From the Nov. 22, 1929 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

While not entirely unlike that of the rest of New England, the language of Martha’s Vineyard has some unusual characteristics.

Among the early English words sometimes heard on the Vineyard, we note the following: “fleet” used in the sense of to move from one place to another, “clever” meaning good natured or kind, “tole” to entice, “lockram” an improbable story and “housen,” the latter word being, to our knowledge, used in but one section of the Island.

Then there are words of doubtful etymology but expressive to those familiar with them, such as “hunckadory” (just about right), “higgledy-piggledy” (in great confusion), “licketty-whittle” (very quickly) and “conkeechee” (exceedingly friendly). When an old lady was caught deshabille, that is, without her fore-top and cap, she would exclaim to the unexpected caller, “I look like Tantrabogus!”

There are also words of Algonquin derivation like, “Umsquash,” “Musquash,” “quahog,” “hominy,” “succotash,” “squiteague” and “wequashing,” the latter a common Island word, meaning the method of spearing eels at night from a boat, the eels being attracted by the light of a torch.

Some of the old-fashioned expressions heard most frequently are the following:

“Looks like Time in the primer.”

“As blue as an indigo bag.”

“As grand as a Cuffy.”

“As right as a trivet.”

“In and out like a tinker’s budget.”

“As cute as a bug’s ear.”

“Looks like Sam Hill.”

“As merry as a grig.”

“A regular hen-huzzy.”

“Isn’t worth a Hannah Cook.”

“Looks like a shirt on a hand spike.”

Note the power of habit. We use these phrases because we heard our parents do so and now they spring naturally to our lips, although we have long since forgotten, if we ever knew, what was a “Grig,” a “Cuffy,” a “trivet,” or a “Tinker’s budget,” or who were “Sam Hill” and “Hannah Cook.”

When we are “put by” we are embarrassed, when “put out” indignant, but when we are “put to it”, we are in difficulty, like the old lady, who, when making pies, said she was dreadfully “put to it for shortening.”

Our ancestors had a fixed belief in the influence of the moon upon the weather and many are the sayings and superstitions regarding it, such as “seeing the new moon over the right shoulder for luck.”

In fact, the weather has always been a prolific source of proverbs and predictions, some of which were put in rhyme,— “Evening red and morning gray, Will set the traveller on his way. But evening gray and morning red, Will bring down rain upon his head.”

Visitors to our Island have noticed some words in unusual connections and are wont to comment upon our “takers,” our “times” in the hall, our geographical designations of “off Island” and “up Island,” and smile when we “admire” to go or to do and when things “nerve” us.

Humor is both conscious and unconscious and much that impresses the casual visitor as extremely entertaining does not strike us as funny at all, because many expressions, especially those relating to the sea, we use naturally, for we have been accustomed to them since childhood.

We seldom speak of anything on the right or left but we use the points of the compass, and it is the most common thing in the world to speak of a thing as in the northeast corner of the cellar or on the sou’west side of the house. We do not pull, we “haul,” we “splice” and “rig,” “get under way,” “carry sail” and “get our bearings,” so spontaneously that it never occurs to us that there is anything unusual in our mode of expressing ourselves.

“I don’t want the waterline of my shirtwaist above the belt,” exclaimed one lady, while another declared she couldn’t see to do fine sewing, for she had on her “off shore” glasses.

If one is late he is “astern of the lighter,” if misinformed on some subject, he is “on the wrong track,” if sick he is “under the weather,” and if exhausted he is “keel out.”

“Cut that turnip athwart ship, not fore and aft,” a sailor directed his daughter and when one was making preparations for a visit in the city, remarked, “Seem’s to me you’re a fittin’ out for a long voyage.”

“I always sleep on my starboard side,” said one ancient mariner, and “the night after the fourth of July I put on the whole fore-sail” (sleep very soundly).

Referring to a youth who had done something rather brilliant at the beginning of his career, one remarked, “His folks’d better not hist their colors to the topmast head, better not put ‘em above the cross trees.”

There certainly is a charm, an aptness about our nautical phrases that is very captivating, but it is to be feared that, with the passing of the sailing vessel and the diversion of the talent of our Vineyard young to other avocations, the old, quaint forms of speech may become obsolete.

If modern slang takes the place, the change will be deplored, therefore, let us treasure our old-time expressions, our maxims and appropriate nautical phrases.

Compiled by Hilary Wallcox