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Speakin' the Language

By John McDonald

Author photo by Kevin Bennett

Let’s face it—most people who visit Maine talk a little funny. The accents we hear, oh my. Sometimes we Mainers can barely understand what visitors are trying to say. However, good communication can make everyone’s stay in the Pine Tree State a tad more pleasant, so what follows is a brief primer to help flatlanders communicate better as they move about our fair state.

Acre (a-kah)

A measure of land. If, after vacationing here, you decide to buy land in Maine, you should know that when we say “acre of land,” we don’t necessarily mean 44,240 square feet. A Maine acre is a mere suggestion, or figure of speech, if you will, and can be almost any size. Feuds over land in Maine are legendary. Down East there was a man who wanted to divide his farm between his two sons. He sat at his kitchen table drawing a map and then got up and started to pace off the boundary from the edge of the kitchen table. He went right out the kitchen door to a large oak tree in the pasture and that line became the sons’ boundary. Well, everything was hunky-dory until one day someone moved the kitchen table and a storm blew down the tree. The two sons haven’t spoken since.


There was a time when antique furniture in Maine was known as “used stuff” and was sold in a “junk store.” It wasn’t until Summer Complaints started buying it, filling their fancy cars with it, and hauling it back home to Massachusetts and New York that we realized how gullible people were, and therefore how valuable these old things were. “Junk” became “antiques” to be sold in antique shoppes. It is also a clever vertical integration. After we have a yard sale, we take what doesn’t sell to an antique store—excuse me, shoppe—raise the price by 500 percent, and sell it there.


Completely wrong. “Would ya look at that. Billy’s been away to the city too long; he tied up that boat ass-backwards.”


To fall or tumble. “No, Jess, no cribbage tonight; Mother’s some sore. She went out to feed the hens, stepped on some ice, and went down ass-over-teakettles.”

Blowin’ a gale

A fierce wind. “Didja go out today, Lewis?” “Hell no, it’s blowin’ a gale.”

Author John McDonald.


Many older cars in Maine are made substantially, if not entirely, of Bondo. These cars are easy to spot because the body, the hood, and one of the doors are all a different color.


Pronounced KAH-liss, and don’t let anyone tell you different. A fella from Machias was taking a friend from away for a drive to Calais and the friend kept insisting on mispronouncing it kah-LAY. Annoyed by this, the Machias fella pulled into the first store they came to in Calais. He dragged his friend into the store and said to the clerk, “Will you tell my friend here where we are?” The startled clerk answered: “True Value Hardware.”

Can’t miss it

Phrase typically uttered by someone Down East after giving directions to a tourist. Loosely translated, it means: “Ain’t no way in hell you are going to find it, chummy.”


If someone calls your child cunnin’, they don’t mean the little rascal is wily, crafty, and sneaky; they mean your kid is wicked cute. It’s a compliment, so enjoy it. If a Mainer looks into your baby carriage and says, “You can’t deny that one,” that has a whole different meaning, so move on.

Daow (d-ow)

Emphatic “No,” while at the same time trying to be “playful and engaging.” In fact, it’s about as emphatic and playful a negative as you’re likely to hear along the coast. In Maine courts the word “daow” is officially recognized as a negative response to a question. However, if you start using this common Maine word in other jurisdictions, it may not always work unless you have this reference book with you to show the judge. “Didja pay a lot for the new pickup?” “Daow, I got a helluva deal.”

Dear (dee-ah)

All-purpose term used as sort of a nickname for anyone regardless of age, sex, or profession.

Dicker (dick-ah)

To haggle. It’s also considered a way of being sociable. If you visit a yard sale while you’re here—and you’ll have many to choose from—be prepared to dicker for most every item you want. When dickering, seller and buyer go through an ancient and pleasantly elaborate series of offers and counteroffers until a price is eventually arrived at. Often the more worthless the item, the more intricate and complicated the dickering.

“How much for those broken clothespins and bent hangers?” “Fifty cents.”
“I’ll give you twenty.”
“How ’bout twenty-five?”

