch region of eastern Pennsylvania. It was inevitable that they should intermarry. And when they intermarried, their speech became curiously intermingled.

There are numerous websites on the internet and many books in libraries which provide examples of the idiosyncrasies of Pennsylvania Dutch, so I won't list them all here. The point I want to make here is that for many years my ancestors and I got to enjoy the uniqueness of our language. The way my parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents spoke was familiar and comfortable to me. And then television came into our lives. Suddenly everyone was speaking an homogenized form of English. Regional dialects and accents were reserved for the hillbillies and hicks of the movies. Suddenly, Pennsylvania Dutch, and its sub-dialects, had become a joke. And that was definitely something to lament.

So last night ~ on the TV ~ on a show titled Our Secret Slang, devoted to telling about the origins of words we use every day, they talked about the word 'poke'. Many of the people they interviewed thought that the word referred to the verb meaning to prod, as with a finger, but I instantly knew they were talking about a small container. I remembered the many times that we went to a grocery for a poke of black licorice candy or to a hardware store for a poke of nails. Of course now, as I compose this post on my computer, I prefer to spell words as they should be spelled. Therefore, I choose to spell out 'poke of nails', denying my Pennsylvania accent to be revealed; but when I was younger I would have pronounced it 'poke a nails'.

The word poke comes from the 12th Century Old French poche, which meant 'purse', from which was also derived the Old North French word poque. The French comes possibly from the Germanic word puk, which was derived from the Proto-Indo-European root beu- meaning 'to swell'.
When I was a child, and pokes were in common use in south central Pennsylvania, they tended to take the form of small brown paper bags that measured roughly four inches by two inches by eight inches high, when fully opened. One of those pokes could hold ten or twelve pieces of delicious black licorice candy or 15 six-inch-long 20-penny nails. If you needed to buy a gallon of milk, three cans of peas and a loaf of bread, there was no way that you could expect to carry it all home in a poke; you needed a bag. And that is where the phrase a pig in a poke comes from: it would be quite an impossibility to fit a pig ~ any size pig ~ into a small bag. And so 'a pig in a poke' was used to describe some impossibly incredible claim.

Now the thing about a dialect, as compared to an accent, using the word poke as an example, is that it was used for many years in the region of south central Pennsylvania where I grew up. And it was certainly not an example of an accent. It wasn't a matter of us pronouncing the word slightly differently from the way the people down in Alabama did; it was more of a matter of us using the word while those Alabamans didn't. Those of us and our ancestors who lived in this portion of Appalachia that cut through the center of Pennsylvania used a number of words that most people elsewheres did not ~ or at least in ways most did not. For example, some of them pertained to food. Most people used the two words of 'buttered' and 'bread' to express what we knew as a single word: butterbread. When we covered the butter on our piece of butterbread with about a quarter inch layer of sugar (enough to track a rabbit according to my grandfather, Eldon Smith) it became sugarbread. It is possible that our word butterbread was simply derived from the German word butterbrot and that our word sugarbread likewise came from a German word: suikerbrood, but who knows for sure? And our sense of the time-space continuum sometimes got skewed because we would think nothing of saying "I'll meet you somewhere around eight o'clock tomorrow at the church." The word somewhere referred to the time, not the place. The little nuances of our dialect hinted towards its relationship to Pennsylvania Dutch, but it wasn't as heavy on the 'Dutch' part as you might hear down east (such as the way we would add an 's' to the ends of words like 'toward' and 'end' that functioned just fine without). While we were comfortable when we spoke all of the usual, peculiar Pennsylvania Dutch words and phrases, such as 'redding up the room' when we knew that guests were coming, or that we planned to 'put up' (i.e. can) twenty jars of applebutter. But where Pennsylvania Dutch was practically one hundred percent German in origin, the dialect that thrived in our neck of the woods was German mixed with Irish and Scottish words. We thought that gas prices were 'gettin awful dear' each time they rose and we didn't like anyone 'messing around' when we wanted to be serious, so we'd tell them to 'scram'. Those words and phrases came from our ancestors that could trace their lineage back to the British Isles. So when mother ordered us to stop messing around because she needed to get the room all redd up, she was not strictly speaking Pennsylvania German.

You probably noticed that I used the past-tense of the verb 'to go' above when I remembered getting pokes of stuff. That's because we very seldom get pokes of anything anymore ~ they've become a thing of the past. It's partly because all of the stores you go to use the same size (different color) large plastic bags. Even if you all want is a pack of chewing gum or one birthday card, the clerk puts it in one of those same size (different color) large plastic bags. But it's also partly because of the fact that you never hear the word poke, in regard to a small bag, spoken on television anymore. The homogenized English spoken on television killed the regional dialects. Oh, and the photo at the top of this post is of a poke a cherries.