Vocabulary of yesteryear creates present-day language barrier

Vocabulary of yesteryear creates present-day language barrier
The question came up quickly. Like a dirt devil stirring up over thirsty ground with no warning, it was aimed directly at me.

"May Day was last month, right? May 1, wasn't it?" was only the beginning of the inquisition, spoken with bit of dismay and some reserve by a 30-something acquaintance.

"Yeah," I replied.


"You know what May Day is, don't you? I mean, did you ever deliver a May basket? Or get one?"

"Uh-huh."

"Oh, good. I'm not the only one," she sighed. "I thought about doing May baskets this year, but now I'm glad I didn't. I would have felt like a fool. No one around here even knows what a May basket is or what May Day is all about, for that matter."

We chuckled and shared a glance of instant recognition: an era (or two in my case) had passed; and with it traditions.

For those of you who remember May baskets, consider the traditions, no less the everyday tools of your growing up years. Are they still around? Or have they been replaced by another way of life with a new vocabulary?

Take, for example, whisk brooms. The other day, I was pleasantly surprised to see corn whisk brooms displayed right next to the lint brushes and scrubbers at the grocery store. In my childhood years, no home was without a whisk broom.

A whisk broom is as tall as a ruler; it looks like a tiny broom with a short handle. Use them to sweep lint off your clothes. I thought whisk brooms were gone, along with clotheslines.

When was the last time you saw clothes dangling in mid-air across someone's backyard? A row of blue jeans stiff as boards? A line of sheets or bath towels? Stretch a long piece of rope across the yard, from pole to pole or from tree to tree, and you have a clothesline to dry laundry.

In Central Pennsylvania's Amish country, I saw the longest clothesline I had ever seen. It stretched 50 feet or more into the air from the lowest corner of the farmhouse roof, reaching to the highest peak on the barn roof.

It was rigged with a pulley system that sent clothes up and reeled them in. When the line was full, it reminded me of a long, wiry kite with pants and shirts and dresses and socks and undershorts flapping in the windy sky. What a sight!

Clothespins hold laundry on the clothesline. Made of wood, clothespins are homely looking. Some have a wire spring bound around two wood clips. Pinch the ends and the clothespin opens. Let go, and the pin closes. Some clothespins are wireless and work like a paper clip, more or less.

Bushel baskets, like May Day, may not register either. Named for their unit of measure – a bushel – this tool of long ago was constructed of flat strips of wood that were bent and shaped into a wide cylindrical basket. Most bushel baskets had steel wire handles. The nicer ones had spooled handles for greater comfort when carrying potatoes, fruit, or when hauling clean laundry to and fro.

There's suddenness about recalling such a list of traditions and tools that are no longer practiced or used. Nostalgia is not quite the right word for it. Ironing sprinkler. Skate key. Ant button. Coal shoot. Mosquito truck. Fruit cellar. Bomb shelter. Air raid drills. Too many to name here. Another day. Another time.

A resident of Southeast South Dakota for more than 30 years, Paula Damon is a popular columnist, keynote speaker, and freelance writer. Her column writing has won first-place national and state awards in The Federation of Press Women competitions. For more information, e-mail pauladamon@iw.net.

� 2007 Paula Damon

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