22 September 2019

Language in John Cheever's "The Wapshot Chronicle"

Not an exciting plot.  The book is a narrative describing the lives of members of a New England family, so the events recorded are domestic, conventional, and frankly rather prosaic.  It's as though you were to go to a dinner party, sit next to a neighbor you've never met, and ask them to "tell me about your life."  But Cheever does tell a story well, and he received the National Book Award for this, his first novel.  I can understand why he was a best-selling novelist and a popular writer for The New Yorker and other magazines.

So, no reason to discuss the content, but I will share some words and phrases that were new to me.

"... as if he, bred on that shinbone coast and weaned on beans and codfish..."  Despite a lot of searching I couldn't find a clear explanation of this term.  Most links came back the quote from this book.  There are scattered references to Shinbone Alleys from Maine to Missouri (discussed - but not explained - here).

"Captn Webb's little boy was trod upon by a horse and died before candlelight."  Obvious meaning in context, but an interesting phrase I've not previously encountered.

"... proud of his prowess in negotiating the dilapidated and purblind vehicle over the curving roads..."  Partially blind, or obtuse.  Not sure how it applies to a vehicle unless the headlights are inadequate.

"It is one of those [bus] lines that seem to carry the scrim of the world - sweet-natured but browbeaten women shoppers, hunchbacks and drunks."   ??? couldn't find this in anything that matches the sense of the sentence.

"Put that [lobster] down, Miss Honora," he shouts.  "They ain't pegged, they ain't pegged yet."  The Penobscot Maritime Museum explains that prior to today's rubber bands, lobster claws were immobilized with whittled wooden plugs.

"...  and they had had a brace or more of those days when the earth smells like a farmer's britches - all timothy, manure and sweet grass."   Of course I know what "britches" are, but I had to look up the etymology.   It's a variation of "breeches," which goes back to Middle English and were typically "smallclothes" (knee-length).

"On the other half was the farm at St. Botolphs, the gentle valley and the impuissant river..."  Impotent (puissant related to Latin posse [be able]); presumably means a slowly-flowing river.

"... how they would have burned the furniture, buried the tin cans, holystoned the floors, cleaned the lamp chimneys..."  "As a scouring stone... from its association with Sunday cleaning, from its users' adoption of a kneeling position similar to prayer, and (least likely) from their original provision by raiding graveyards for tombstones.

"Leander looked into the bushes and found what he wanted - an old duck-shooting battery."  Not sure how it's defined; here's a floating one.

"The rector was a pursy man in clericals, and sure enough, while they stood there, he began to scratch his stomach."   Short-winded, especially from corpulence.  "Late Middle English reduction of Anglo-Norman French porsif, alteration of Old French polsif, from polser ‘breathe with difficulty’, from Latin pulsare ‘set in violent motion’."

"Writer's epistolary style (Leander wrote) formed in tradition of Lord Timothy Dexter, who put all punctuation marks, prepositions, adverbs, articles, etc., at end of communication and urged reader to distribute same as he saw fit."   A real person (see the link).

"One more Indian.  Joe Thrum.  Lived on hoopskirts of town."  We all know what the "outskirts" of town are.  Would "hoopskirts" be under (inside) the outskirts???

"It was a chance to see the countryside and the disappointing southern autumn with its fireflies and brumes..."  Mist, fog.  "from French brume "fog" (14c.), in Old French, "wintertime," from Latin bruma "winter, winter solstice," perhaps with an etymological sense "season of the shortest day," from *brevima, contracted from brevissima, superlative of brevis "short"."

"Never told her facts in case.  Laconism, like blindness, seems to develop other faculties.  Powers of divination."  Extreme brevity in speech.  Derivation from a place name (Lakonia) in Greece, which was near Sparta.  Interesting in that "spartan" also means sparing or limited.

"Listened all night to troubled speaking; also moiling of sea.  Seemed from sound of waves to be flat, stony beach."  Churning, swirling.  From French and Lain words connoting softness.

"It was after supper and the latrines were being fired and the smoke rose up through the coconut palms."  (U.S. armed forces in South Pacific).  Does anyone know if it was a military custom among U.S. (or other troops) to set fire to latrines??  [answered with an interesting link in the Comments]

"... for here all the random majesty of the place appeared spatchcocked, rectified and jumbled; here, hidden in the rain, were the architect's secrets and most of his failures."  A way of preparing eel or chicken meat by splitting it open - but the term also means "a rushed effort."