Dite (Die-t)

A little. If a waitress asks, “Would you like some cream in your coffee?” you should say, “Just a dite, deah.”


This is synonymous with front yard. No matter how large or small a Maine house might be, there are always those things that won’t fit inside. Those important items—old washers and dryers, engine blocks, tires, trannys and other vital car parts, sound systems, various types of gas- and woodstoves, sofas, box springs, and the like—can be neatly “stored” in a dooryard.

Duct tape

Miracle product that can be used for everything from patching up a tent to open heart surgery.

Far (fah)

Opposite of near, but a distance that could be one mile to 500 miles. If you ask someone: “How far is it to Bangor?” they may say something like, “Not far.” If you press them and say, “But how many miles is it?” they will say, “Not far.”

Farm (fahm)

A piece of rocky ground surrounded by stone walls where the only thing a farmer can grow is tired, before eventually selling the place to a lawyer from Boston. An Aroostook County farmer once won $3 million in the Megabucks drawing, and when a reporter asked what he was going to do with all the money, he said, “I’ll probably keep farming until it’s all gone.”

Fish or cut bait

Do something!


A local weather phenomenon used to drive tourists into gift shops and malls.


Expletive. “Ain’t no friggin’ way I’m going down to the boat today. That friggin’ Clyde has gone and frigged up the engine so the friggin’ boat won’t even friggin’ start. It’s too friggin’ cold anyway.”


Clumsy, awkward.

Get your bait back

When fishing or lobstering, your goal is to get back a catch at least equal in value to the bait used to catch it. When someone uses a load of bait to catch a small mess of fish, it’s said, “He barely got his bait back.” Don’t be surprised to hear the expression used to describe a smaller-than-average baby. “Did you see Hollis’s new baby? I’d say he barely got his bait back on that one.”

Gettin’ by

Statement used to describe a person’s income, whether they are poor or rolling in cash. A mill worker who says he is gettin’ by probably means he is making enough money to pay the bills. When a lobster fisherman says he’s gettin’ by, it probably means he’s made so much money he’s about to pay cash for a $40,000 pickup truck so he can haul his fifty-inch television home.

Gunwales (gunn’lls)

The top plank of a vessel that used to have guns bolted to it. A Mainer says something like: “When she left the cove and headed for Rockland she was loaded right to the gunn’lls with sardines.” Which means she barely had a plank showing above the waterline. You might also hear a Mainer use the term in a non-nautical reference. “I was just down to Marden’s and they were having such a great sale on paint that I filled my pickup right up to the gunn’lls with about fifty gallons of the stuff.”


A Maine word that can be used as an adjective or an adverb, but if you have to ask what it means, you have no jeezely business using it.

Labor Day

As a kid I was always told that Labor Day was a Maine creation designed to get rid of tourists. The rule was, by Labor Day all summer visitors had to have their boats out of the water, their camps closed up tight, and the whole family on the ’pike headed someplace south—no excuses! The rule worked fine until a few years ago when—after some years of lax law enforcement—the tourist gurus in Augusta created the “Shoulder Season” so that tourists started staying a little longer each year. Shoulder Season is basically a polite term for “the weather sucks.”


(1) Trouble. “He sure has gotten himself in a mess.” (2) A lot. “I think I will go pick a mess o’ greens.”

Mount Desert Island

It’s Mount Dih-ZERT (the sweet treat served after supper), not Mount DEH-zert (an arid land with little vegetation).


Grab ahold and hang on for all she’s worth.

Numb as a haddock

Especially stupid. “That Billy Carpenter is numb as a haddock, I tell you. There are some people who don’t know nawthin’, but that friggin’ Billy don’t even suspect nawthin’.”

Wicked (wik-id)

The adjective. “I see that storytelling fella John McDonald is speaking down the grange hall. How is he?” “He’s wicked funny!” “Well, let’s go make a time of it.”

— Excerpted from Down the Road a Piece

John McDonald is a long-time Maine storyteller in the tradition of Bert and I, and hosts a weekend radio talk show. He is the author of several books, including A Moose and a Lobster Walk into a Bar, Down the Road a Piece, and John McDonald’s Maine Trivia.