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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 375-377

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Prospects in Lexicography


Joan Houston Hall, Dictionary of American Regional English


As a chronicler of the American vernacular, I am often asked whether I have any favorites among the thousands of interesting words I meet. Like a good parent, I suppose I ought not to admit to favoritism. But I do have a special fondness for some words. One in particular stands out, both because I met it early in my career as a lexicographer and because it was something of a puzzle. The word is bobbasheely. [End Page 375]

In the questionnaire used in the fieldwork for the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE 1985-), one query asks for "expressions to say that people are very friendly toward each other; 'They're ------.'" We collected such phrases as thick as thieves (or thick as fleas, or thick as hair on a dog), or like two peas in a pod, or bosom friends, or palsy-walsy, or they drink through the same quill. But one informant in Brookeland, Texas, said, "They're big Bobby Sheelies." This spelling by the field-worker suggested that there might be an Irish connection. So we checked all our Irish sources, as well as Scots and English dialect sources, to no avail. Further investigation turned up an article about speech in northwestern Arkansas (Carr 1906, 127), where the word bobashillies was defined as 'chums'. Clearly, these were the same word, but where could they have come from?

Serendipitously, we came across the following passage in William Faulkner's short novel The Reivers (1962, 77):

"Maybe what you and Miss Corrie better do is go on back to town now and be ready to meet the others when the train comes." . . . "How's that for a idea? Huh, Sugar Boy? You and Sweet Thing bobbasheely on back to the hotel now, and me and Uncle Remus and Lord Fauntleroy will mosey along any time up to midnight."

Bobbasheely on back to the hotel? Here was our word, no longer a noun but a verb! It seemed to have the sense 'saunter, or move in a friendly fashion', so it certainly could be related, but which came first? Shortly thereafter I came across the following quotation from a novel set in Alabama, T. S. Stribling's The Store (1932, 16):

"Yes, but I wouldn't do that," stammered the merchant. "It cuts a man off from the society of decent men and women. It's social suicide even to vote the Republican ticket here in Florence, much less bobbashiely with niggers!"

Again it was a verb, and again it had to do with associating in a friendly manner. At this point we had citations from Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama--clearly a regional distribution. But it was not until we happened on a glossary of Mississippi speech (Shands 1893, 19) that we had a clue as to the origin of the forms: in this source the headword barbashela was said to have been borrowed from Choctaw and to signify 'friend'.

Fortunately, the libraries at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have an amazingly diverse collection of materials, including a glossary of Choctaw. So what was left was to search through this source for anything that looked possible as an etymon. Nothing in the Bs was a likely candidate. By luck, my eye ultimately hit on the form itibapishili, which was glossed as 'my brother, with whom I was suckled'. Here it was! The source of all of our bobbasheely [End Page 376] forms. So we were able with some confidence to enter bobbasheely as a noun, defined as 'a very close friend', and bobbasheely as a verb, defined as 'to saunter, sashay, move in a friendly fashion; to associate with socially'.

But that's not the end. Very shortly before volume 1 of DARE was to be sent to press, chief editor Fred Cassidy had a phone call from a Chicago woman who was doing some genealogical research. She was the great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter of a Scotsman who had founded Londonderry, New Hampshire. He...


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