There's a Century-Old Secret Jargon Still Spoken in California


What do the English, Spanish, Scottish Gaelic, and Pomoan (of Northern California’s Pomo tribe) languages have in common? Despite being linguistically all over the map, they converge in a wild little corner of Mendocino County called Anderson Valley, where an esoteric gallimaufry of all four tongues has been spoken since the 1880s.

Take the curly, redwood-lined Highway 128 up a mountain for about 45 minutes off either the 101 or the 1, and you'll come to the metropolis of the valley, Boonville, California, population 1035. The town's remoteness has shaped it, sandwiched as it is between two mountain ranges and mostly blocked from the rest of civilization—especially when it was settled in the mid-1800s. A railroad wasn't built for the first 50 years or so, and even today, it's not easy to get in or out of the valley. In other words, it’s the perfect place to grow its own jargon.

Jay Bergesen, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

With fewer than 100 speakers left today, Boontling—derived from "Boont," an adjectival demonym, and "lingo"— reportedly began as an extensive slang spoken by the town's kids to avoid being understood by their parents. Once the adults got a hold of it, it soon became a community-wide game of Password, wherein folks would invent new phrases and try to pass them off into conversation to see if others could divine their meaning in context. It was also useful if you didn't want to be understood by outsiders. 

Because it includes more than 1000 words and phrases, Boontling is often mislabeled as a language, but its syntax and grammar are based on English, as are the ways in which the words and terms are constructed. It’s perhaps best thought of as a specialized vocabulary developed on top of English, like a professional jargon or secret slang.

It can be confusing, though, because Boontling is also largely comprised of loanwords—sourced from the Spaniards who colonized the region, the Scottish emigrants who built the town, and the region's Pomo tribe. For example, doolsey is candy (from dulce, Spanish for "sweet"); chigrel is food (from chig, Scottish Gaelic, "to chew"), a bosh is a deer (from the Pomoan word for deer, bishe). 

Apple peeling, from gano (sometimes spelled “gannow” in Boontling), a Spanish word for a kind of apple. Hedge can also refer to a haircut. Photo by Meg Van Huygen.

Eponyms abound in Boontling as well. Bill Nunn was a Boonter who liked a lot of syrup on his pancakes, and so you might be asked to “pass the Bill Nunn” if you stop for breakfast at the Redwood Drive-In. A native who was known to be bashful was immortalized in the Boontling word for "embarrassed": Charlie Balled. Fratty is another name for wine, after an area winemaker called Frati. 

A bucky is an old, politically incorrect name for a buffalo nickel, referring to the Native American head depicted on one side, while walter is Boontling for telephone, as a fellow named Walter was the first in the valley to own one. Photo by Meg Van Huygen.

Other words are plain old abbreviations and write themselves: a rack is a raccoon, a man with the initials Z.C. had a rep for brewing a strong cup of coffee or, as it's now known, zeese. There's also a fair quantity of off-color terms (nonch harpin’s), such as burlapping, which is what a store clerk and his girlfriend were found doing in the back room on a pile of burlap sacks one day. Horning, although it sounds like it might be related to burlapping, means "drinking," as a horn is a cup or glass. (A Viking’s drinking horn comes to mind.)

The Anderson Valley Brewing Company wishes you bahl hornin’ or good drinkin’—bahl (sometimes bal) is an old Scottish slang word for “good” or “of good quality." Photo by Meg Van Huygen.

There's so much English in Boontling that you might think it would be relatively easy to understand, but consider this baffling translation of "Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son" from a booklet titled A Wee Deek on Boont Harpin's, printed in 1967:

Cerk, Cerk, the tooter's tweed,
Strung a borp and shied;
They gormed the borp
And dreeked wee Cerk
And he piked plenty greeneyed.

Contrast with:

Tom, Tom, the piper's son,
Stole a pig, and away did run;
The pig was eat
And Tom was beat,
And he went crying down the street

There was a time when just about everyone in Boonville was fluent in Boontling; it was even taught in the schools until about 40 years ago. But you won't hear the colorful jargon spoken by default in the bars and restaurants anymore. As the Boontling-speaking natives die out or leave, they're being replaced by transplants who are generally either older retired types or are there to work, often for the myriad wineries in the valley. Learning an obscure secret code isn't really a priority for either group.

A handful of locals do still "harp a slib of the ling" (speak a little Boontling), though, and it's not just the old-timers. A pair of young born-and-bred Boonters found hornin' at the Buckhorn Boonville said they were happy to harp with "bright-lighters" (city-dwellers), so concerned were they about the future of their secret code. And they're not wrong to think that things are looking a little grim. It seems the Boontlingers Club, which published the nursery rhyme above, has been defunct for decades. A local schoolteacher ("schoolch") endeavored to teach it at the high school, but nobody signed up to take the class. The men could count the number of known speakers who still live in Boonville on two hands.

So, a few of the village residents are doing their part, bit by bit, if only through evangelizing to tourists. Some Boonters are even making an effort to coin fresh words and keep the original Password-like game going. Somewhat darkly, the newest term in the Boontling dictionary is downstreamer, to describe an old man—a nod to the fact that when a salmon is headed downstream, it's on its way to die. Here's hoping that the unique jargon, cobbled together with wit and care over the course of more than a century, doesn't suffer the fate of those aging salmon quite yet.