While the settlement of our Pacific slope by Americans is of too recent a date for any marked peculiarity of speech to have yet fastened itself upon the Californian in the sense that it has upon the New Englander or the Southerner of the Atlantic seaboard, the newcomer does not travel far in California before encountering words and expressions that are to him either absolutely strange or used in a novel sense.
“New Cots Two Bits a Box,” for instance, posted in a green-grocer’s window, is so thoroughly unintelligible to the average Easterner as to read like a foreign language, though to the Californian it is a perfectly plain advertisement of apricots at twenty-five cents a box. To be able to reckon in “bits” is a serviceable accomplishment for the traveler in California byways to acquire; for while its use is by no means universal and the coin itself went out with the Spaniards, there is a certain local pride in keeping the word going, and one meets it constantly. It is employed only in multiples of two, as two bits, twenty-five cents; four bits, fifty cents; six-bits, seventy-five cents.
“High fog,” too, is usually an enigma. The tourist comes down to breakfast and finds the sky over-cast.
“Cloudy day,” he remarks to the waiter, “is it going to rain?”
“Oh, no, sir,” replies the man of the napkin, if he is experienced, “only a high fog.”
As the stranger observes no evidence of fog, only a gray sky, he does not see the appropriateness of the term, nor why the trouble is not plain cloudiness. But the Californian, in some strange manner, knows the difference, and about ten o’clock, the fog, so high that it seemed something else, has floated out to sea, and the sun shines in a cloudless blue sky.
Then there is the word “pack.” Anybody any-where in the United States, knows how to pack a box or a trunk, but we had to come to California to learn how to pack a piece of string; for on this western rim of our continent, half the time the word means “to carry,” Of course you have to pack your goods upon your burro, but then, too, the burro packs the pack. An old mountaineer of whom we had occasion once to borrow a penknife, looked at it affectionately as he returned it to his pocket, and remarked, “You bet it’s a good knife ; I’ve packed it around with me for nigh on to twenty years.”
Another interesting localism is the verb “to rustle.” Originating on the cattle ranges, where in the old, lawless “bad man” days it meant “to steal,” it has acquired in these piping times of peace the innocent significance of “to gather.” Thus among the camper’s first duties, is to rustle his fire-wood. He also “prospects” for water and if in his search his foot slips on a “slick” rock, it is what is to be expected, for your thorough-going Californian has small use for the adjective “smooth.” In the camp supplies will be “spuds” for potatoes, and quite likely “frijoles” (pronounced fre-hô-les) for beans. For saddle-bags your packer will have “kyacks” on the donkeys or alforjas (alfor-has), and of course you never travel a path, but always a “trail.”
The principal outer influence on California speech has naturally been Spanish. Some of these Spanish terms familiar as words to the new arrival from the East, will surprise him in their application. “Corral” for instance, seems natural enough to cattle enclosures each covering an acre or two, as he saw them from the car windows when he crossed the plains; but when his California hostess who keeps her pet Persian cat outdoors in a wire cage a few feet square calls that a corral, it strikes him oddly, Canon, too, which he associates with fearful Rocky Mountain gorges, loses some of its majesty when applied to any small ravine as it may be in California. The word “ranch” has possibilities he never dreamed of, for it may describe property anywhere in extent from half an acre to three hundred thou-sand; and while it may be a grain ranch or a cattle ranch, it may also be a chicken ranch or a bee ranch or a fruit ranchbut never a “farm.” Farmers, in the Golden State, are “ranchers.” But then, if you have the privilege of making the acquaintance of some Spanish landed proprietor, do not commit the mistake of referring to his estate as a “rancheria” (with the accent on the i), for in Southern California this word means an Indian village.
In traveling through the country, one encounters in every day speech many of these Spanish words more or less modified. Mesa for tableland is universal, and chaparral for a shrubby thicket is classic, though personally we have more often heard an-other word, chamise, applied to the same thing. This last termpronounced chameezeis also given to the common greasewood of the mountains and foothills, known to botanists as adenostoma fasciculatum. Ciénaga is a good Spanish survival meaning any wet, marshy place, and potrero is occasion-ally heard applied to wild pasture land. Rincon is where two hills come obliquely together forming a corner or nook. A shallow valley is canada (pronounced can-yah’-da), but this lingers now principally as a geographical designation, and it is doubtful if many white Californians know what it sign-Iles. Arroyo is a commonly used Spanish word for the channel of a stream, and the bulrushof which thickets are found on the borders of marshes and certain riversis quite commonly called tale (two syllables). The earthen jar that contains drinking water and stands often wrapped in dampened bur-lap in some shady corner in the old country houses, or swings from a beam, is an olla (pronounced ô-ya). The swarthy Mexican laborers in conical straw hats who work industriously on the railroads in Southern California and on ranches, are popularly known sometimes as “greasers,” sometimes as cholas. Then there are adios (good bye), dinero (money), and pronto ( soon) ,Spanish words which Californians mix quite naturally with their English.
Perhaps of all Californianisms, the visitor from the Atlantic seaboard finds “back East” the most entertaining. This expression takes on a brand new significance once the Sierra Nevada is crossed. When keeping house in Pasadena one summer, we employed a woman to do some cleaning for us. She was talkative, after the manner of her kind, and had many pleasant words for the abundance and lusciousness of the fruit in California.
“You see,” she explained, “I come from back East, and we don’t have much fruit there.”
Recollections of Delaware peaches, New Jersey berries, York State grapes and New England apples, rose before us, and we demurred. What part of the East had she come from?
“Wyoming,” she remarked ingenuously.
This, we have since learned, is really quite far east, when Utah and Arizona are reckoned, as they are from the California standpoint, in eastern terri-tory. As for Texasthat is “way back.”