A brief dive into the most notable and colorful phrases and idioms of New England coastal speech.
Over the years, the people of New England’s coast have developed their own lexicon, a way of speaking, interacting, and sometimes insulting each other that is as colorful as it is seeped in the maritime tradition.
Counterintuitive, confusing, and sometimes downright code-like, these are not phrases meant to be understood by the average listener. Instead they are for the people who speak them, the sailors, lobstermen, and countless other mariners who have long called New England their home. In fact many of these phrases are nautical terms in origin, a prism through which they might finally be understood. Peruse this lexicon, and maybe the next time a Mariner calls out “That gahmy kid dropped my lunch, now I’m hungrier than a boiled owl and right out straight looking for some nooning,” you might have a clue what he’s talking about.
Away — Anywhere that isn’t native. If you’re not from around here, then you’re from away.
Backwater — A Mariner’s equivalent of backsliding, or backing out of something. Taken from the term for reversing oars or an engine so that the boat changes direction. As in, “Joe agreed to buy me lunch, but then he backwatered!”
Baggin’ the Bowline — Literally meaning to tie a knot the wrong way, baggin’ the bowline means someone is messing up, botching the job.
Boiled Owl — There aren’t many horses on the coast, so a Mariner might replace one word in the common phrase about being starving, saying “I’m hungry enough to eat a boiled owl!”
Calm as Clock — Completely composed, unflappable. If you’re calm as clock, then you’re no more likely to stop doing your job than a clock is to stop ticking.
Capful of Wind — A pleasant wind, a gentle sailing breeze. Not so much wind that it becomes hard or dangerous to navigate, but a small amount of wind that can fit in your cap.
Downeast — In New England, this doesn’t mean Southeast, as you might think. Due to the phrase’s nautical origins, the opposite is actually true! Prevailing winds along the coast of New England and Canada blow from the southwest. So a ship traveling Northeast would be said to be traveling downwind, or against the wind – thus the "down" and to the "east." By the same logic, sailors from Maine will often joke about going "up to Boston", a deliberately confusing term given the fact that Boston is at least 50 miles to the south.
Fair Water — An easygoing stretch with no foreseen obstacles, originating in a term for a patch of ocean that posed no navigational problems.
Gawmy — Klutzy and accident prone.
Get Your Bait Back — To catch just barely enough fish to cover the cost of your bait for the day. To “get your bait back” is to break even.
Jib — Maybe the Mariner term that has most entered mainstream vocabulary. The jib is the large triangular sail that sits forward on a boat. So the jib is the most obvious and dominant aspect of a ship. When someone says “I don’t like the cut of his jib,” they mean they didn’t like this poor fellow from the first moment they saw them.
Kill-devil — Alcohol, specifically rum. Originally, this refers to alcohol so potent that it could even kill the devil.
Longer Than a Hard Winter — Just about as long as it gets. If something has been going on for longer than a hard winter, then that’s a long time.
Mud Season — A secret fifth season that exists only in New England, fitting in right between winter and spring. When the snow has turned to mud, and Spring is still around the corner.
Nooning — Taking a lunch break. Intuitive when referring to a lunch eaten at 12:00, but more confusing at any other time of day. It would not be incorrect to say, for example, “We got hungry, so Bill and I took our nooning at 11:30 today.”
No-see-um — A straightforward name for the tiny biting insects that make life on the water a living hell all summer long.
Parceling — In nautical language, parceling is the process of preventing fraying ends of a rope by winding it with tape, canvas, or cord. This is a procedure done with extreme care and precision. So in speech, to “parcel” something is to do it carefully, taking pains to not make a mistake.
Right out straight — Very busy. As in, “I’ve been right out straight trying to find someone with a boat to take me fishing this weekend.”
Scrid — A tiny amount. If you’re too full for a full slice of pie, but you don’t want to be impolite, you might say “Oh I’ll have just a scrid, thanks.”
Spleeny — Overly cautious, a wimp. As in, “Don’t be so spleeny! Jump in, the water’s warm.”
Tunk — A light blow or hit. As in, “You’ve got to give that engine a tunk in order to get it going” (Alternatively, “You’ve got to tunk that engine in order to get it going.” An efficient word, “to tunk” can also mean the action of giving something a tunk.)
War bag — A Mariner term for a duffel bag. As in, “Pack your war bag, son, we’re going on a trip Downeast!”