Traveling to the Smokies? Before you visit, prep yourself by learning some of the most common Smoky Mountain words and Applachian English phrases.
Also, it doesn’t hurt to learn a brief history of language in Southern Appalachia and to discover colloquial terms that are bound to come up in conversation during your visit.
What You Should Know About Smoky Mountain English
The Appalachian dialect, which is often referred to as “Smoky Mountain English,” uses many different words and meanings than traditional English. It also includes unique phonetics, arrangements, and pronunciations.
This dialect has been used for hundreds of years in mountainous areas throughout parts of North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Some terms may sound old-fashioned — like britches or afeared — but this by no means implies that the language is outdated. It’s also not a type of Elizabethan English (a common misconception).
Appalachian English has evolved over the years like any dialect. Much of its early influence is from Scots-Irish settlers who began moving to the colonies around 1640.
Differences With an Appalachian Accent
There are several common pronunciation variations between traditional English and Appalachian English. Here are a few instances:
- Words that end in an oh sound are replaced with an er sound. For example, the word hollow becomes holler.
- Words that end in an ah sound are, instead, pronounced with a long e (y) sound, such as in sody-pop (soda-pop).
- Verbs ending in -ing are usually prefixed by an a- — “That baby is a-yellin’ and a-cryin’.”
- Right and plumb are used instead of very — “That got here right quick!”
Common Smoky Mountain Words & Appalachian English Phrases With Definitions
Words About the Land
- Bald — No, this doesn’t refer to someone without hair but rather a treeless area on a mountain.
- Branch — This term doesn’t just refer to tree branches. In Appalachian English, it can be used to point out a small stream.
- Cove — Cove is often interchangeably used by locals to talk about Cades Cove, a small valley encircled by mountains. It’s one of the most beautiful and popular spots to visit in the Smokies.
- Dome — Like cove, dome refers to Clingmans Dome, the tallest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
- Gap — Gap often refers to Newfound Gap, a known low spot under the mountains that the well-traveled Newfound Gap Road crosses.
- Holler — This refers to a hollow, a small valley that’s sheltered.
- Winders — This one simply means windows.
- Blind House — This one’s a little bit eerie because it refers to a cabin without winders.
- Fireboard — When it’s close to Christmas, you can hang stockings on the fireboard or fireplace mantel.
- Airish — When it’s sweater weather, you’ll hear people saying that it’s chilly or airish outside.
Words About the Smoky Mountains’ Flora & Fauna
- She-balsam — This refers to a fir tree.
- He-balsam — This one refers to a spruce tree.
- Painter — If you hear this term, try not to panic; it means there’s a mountain lion nearby.
- Varmint — This Smoky Mountains term is well known in popular culture. It refers to a wild animal but can also be used as a derogatory term to describe a person or animal who is obnoxious, pestering, or bothersome. The “Looney Tunes” character Yosemite Sam uses this term well — “Now be there any livin’ varmint is aims to try to tame me?”
- Whistle Pig — This term doesn’t refer to a pig at all but a lil’ groundhog.
- Boomers — Unlike the people born between the years of 1946 and 1964, these particular boomers live in the forest. They’re red squirrels.
- Kyarn — Sometimes you’ll find kyarn or roadkill while you’re driving in rural Smokies regions. The term is derived from the word carrion.
Words Referring to People
- Slick-faced — If you decide to shave off your five-o-clock shadow, then slick-faced is what you’ll be.
- Granny Woman — If a woman is in labor, their caring granny woman or midwife will be there to help them.
- Shamp — If someone’s hair is too long, a shamp or haircut is needed.
- Booger — We’re not talking about the gunk that you find in your nose here. We’re talking about a ghost — “Watch out, there’s a booger in that blind house.” Another term used for a ghost is haint.
Words Related to Food
- Tater Hole — Many cabins have a tater hole or cold cellar underneath the floor to store food (including taters or potatoes, of course).
- Long Sweetening — If you’ve ever had pancakes or waffles for breakfast, then you’ve indulged in long sweetening or maple syrup.
- Short Sweetening — On the other hand, short sweetening refers to honey or sugar.
- Poor Do — This is a hearty bowl of porridge or mush made from boiled cornmeal.
- Ramp — If you’re foraging and find some ramp, it means you have wild garlic.
