WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President-elect Bill Clinton, alumnus of Georgetown and Oxford, is no hick. But every once in a while he lets fly with an expression that comes straight from his small-town Arkansas roots.
Appearing on Arsenio Hall's late night talk show in June, the ultra-hip host asked the Arkansas governor to list his shortcomings. Mr. Clinton said they'd have to hold a "bunking party" to allow him time to detail them all.
That's what they call a slumber party or sleepover down in Arkansas.
Over the years, the state that calls itself the Land of Opportunity has given us William J. Fulbright, Wal-Mart and enough chicken parts to cover a major city to a depth of eight feet. But the state has also contributed a wealth of colorful words and phrases to the American language.
You have to come from Arkansas, or prit'near, to know what a "woodscolt" is, or what "another white belly up" means or what goes on at the "feddle coat house." As the Clinton crowd descends on Washington, however, such terms are likely to come with them. So it might be useful to take a first cut at an Arkansas Lexicon, lest we find our bread ain't done and we end up chasin' the whiffle-bird.
While linguists find it impossible to pinpoint the exact geographic origins of words and phrases, Arkansas has benefited from the confluence of three migration patterns that have lent both distinctiveness and unusual variety to its speech.
The northern part of the state is peopled by the rough and independent Ozark Mountain folk, vhose language is a veritable Galapagos of unique and archaic expressions. The southeastern section of Arkansas is known as the Delta, running alongside the Mississippi river and sharing the dialect of the Deep South. And the people of the southwestern corner of the state, radiating north and east from Texarkana and including Mr. Clinton's home town of Hope, have more in common linguistically with neighboring East Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas than with Pine Bluff.
Arkansawyers (many residents object to "Arkansans" as sounding too much like "Kansans") from, say, Fayetteville in the northwest corner of the state can easily spot a Delta accent. Ozark folk are barely intelligible to residents of metropolitan Little Rock.
And Bill Clinton, who didn't ride into town on a load of pumpkins, well, he moves around a lot, one day sounding like an East Coast egghead, another day like a tout at the Hot Springs race track so beloved of his mother.
Richard Allin, a columnist at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the state's unofficial lexicographer, has spent years compiling the unique words, phrases and pronunciations he has heard in his coverage of the Arkansas legislature and his travels around the state. While few of the entries in his "Southern Legislative Dictionary" are unique to Arkansas, most are rarely heard outside the South.
Another great source of Arkansas linguistic lore is "Down in the Holler, A Gallery of Ozark Folk Speech," by Vance Randolph.
Herewith is a sampler from the two collections.
About half preacher -- publicly pious, superficially holy, as in "Don't take a drink around him, he's about half preacher."
Sparr -- a small bird, as in "not a sparr falls . . ."
Been to Memphis -- said of a man or woman of the world, seen it all.
His bread ain't done -- not quite with it, a few ants shy of a picnic.
Arkansas credit card -- a length of hose used as a gasoline siphon.
He would argue with a milepost -- stupid and quarrelsome.
Bird nest on the ground -- a cushy job.
Chalk air center -- where parents leave their children when they go to work.
Feddle coat house -- where the U.S. judge sits.
He don't know pea turkey -- absolutely ignorant.
He learned to whisper in a saw mill -- said of someone easily overheard.
Like driving a swarm of bees through a snowstorm with a switch -- confusing, futile.
He lives so far out in the country he has to walk towards town to hunt -- said of a real backwoodsman.
Clean his plow -- To thrash somebody, same as "clean his clock" elsewhere.
Dido -- mischief or a rowdy prank. Kids who act up are said to be "cutting didos."
Seeing double and feeling single -- drunk and randy.
So bucktoothed he could eat an apple through a keyhole -- needing orthodontia.
Her baby was so ugly she had to borrow one to take to town.
Another white belly up -- another job done, from the way a snake dies.
His eyes popped out like a stomped-on toad frog -- flabbergasted.
Surp -- what you put on hot cakes.
Yurp -- the continent that includes France.
Okra -- manhood, as in "Look at Sam, a-struttin' his okra for them town gals."
White-livered -- applied to woman, means lascivious, as in a "white-livered widder."
Woodscolt -- a child born out of wedlock. Such a child is also said to have been conceived "on the wrong side of the blanket," meaning in a hurried union.
Whiffle-bird -- a fictional creature, a chimera.