by Dot Helling
Ever wonder how to properly pronounce those “down country” words and names? Or how it is we “can’t get there from here” when you ask a crusty Vermonter for directions? Or why it is we go down to Burlington when it’s located on the map as Northwest of here? I don’t pretend to have answers but hopefully some insights, “idears,” and fodder for discussion. Take note Central Vermont “influencers” of these “Vermontisms.”
During my first visit to Vermont I took the “Bar” exit. That’s Barre. The funniest mispronunciation of this City’s name came to me recently when a friend told about his nephew from Canada who called it “Baree.” Then there’s the town of Calais, not “Calay,” while Berlin is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable not the second. And how about the Vermont phenomenon where one’s mailing address, residential address and post office may all be located in different towns.
Vermonters like to nickname places, like “Mascara Mountain” for Sugarbush, “Btown” for Burlington, “the Valley” for Waitsfield and neighborhoods like “Toytown” and “The Meadow” in Montpelier. And why is it “all roads lead to Adamant?” Have you seen that bumper sticker? I have one, a great conversation piece when I’m on the road. “Where the heck is Adamant?” people ask. (It’s actually in the town of Calais, but has its own post office.)
There are “banana belt” towns west of the Green Mountains and “The Islands” are north of Burlington. Southern Vermont folk, especially in Bennington, are viewed as a Vermont extension of Massachusetts, and “those flatlanders” are derogatorily called “Massholes.” If you live in northeastern Vermont, you’re from “The Kingdom.”
Some of us remember the I-89 interstate sign that directed you to “Montpelier, the ‘Capitol’ city.” That eventually got corrected since the city is the “Capital,” while the State House is the “Capitol.” The distinctions in those spellings were an elementary school English grammar lesson. Vermont does have its own dialect and “Montpeculiar” its own slang. Locals use “Jeezum Crow” as a way to say “Jesus Christ” without offending the religious. “Vermont speak” includes “Waa Mot,” a department store in Berlin, “Key Pa,” a fish you don’t throw back in the water, “Thun da rud,” a place in Barre where you race cars, “Onda cab,” the way to eat corn, and “Pee pahs,” out of staters who look at foliage a.k.a “leafpeepers.” In Vermont it’s a liquor store not package store. You go “downstreet” not “downtown” and you go “upta” the mountains to ski “freshies.” And what are the Freep and TA? Well, of course, those are the Burlington Free Press and Times Argus, our newspapers.
So how do you get there from here? “Eh?” says the farmer you stop to ask along the road, “you can’t get there from here.” What he or she means is not directly, especially if you are looking to go East or West. Forget traveling as the crow flies. Add to that the fact that most Vermonters describe distance in minutes as opposed to miles. Forty five minutes from here to there could be 10 miles or 60, depending on whether you travel a Class 4 back road or the Interstate. Plus there are seasonal conditions, especially mud season and frost heaves to consider. Sometimes you have to explain to out-of-staters just where Vermont is.
What are these “Take Back Vermont?” signs still posted around the state? I see them along Route 25 heading from Orange to Bradford. One out-of-stater commented that the slogan was clever. She thought it was a reminder to take back a piece of Vermont when she left, meaning a souvenir like maple syrup or cheddar cheese. The true meaning of the signs appalled her.
Vermonters talk daily, often hourly, about the weather, especially when forecasting winters. We know the death knell of winter is coming when the snakes start moving through the woods, the bunnies and turkeys are standing in the road, hordes of crows fly in to overnight in our backyards or the turkey vultures rest in the trees on East State Street. Many of us believe winter is imminent when the “woolly bears” start crossing the road, those fuzzy black and blonde caterpillars. Did you know that the thickness of the woolly bear’s band around its middle is a predictor of the amount of snow to expect? The wider the band the more snow. Did you also know that if woolly bears are traveling south it means a hard, cold winter, and, if north, a mild one? So, if they travel eastward it must mean a wet winter, and west a dry one. Using this analysis skiers will wish for them to travel southeast and have a wide band.
When the cows lay down in the fields, we predict rain. What does it mean when the “cows come home?” When the creemee stand opens, it’s summer. But what are creemees ask visitors? Ah, it’s that soft serve ice cream, also known as custard and DQ’s. Vermonters describe many foods differently. It’s a “grinder” not a “sub,” “hoagie” or “hero” sandwich. Our chili dog is a “Michigan” dog. We line up for “heady” and “sugar on snow.” And Vermonters don’t trust people who like fake maple syrup.
In Vermont you go “down cellar” not into the basement. You cook on the stove not the range and cool food in the ice box or the fridge. Some of these differences are generational. Your grandma’s yummy ice box cookies for instance were created and named when there were only ice boxes, no refrigerators or freezers. Back then Vermonters cooked on a wood burning cook stove. But some things never change — e.g. in Vermont if you can’t fix it with duct tape it’s not worth fixing.
Vermont has many quirks. We’d like to stand alone as a Republic, and did stand as an independent country for 14 years before statehood. We have Bernie Sanders and a large hippie population. Our highest ratio is cows to people. Our craft beer industry is booming. Ben and Jerry’s, maple syrup, Cabot cheddar and autumn leaves are an annual draw. We believe in Champ, our own Loch Ness monster. We have extra seasons, namely mud and stick. We have a “Green Mountain State of Mind,” progressive, hard working, fiercely independent and community minded. We hibernate in winter. Our old timers are called “woodchucks,” their offspring known as “hoodchucks.” We are said to be profoundly different from the rest of America, so much so that no matter who wins our elections we feel confident about our governance. Roberta MacDonald of Cabot brands Vermont as a “cool” name that “sounds like a heart beat, drumming with a strong consonant staccato.” I take that as “the beat goes on” here no matter what, making it very special to be a Vermonter.