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As I was doing a bit of research online I stumbled on this Children's Corner page 311 from the American Farmers' Magazine 1858. And, frankly, there are a lot of words that look totally foreign to me. I've underlined them, below the excerpts I'll do my best to guess their meanings. Where there is a blank, that means I haven't the foggiest idea.

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  1. Book larnin' = book learning, i.e. education
  2. small trumps = to come up trumps; small triumphs; winning cards.
  3. bowers = the balls? The courage, the conviction?
  4. shucks = no value, worthless.
  5. agin = again?
  6. buck agin you strong = people will come back with vengeance?
  7. sorter = sort of
  8. nor nig = ________
  9. it's regular cut throat = if you're not honest in life, your very own life will be at risk
  10. skunked = _______

    • Are these slang terms still used in the USA, or have some become dated and almost quaint?
    • Are these terms regional or widespread?

EDIT (oops, forgot)

I love the expression: (don't) look like a sick chicken on a rainy day

Is it a well-known idiom in the States? Or is it unique to this article?

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    agin = against; buck against = fight you (like a horse bucks to throw off a rider). Nig = ?cheap/be cheap/shortchange, skunked = get nothing (people who go out fishing and catch nothing are "skunked". That's all I can add. – anongoodnurse Dec 11 '14 at 10:31
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    @WS2 See, I've only heard of shucks in the expression "Gee, shucks. Think nothing of it". That it must mean worthless is new to me. – Mari-Lou A Dec 11 '14 at 10:31
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    The OED has a verbal entry for shucks (among others concerning husks etc) which means 'to shrink, draw back, or hesitate'. Its most recent use quoted is from 1688. I am wondering if that has something to do with gee, shucks. A 'shuck' is also a 'devil hound'. There is a legend in East Anglia about 'Old Shuck', a black ghostly dog. If you are unlucky enough to see 'Old Shuck' it is said you will die within the year. I spent my childhood living by a bridge in rural Norfolk which was one of the reported places he had haunted. But I lived to tell the tale - I never saw him! – WS2 Dec 11 '14 at 10:39
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    Nig can also be short for niggle: to find fault constantly and trivially; carp. (as in argue over your hand or something? Shuck is a verb, to remove the outer husk of corn. The husks (also called shucks, see etymonline) aren't worth anything. Hence, "shucks, 'twert nothin'" – anongoodnurse Dec 11 '14 at 10:54
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    FWIW, I've never heard "Don't look like a sick chicken on a rainy day". It sounds like a country saying which might (or not) have had purely local currency; but I suppose its very appearance in American Farmers' Magazine may have helped to popularize it. Of course, more than a century and a half later we can't be sure how authentic the unattributed "Arkansas father's advice to his son" really is, either in terms of the language used or its authorship. I suspect (but can't prove) that it was concocted as a humorous item intended to play on its readers' expectations of folksy Arkansan humour. – Erik Kowal Dec 11 '14 at 11:08
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My understanding:

  • Book larnin' = book learning (education)
  • small trumps = to come up trumps; small triumphs; winning cards.
  • bowers = a jack in euchre (played with the 32 highest cards in the deck) and similar card games. [HT to andy256 for explaining that a jack is a high card in the given situation: when it is trumps, the bowers are the Jack of the suit and that of the other same color suit, e.g., if Diamonds became trumps, the bowers would be the Jacks of Diamonds and Hearts. If a Joker is being used, it would be the highest card, followed by the JD and JH.]
  • shucks = no value, worthless: another word for husks/shells/pod, useless after shucking corn; worthless since 1836
  • agin = against
  • buck agin = fight/oppose you, buck against you, as when a horse bucks to throw the rider off
  • sorter = sort of
  • nor nig = niggle? (to argue excessively, to find fault constantly and trivially; carp. (maybe don't fight at cards about your hand of possible cheating) or possibly nig - to be cheap/shortchange people [HT to Robusto for explaining that nig is likely a shortening of the word renege, meaning to trump a card instead of following suit when you still have a card of the led suit in your hand, considered as cheating. Saying don't nig, then, is a way of saying don't cheat.]
  • it's regular cut throat = it's a hard game out there: As an adjective from 1560s. Of card games from 1823.
  • skunked = come up empty, "to be completely defeated (in a game), to shut out from scoring," 1831, (people who go out fishing and catch nothing are "skunked")

I think the theme of cards/life being a card game and playing like an honourable man is where this collection of words comes from.

