courtesy of Lonnie Whitaker

Ozark Slang and the Bois D’arc Mystery

Some say Ozarkers have a peculiar dialect or twang when speaking. Over the years, since my days in Shannon and Howell County, I will admit to receiving comments about my accent and regional vocabulary by folks “not from around here.” Never refer to a small child as a “cute little outfit” to someone from northern Iowa because they will think you are referring to its onesie. 
Even at WSHS in 1963, I remember football coach Joel Case (a Jefferson City native) finding it remarkable when a student in his biology class referred to a specimen as a fishing worm rather than an earthworm. I wasn’t the student, but frankly, in Shannon County I had never heard of an earthworm, either. Worms, yes, but not an earthworm. For that matter, those plump, white grubs I used for catfish bait, were grubworms. 
Some of the conversational phrases and sayings we used, which aren’t heard much anymore, may have Appalachian or Southern roots, but for sure, survived in the hills as Ozark slang. Using them now will still probably generate a few sideways glances or raised eyebrows. 
One of my favorites is “Geese to a Poor Market,” which I used for the title of a novel, and have explained the meaning numerous times. Essentially, it means selling yourself or your goods for less than value. If a girl was marrying some rascal, folks might say, “She’s driving her geese to a poor market.”
My step grandfather used to say, “Hit him so hard he’ll be eat’n soup for a month.” Leave the door open, and you might be asked, “Were you raised in a barn?” Conniption fits, hissy fits, south end of a bear going north, happier than a dead hog in the sun, are a few that come to mind. A friend recently reminded me of an old favorite: “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.” No doubt, readers have a list of their favorites.
But it wasn’t just the sayings themselves, but the inflection and intonation that made the speech unique and sometimes difficult for some to understand. Living with grandparents born in the nineteenth century (before Wilbur and Orville ever flew an airplane) gave me a ringside seat to vintage hillbilly-speak. When Grandpa “returned thanks” before meals, I didn’t actually understand some of his words, like “gracen” and “hadenly.” Years later, I figured out he was saying gracious and heavenly (as in “gracious, Heavenly Father”).
Similarly, my grandmother often said, “drekly.” Again, as an adult, I realized she had been saying “directly.” As in, “I’ll get to that drekly.” Another one of her favorites was “swon,” used to express mild surprise. “Well, I swon,” I heard her say countless times. I once had to research the origins of swon to explain its meaning to an editor. Apparently, it stems from sworn, meaning to warrant or verify. She used it more like, “Well, I declare.” 
Her specialty was calling cows, which is a lost art, but it was a common practice when small, self-sustaining farms populated the Ozarks. For Razorback fans, we never called hogs—we knew where they were. But cows were a different matter. During the day, they would roam out of site to graze in pastures a quarter mile or more away. Grandma hollered the universal cow-calling term, “sook,” and the sound of her voice carried all the way to the meandering cows. “Sook, cows, sook, cows,” and they would mosey back to the barn for feed and milking.  
My English composition instructor at Mizzou, a tall slender fellow who had spent formative years in Panama and spoke with precise words, thought people in Missouri pronounced words in an odd fashion. One day in class he wrote “squeat” on the chalkboard and asked what the word meant. To an audience of blank faces, he sounded out the word, and then used it in a sentence. “Squeat after class.” We got it: “Let’s go eat after class.”
Next, he wrote “Bois D’Arc” on the chalkboard and explained Bois D’Arc was a Missouri town just northwest of Springfield. At that time, I was unfamiliar with it, although I knew the names of many southern Missouri towns in the 1960s from reading the sports pages of the Springfield paper to check scores from area high school football and basketball games. Bois D’Arc, however, had consolidated with Ash Grove in the late 1950s and no longer had a high school.
The instructor explained it was a French word meaning “bow wood,” and referred to the Osage orange or hedgeapple tree that Native Americans used to make bows. He asked how we thought Bois D’Arc was pronounced. Since I had taken two French classes with Mr. Findley at WSHS, I volunteered a French pronunciation, “bwa dark.” He seemed particularly amused when he informed us that people down there pronounced it “BOHʹ Dark.” 
So, I learned about “Bodark,” but promptly forgot about it until two years later in the summer of 1968, when a buddy of mine and I spent two months traipsing around Europe. In July, we spent most of a week in Rome.
One evening, using our reliable guidebook, we found a reasonably-priced restaurant frequented by local residents. As we dined on pasta, we noticed a man sitting alone, who kept staring at us. Finally, we both gazed back at him, and in cogent English, he said, “You’re Americans, aren’t you.” Our language and Weejuns (penny loafers) made it obvious, I suppose.
I don’t recall if he invited himself, or we invited him, but he joined us at our table. As the conversation developed, we mentioned we were from Missouri, and he seemed surprised, almost elated, and asked, “Have either of you heard of “Bois D’Arc?” He used the French pronunciation. I told him that I was, but residents called it “Bodark.”
He shared he had been a soldier in the Italian army in World War II and served as a guard at a prisoner of war camp, where he befriended an American prisoner. He told us he had smuggled food to the man and still wondered about him all these years later. The American was from Bois D’arc, Missouri.
I’m still amazed at the unlikely probability that a boy from the Ozarks would meet a former Italian soldier who had been a guard at a World War II POW camp, and had helped an American GI from Bois D’Arc, Missouri, nearly fifty years before. And on top of those facts, I had only heard of Bois D’Arc one time before. To paraphrase saloon owner Rick Blaine in the movie Casablanca, of all the restaurants in Italy, we chose that one.
I’m researching old newspapers and have contacted the National Archives hoping to find the name of that soldier from Bois D’Arc. If I find out, I’ll let you know. If you have any information about this mystery man, email me at the website above.
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