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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 377-380

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Prospects in Lexicography

Where Is "Down East"?

Bruce Southard, East Carolina University


For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the study of American English is that one never knows when a new usage will be encountered. In 1989, shortly after I moved to North Carolina, while walking near a [End Page 377] construction site near my new home, I was astonished to see a Down East Rent-A-Toilet. I immediately questioned the Yankee business acumen that would ead someone to ship a toilet so far from home, for I had always associated down east with New England. Soon, though, I began to encounter down east everywhere--from a Down East Cook-Off advertised in our daily newspaper to nightly down east weather forecasts on local television stations.

I soon discovered that North Carolina regional writers frequently make use of down east. Sonny Williamson, for example, published The Cousin Shamus Dictionary of Down East Words and Sayings (1986), though down east is not included as one of the dictionary's entries. The term also occurs frequently in his Jumpin' Mullets and Collard Greens (1989). A locally published history, Judgment Land: The Story of Salter Path (Stephens 1984), is replete with references to down east: in describing fishing during the 1880s, Alice Gutherie Smith wrote that "in the fall, October or November, a large boat from down east would come up to Salter Path loaded with sweet potatoes and corn" (43). Another person stated that prior to 1918, "Elijah would go down east and buy them big old skiffs. . . . They got them down east at Atlantic [N.C.], I think" (94). From these statements, it is clear that down east is not being used in reference to any portion of New England. Furthermore, from Smith's comments one may infer that the Carolinian down east may have had currency at least as early as the 1880s, though the 1984 publication date of Judgment Land clearly allows for the possibility that she is using a current term rather than one that might have been used in the 1880s.

How, then, did the term come to North Carolina? Was it borrowed from New England fishermen, or did it arise spontaneously in both New England and North Carolina? In trying to establish when the term down east was first used in North Carolina, my research assistants and I have examined state newspapers dating back to the late 1700s, have read numerous collections of family papers from the mid-1800s, have communicated with various historical societies in coastal North Carolina counties, and are now beginning to examine diaries and journals of those associated with fishing and other maritime activities. To date, however, we are unable to document a written occurrence of the term prior to the 1940s. Indeed, we even have difficulty documenting exactly what is meant by down east, for within North Carolina the geographic boundaries of down east are ill-defined. Writing in the State Magazine, Claiborne S. Young (1984, 8) states that "the mainland banks of Core Sound are host to the so-called 'down east' communities. I have never been able to discover how the area acquired this particular designation, but those in the know will tell you that this is the one and only place that deserves the title." Others contend that down east refers to the [End Page 378] eastern portion of Carteret County, although the language associated with the "down Easters" is frequently viewed as similar to that of the "hoi toider" dialect found in Ocracoke and other of North Carolina's Outer Banks. The North Carolina Business Directory for 1991-92, however, provides evidence that down east is a term claimed by companies throughout the eastern portion of the state, for it occurs in the names of 52 businesses, located in 25 different communities, the westernmost being Raleigh.

With one exception, dictionaries give no hint that this North Carolinian down east even exists, for they identify down east (also spelled down East, down-east, and Down East) as being located in northeastern New...


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pp. 377-380
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