Traditional Language and Customs on Nantucket**
“Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it.
See what a real corner of the world it occupies;
how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely
than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it—
a mere hillock, and elbow of sand;
all beach, without a background.”
Herman Melville clearly saw Nantucket as a world to itself, and so do many of the residents of Nantucket. The first time I heard someone on Nantucket say, “I am going to America tomorrow,” I was bewildered. As far as I knew Nantucket was America. Naively, I thought is was a part of the state of Massachusetts and very much a part of America. And, of course, in the most literal sense, it is. A native of Nantucket, however, might disagree. Islanders have always considered themselves a people set apart. A small, isolated community that was first sighted by the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602, Nantucket has developed a language and a culture that is all its own. As a new resident of this beautiful, intriguing, and unique community—as someone who is commonly referred to as a “washashore”--I am fascinated by the sayings, idioms, and traditions to which I am increasingly introduced, and I want to explore them more in this article.
Since Nantucket is surrounded by the sea and because whaling, fishing, sailing, and the whims of weather have dominated much of the economic and social, and emotional climate of the Island, much of the language and many of the customs have been shaped by these forces. When a visitor arrives at your house, “Come aboard” is a customary greeting even when your house is clearly not a ship. When you take that visitor for a walk on the beach, you are taking a “gam,” a word that encompasses both the sense of a social visit and a walk. Used as both a noun and a verb, this word is the title of a popular column by David Goodman called “Goodman’s Gam,” which appears weekly in the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror. Similar to a gam is a “rantum scoot.” On a rantum scoot, one would be on an expedition, a cruise, or a journey with no particular destination in mind. This expression may come from “random” (unplanned) and “scoot” to move quickly or freely. On this beautiful island with its many trails, woods, marshes, water, and beaches, a gam or a scoot is a popular everyday activity.
Often, in the winter, a walk is conditional on weather. One might tell a friend, “We will walk on the beach “wind, weather, or whales permitting.” When the weather is lovely—a fair, calm day with a cloudless sky,” an old Nantucketer might say this is a “weather breeder.” In other words, this word is used as a warning that things are too good, too still, and too calm. Trouble is ahead.” Of course, this term refers both to the literal conditions of weather and to life itself. (As a good Irish girl—my maiden name is Patricia Nell Duffy—I have been told that this is not only Nantucket philosophy but it is also an Irish view of the world.) At any rate, on the Island, there is always the ominous sense that when things are too good, something bad is sure to be on the horizon. Similarly, when one faces a “headwind,” there are difficulties to be overcome.
One of the expressions that I love best is “Mad as a huckleberry chowder.” This saying originates from the idea that nothing is wilder or crazier than a chowder made from huckleberries. I suspect many Nantucket residents take a bit of perverse pleasure from the moments in which we are as mad as a huckleberry chowder. This, perhaps, is what separates us from those who live off-Island in “America.”
If we are up and around, we are “on deck.” If we are “watching the pass,” we are sitting on a bench—perhaps outside the Hub—watching everyone walk by. If we are strolling down Orange Street, we are “coasting.” If we are “squared away,” we have repaid our debts, and if we are “taking a lunar,” we are walking in moonlight.
Language evolves, however, and Nantucket has its own contemporary sayings that are unique to the Island. We are either “on-Island,” or if we are at any location beyond the shores of Nantucket, we are “off-Island.” One of my favorite places to go is the “Madaket Mall,” which is the Take-it-or Leave-it at the dump. This is the “in” place to go to contribute things you no longer need and to find things you didn’t even know you needed. Whether you live in a mansion or in a small apartment, you will not doubt spend sometime at the “Mall” where small and large treasures are available for the taking. If you are in town, you may want to eat at BoHo (The Boardinghouse restaurant) or BroHo (The Brotherhood of Thieves restaurant.) On a beautiful day or evening—particularly if you are young—you may want to party at Brobadeer--slang for Nobadeer beach. The Box is the Chicken Box where bands play nightly and teachers gather after school for a much needed drink before heading home.
I am sure that there are lots of words and sayings that I still don’t know—and I hope that you will send me messages telling me about them.
**With gratitude to an article by Cecil Barron Jensen called “And Greasy Luck to You! Nantucket Language that Prevails,” from whom I blatantly stole much of the information—some word-for-word--in this article.
This is Pat Jones' first year living full time on Nantucket. After decades of teaching English at the high school and college level, she is now embarking on a new and challenging odyssey. Both retirement and Island life are new and exciting and occasionally daunting. In this column she will share what it is like to live on Nantucket year round. As a poet, a writer, and a novice visual artist, her metaphor for the journey is “Throwing Paint.”