Arts and Leisure

What They Say in New England About Local Characters and Customs

Henry Wheeler Shaw, the 19th-century humorist known as Josh Billings, said genuine proverbs are like good cambric needles: short, sharp and shiny. In New England, there are plenty of them, about the weather, about holidays and about each other.

new england sayings

In Bath, N.H., someone who makes a strong but odd statement was said to be ‘equal to Priest Sutherland,’ a minister in the town for 50 years who made strong but odd statements.

Also in New Hampshire, ‘leaning toward Sawyers’ was an expression used when someone left the house surreptitiously for a drink. The Sawyer family kept a store where drinks could be purchased in Sugar Hill.

Maine loggers blamed annoyances and misfortune on the mythical character Sock Saunders. If a logger slipped on a log but caught himself in time, he said, “Foxed you that time, Sock Saunders.” If he cut himself, he said, “Got me that time, Sock Saunders.’

A Connecticut toast goes, “Here’s to the Nutmeg State—who has a grater?”

In Massachusetts, they say a rib was taken off Billerica to make Bedford. And for someone who finally realizes something obvious, they say, ‘Dawn breaks over Marblehead.’ When Marbleheaders ran into each other they’d say, “Down bucket,” or “To hell I pitch it.” No one seems to know why.

Travelers used to say that Cape Codders called a house a house, but a house with a shed was a village. (That no longer applies.) Cape Codders were called 'Chowderheads' and 'Mooncussers.' Cape Codders called people who lived off the Cape 'Off-Capers.'

Nantucketers called Martha’s Vineyard residents 'Old Town Turkeys,' while a Nantucketer was a 'Scrap Islander' to a denizen of Martha’s Vineyard. Nantucketers liked to say something was ‘as handy as Caleb’s cheese,’ referring to Caleb Macy, who liked cheese so much he kept one hanging from a string in his sitting room.

Northampton, Mass., was called 'Pudding Town' and its people 'Puddingers,' after the residents’ custom of eating hasty pudding and milk for Saturday evening supper.

All Boston residents were 'beaneaters,' and Boston folk were ‘full of notions.’ ‘Brahmins’ were the clannish, aloof, old New England families. Of them it was said,

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to the Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.

‘Cold roast Boston’ referred to Brahmins because they ate roast beef on Sunday and cold leftovers on Monday. The Codfish Aristocracy was a class of nouveau riche who had acquired wealth from the codfishing industry.

Poor Irish were ‘shanty Irish,’ while shanty Irish with notions of respectability were ‘lace-curtain Irish.’ Above the ‘lace-curtain Irish’ were the ‘two-bathroom Irish,’ then the ‘wall-to-wall Irish,’ then at the pinnacle of Irish society were ‘Irish who had fruit in the house when no one was sick.’

‘Black Irish’ were Irish people with dark hair and eyes, said to be descendants of shipwrecked sailors of the Spanish Armada.

Harvard’s battle cry of ‘Oh, Rinehart,’ started on June 11, 1900, when an undergraduate called up to the dormitory window for John Bryce Gordon Rinehart (Class of 1900). His cry was picked up across the Yard by hundreds of students, and was repeated during any campus ruckus.

 

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  1. Pingback: White horses, snakes, weddings and funerals - New England Superstitions about Dreams - New England Historical Society

  2. Pingback: A Brief History of the Boston Brahmin - New England Historical Society

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