- Simples — If you’re looking for natural or homeopathic care while in the Smokies, you’ll most likely be given some simples or medicinal herbs.
- Sody-pop / Dope — This refers to soda-pop, but the pronunciation in the Appalachian dialect is different. Dope can be used when asking for a soda or other soft drink.
- Chaney — You had better pull out the fine chaney (China) when your family comes to visit for a dinner party.
- Sop — Mashed taters are nothing without sop or gravy.
- Mushmelon — This word is superior to cantaloupe, in our opinion.
- Poke Salad — This Smokies delicacy is cooked from native greens that grow in the region. But a word for the wise — if they’re not boiled properly, the dish will be poisonous.
Some Smokies Conversational Terms
- Kindly — In standard English, kindly may be used to refer to doing something with a caring nature. In Appalachian English, it means kind of. For example, Matt kindly likes Alice.
- Story — If someone states that you’re telling a story, they think you’re lying.
- Reach Me — This is used when someone is asking you to hand them something.
- Fixin’ — In conversational use, fixin’ means that you’re preparing to or heading out to go do something — “I’m fixin’ to go into town this afternoon.”
- Cumfluttered — If you’re confused or embarrassed, this is the perfect Appalachian adjective.
- Chancy — A good word to use when you’re feeling doubtful about a situation.
- Do wha? — This one could be self-explanatory — “You want me to do what!?” But more often it’s a request for someone to repeat themselves – out of a case of shock from the hearer.
“Do wha?” is generally a request for someone to repeat themselves, (but not really a GENUINE request because the person actually heard it, but they can’t comprehend or believe that the other person actually said it) …. maybe it was just a really foolish or stupid thing to say. Or maybe what they said was offensive. That’s the context, a sort of expression of shock or disbelief.
It can also be a kind of an invitation to bicker or gossip (lol) because if there is one thing I know about people from where I’m from, they like to banter back and forth but not necessarily in a mean-spirited way.
It’s funny how complex a meaning can be, how it can be a very simple phrase, but carry so much cultural meaning.– Heath Roberts, Blount County TN native
Popular Appalachian English Phrases
- Cut a shine — You can ask someone to cut a shine if you want them to dance with you.
- Eh, law — This basically means “Oh, well.”
- From can see to can’t see — This Smokies phrase is a fun way to say “from dawn to dusk.”
- Pay it no mind — This means something akin to “don’t let it bother you.”
- Beginning to turn — This is used when someone is nearing the end of their life.
- Zonies alive! — A bit of a swear often used to express shock, excitement, or surprise; something akin to “Holy sh*t!”
- Redd up — This phrase is often used when people are getting their homes ready for visitors by cleaning and organizing.
- Lay out — If you fake being sick to get out of a responsibility, then you’re laying out!
- Fair up — This phrase is used if the weather was poor and then fairs up for the better.
- A pig in a poke — This phrase is used when you’re buying something without knowing everything about it, implying that there’s something unwanted you don’t yet know about.
Other Common Smokies Terms
- Sorry — This can be used as a noun in the Smokies when referring to something that isn’t worth much of anything. For example, if you find a beaten-down truck in the woods, you could say, “What a sorry that is!”
- Poke — if you have a lil’ poke of trinkets, you have a small bag of ‘em.
- Jag — Similarly, that poke will be filled with a jag or small amount of trinkets.
- Slaunchwise / Sigogglin — If you happen to find an old cabin that’s sideways, crooked, or diagonally slanted, it’s 100% a slaunchwise or sigogglin cabin that might just need to be turned into scrap wood.
- Wish Books — Although not as common today, sometimes wish books or mail-order catalogs are shipped out during the holiday season.
- Charivari or Shivaree — A loud celebration, usually for newlyweds, in which people bang and clatter pots and pans to commemorate the union. As a kind of serenade, it was originally a French folk custom.
- Ball-hoot — Originally, this term referred to a practice from the logging industry in which timber is rolled downhill. But in the Smokies today, it means that someone is driving recklessly on hazardous roads.
More Smoky Mountain Appalachian Words & Phrases
We hope this guide will help you on your next Appalachian adventure! Of course, there’re plenty more Smoky Mountain Appalachian words, phrases, and customs to learn as you immerse yourself in the culture whether it’s attending winter events and festivals or exploring the best hiking trails.