Here in the Northern Neck our dialects and language usage might not be as pure eighteenth-century English as those of our friends over on Tangier Island, but they are still quite distinct. Our phrases and words developed due in large part to our centuries of isolation on this long peninsula without significant contact with the rest of the world.
The coming of the steamboats in the 19th century provided the first regular means of connection to the “outside world.” My late neighbor, Mary Dawson, as an 11-year-old contracted polio. She was taken by horse-drawn wagon to the steamboat wharf, put on a Baltimore-bound vessel and the next morning she was in Mercy Hospital. Upon her recovery, she took another steamboat home.
J. Emory Currell, who published the Rappahannock Record for over 60 years, as a young man living in Weems was accepted for admission by the University of Virginia. He went by horse-and-buggy to the wharf in Weems, took the overnight steamboat to Baltimore, then the train to Charlottesville, and then walked up to the University Grounds. These two examples illustrate how remote we were even into the 20th century.
Isolation led to the evolution of our speech as well as our institutions. As an example, we use the word “midden” to describe the piles of oyster shells that the Native American population amassed along the shorelines. Our colonial progenitors used that word because it was the English term for a pile of household waste, but the word now is considered archaic in describing any pile of waste except for our oysters. In everyday parlance we have replaced it with “compost.”
Seafood and agriculture have determined much of the course of our history. Another institution unique to the Northern Neck and Southern Maryland is the “crab shore.” When I used this term in a prior column, I was asked if I had not meant to say “crab store.” I had not. The “crab shore” is a term that emerged in the 19th century to denote an eating establishment built along the shoreline for the purpose of serving all manner of crabs, but particularly hot, steamed ones. In the beginning of the last century some crab shores would offer free steamed crabs during the lunch hour with the purchase of a pitcher of beer for a nickel. The same generous offer did not apply at dinnertime.
The names of our waterways also reflect the merging of the native with the colonial designations. Our rivers, the Potomac, the Great Wicomico and the Rappahannock, along with the Patuxent in Maryland, have Native American names, whereas most of our creeks have English names, notwithstanding Upper and Lower Machodoc Creeks. Farther down Chesapeake Bay, with the York, James, Lynnhaven and Elizabeth Rivers, English names, prevail, thus our Northern Neck uniqueness prevails in the names of our waterways.
With the advent of bridge building the Northern Neck became more homogenized linguistically. The Downing Bridge at Tappahannock, the Nice Bridge across the Potomac and the Norris Bridge across the lower Rappahannock have made travel less time-consuming than the previous ferries, albeit less nostalgic. Whenever the Norris Bridge is referred to as “that scary bridge,” I remember how pleasant the ferry was in my childhood.
Lastly, as I often have noted in the past, the Northern Neck is a peninsula, 90 miles long and 15 miles wide. Unlike Gwynn’s Island or Tangier, it is not an island. Consequently, we live “in” and not “on” it. To say that one lives “on” the Northern Neck is akin to wearing a billboard announcing that the person is a come-here. If one wishes to live “on” something, I suggest finding an island. Gwynn’s and Tangier come to mind.