Are these slang terms still used in the USA, or have some become dated and almost quaint? Are these terms regional or widespread?

Not most of them. In the south, they might say agin'; buck is well known, as is it's a cut throat world.

I never hear of "Don't look like a sick chicken on a rainy day".

  • Re Bowers: For a given suit, when it is trumps the bowers are the Jack of the suit and the Jack of the other suit of the same color. For example, if Diamonds became trumps the bowers would be the Jack of Diamonds and Jack of Hearts. If a Joker is being used, it would be the highest card, followed by the JD and JH. – andy256 Dec 11 '14 at 12:24
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    Also, I believe nig is a shortening of the word renege, which means to trump a card instead of following suit when you still have a card of the led suit in your hand. For example, if someone led hearts and you had a heart you would be required to play a heart. If you trumped the trick instead (which is permissible only if you are out of the led suit), and were later caught at the subterfuge, you would be said to have reneged. Saying "don't nig" is another way of saying "don't cheat." – Robusto Dec 11 '14 at 13:06
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    @medica: Thanks, but I'm Robusto, not Roberto. ^)^ – Robusto Dec 11 '14 at 20:35
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    Thank you! :-) Both your answers were top notch but yours has the edge. – Mari-Lou A Dec 11 '14 at 21:48
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    I couldn't understand how nig could be the shortening for renege, until I checked its pronunciation. It can be pronounced /riˈniɡ/ whereas I have always pronounced the second -e as in /riˈneɡ/. – Mari-Lou A Dec 12 '14 at 7:35
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Although I am uncertain as to this excerpt's original publication date, I have found the full article reprinted widely in newspapers around the country beginning in 1858 and then in many, many newspapers beginning in 1858, with a flurry of reprinting in October and November 1860.

Generally, the article has a prefatory title to what is mentioned here: The Game of Euchre and Life: An Arkansas Farmer's....

Thus, the responses that indicated terminology related to Euchre is on mark. Indeed, the entirety of the article would need to be understood within the context of the card game Euchre.

There are other Euchre references in the passages:

"throw me out of the game and go it alone" refers to a partner possessing a sufficiently strong hand to play the opponents without the assistance of his partner; winning all tricks in the hand would score the highest score possible for a single hand, 4 points.

"bowers to back 'em" it was stated that the bowers (specifically "right bower" and "left bower") in Euchre are the highest trump cards; that is correct. In addition, from about 1850-1870, "right bower" and "left bower" were used widely in common language to refer to someone's closest supporters (usually in a political sense). Indeed. "right bower" and "left bower" were used in South Carolina to describe other states in support of South Carolina's secession from the Union. It was stated in a newspaper headline as, "Euchre: South Carolina Plays it Alone" "Her Right and Left Bowers, Georgia and Florida"

"sorter weak" refers to a weak hand or a "sort of weak hand," which is a characterization of the cards held by a player in any given deal

"nor nig" is certainly reference to "reneging," which, within Euchre, is what an action is called if a player does not follow the suit of the card led. It is considered cheating. If this is discovered during the course of that hand of cards in subsequent tricks, the opposing team is awarded two points.

"cut-throat" refers to a particular variation of Euchre, in which three, rather than four players, are participating. There is no partner or help and everyone is out for themselves.

"skunked" is the term used when one pair of players fail to score any points against a victorious team in a game to 10 (today, although in the mid-19th century, the victorious pair usually won when they reached the score of 5.)