"... like West Farm, a human burrow or habitation that had yielded at every point to the crotchets and meanderings of a growing family."  Whim or fancy [archaic].

"At another turn in the path a man as old as Leander, in the extremities of eroticism, approached him, his body covered with brindle hair.  "This is the beginning of all wisdom," he said to Leander, exposing his inflamed parts."  Streaked or striped when referring to animal coats.

Quite a few interesting words in a rather brief novel.  By contrast, Stephen King's Doctor Sleep yielded only five new words in 500+ pages:
"Let's see if Danny's up and in the doins."  Probably awake, active, doing things.

"... Walnut, the True's jackleg doctor..."  Amateur, incompetent.

"Once away from I-80 and out in the toolies, they spread apart..."  A Canadian expression meaning out in the boondocks "It is a respelling of "tule," one of a couple species of bulrush, found especially in California. The word is from the Aztec "tullin." So "the tules" are swamps. "Tule fog" is fog over swamps or other low ground."

"... when the True Knot moved across Europe in wagons, selling peat turves and trinkets."  Plural of turf.

"The key to survival in the world of rubes was to look as if you belonged, as if you were always on the goodfoot..."  Meaning implicit in the usage, but I couldn't find any info elsewhere.


  1. As to ‘scrim’, I think it means the backdrop to the everyday. A scrim is a painted fabric used for scenery or a backdrop in live theatre.

  2. Holystone I know in context of keeping a ship's deck clean, via the method you mention.

    Latrines being fired might be something along these lines:


  3. I think a 'purblind' vehicle would be difficult to steer - obtuse.

  4. Yes, latrines are often wooden outhouses with a garbage can under the holes. Daily some poor private has to pull them out, mix in diesel or gasoline, and burn the contents.

  5. Lakonia wasn't a place near Sparta, it was (and is) the region in which Sparta lies. The Spartans themselves tended to use the terms synonymously. Hence the big letter Lambda (Λ) on their shields.

  6. I would think the "hoopskirts" of town would be much farther outside of town than just the outskirts, as the hem of a hoopskirt would be much farther from the person than the hem of a regular skirt.

  7. There are abandoned military batteries all over the San Francisco area. Some are just underground rooms with a gun slit. This is what I see when I read of a "duck battery". I would think the one in the novel was probably made of leaves and branches with a place to rest a gun...

  8. Watching British TV, I have often heard "You are on the wrong foot here" meaning starting from the wrong premise. Also "wrongfooted". So "good foot" makes total sense. Check British slang for that one.

    1. And James Brown:


  9. re: shinbone coast - from "She Took to the Woods: A Biography and Selected Writings of Louise Dickinson Rich" by Alice Arlen (2000) - The Sands, page 133:

    The Beach - general aspect of the shore as a "shinbone coast" with the Sands as an exception, the only beach around. The beach connotes a worthless life - "on the beach". Our beach equals a breathing spell for people bred on the shinbone coast and raised on dried fish and stewed Jacob's cattle beans.

    i read that in two ways - that the coast physically looks like a shin bone, except for the beach; or, that shinbone refers to food - people so poor that they cooked shinbones (which may not have a lot of meat).

    also "Murder in Shinbone Alley" by Helen Reilly.


  10. re: shinbone - a short story "The Shinbone Coast" by Jane Breakell of Brooklyn, NY that does not appear to have been published: https://hiddenriverarts.wordpress.com/news-celebrations-and-publications/archive/


  11. A further explanation of 'holystones' via the late Brian Jacques' works; holystones used to scrub the decks of a sailing ship, being pieces of pumice, thus 'holey stones'.

  12. re: shinbone:

    http://www.missourireview-digital.com/missourireview/fall_2018?pg=51#pg51 missouri review fall 2018 p. 51 mention 'shinbone coast' as a geographic feature of the coastline

    http://www.eclectica.org/v11n2/chambers.html In Grief Prostrate; Clobbered by Joy by Benjamin Chambers - also mentions 'shinbone coast' as a geo feature, in this case on cape cod.

    shinbone alley was a play: https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/shinbone-alley-2622 Shinbone Alley (play 1957)



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