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I can answer most of those.

Your interpretations of items 1 and 7 are correct.

'Buck' can mean to writhe like a horse attempting to throw its rider, and also to oppose or resist in a more general sense. I take 'to buck agin you strong' [= strongly] as using the image of the former to convey the sense of the latter.

'Agin' = dialect form of 'against'.

'Small trumps' = low-ranking cards of the trump suit.

'Shuck' = the discarded husk of a vegetable, such as that which encloses an ear of corn (i.e. maize).

'Get skunked' = to lose a card game without winning even a single point/trick, etc.; this also fits in the context of the text you posted. (My Colorado-born wife also uses the term in that sense.)

Update

On page 3989 of the Century Dictionary, I found several senses of the word 'nig'.

One of these is as a variant of the verb 'niggle'; one is as a verb meaning 'to be niggardly'; another is as a verb variant of the masonry term nidge, meaning 'to dress (a stone) with a pick or kevel' (kevel = a particular type of hammer); and what I originally suspected might be meant in the reference you found in the text, namely 'to clip (money)'. This sense of the verb is apparently related to the English dialect noun nig, meaning 'a small piece or chip', which is clearly relevant both to dressing stone and to clipping coins (in the days when some coins were made of gold or silver).

This explanation seemed plausible, given that it follows on immediately from a reference to clipping cards.

However, Robusto has provided an explanation in his comment that fits the card-playing context better still. I quote it as follows:

"...I believe nig is a shortening of the word renege, which means to trump a card instead of following suit when you still have a card of the led suit in your hand. For example, if someone led hearts and you had a heart you would be required to play a heart. If you trumped the trick instead (which is permissible only if you are out of the led suit), and were later caught at the subterfuge, you would be said to have reneged. Saying "don't nig" is another way of saying "don't cheat." "

On page 646 of the Century Dictionary, I found that one of the meanings of 'bower' is 'jack or knave', two of which are the highest-value cards in euchre.

So the father is telling his son that he must have the bowers (high-value cards) to back the low trumps; I assume the reference to the low trumps is therefore also in the context of playing euchre.

Finally, on page 2022 of the Century Dictionary, I discovered that 'cut-throat euchre' is a three-handed euchre game "in which one person plays against the other two together".

But exactly what the comment "it's regular 'cut throat' " is supposed to imply in the context of the warning against dishonesty that has just been given is still rather mysterious to me, beyond my inference that it too alludes to the game of euchre.

  • What's nig? clip cards must be some form of cheating, marking or bending a card in some way but nig? – Mari-Lou A Dec 11 '14 at 10:45
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    I think the nig is being used as a verb form of niggard, with "don't nig" meaning "don't be niggardly". I was hoping to dig something out of the etymology, thinking it might be an archaic use, but I can find no reference to nig – Roaring Fish Dec 11 '14 at 10:54
  • While you're at it, add a few links (when you've got the inclination). You know I'm partial to them. :) – Mari-Lou A Dec 11 '14 at 12:07
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    @Mari-LouA - See the update to my answer. – Erik Kowal Dec 11 '14 at 13:08
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    I'm only sorry that the question hasn't attracted more views because your answer deserves greater attention. (sad face) – Mari-Lou A Dec 11 '14 at 15:20
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You need to consider the fact that your source, American Farmers' Magazine was published in New York. I have family from Arkansas, so I know they talk funny -- but seriously folks, not like that. Here you can read an authentic Ozark mountain newspaper of the same era, and get a more realistic impression of their dialect: An extensive list of historic Ozark regional newspapers.

You will find numerous 19th century abstracts from an established Northern Arkansas newspaper, The Mountain Echo. These were painstakingly preserved by genealogists. They were so intent on accuracy, that whenever something was illegible, they refused to allow guess-work. Instead, they just used ellipses to cover unreadable portions.

A reporter met Senator Jones last evening and asked him plainly why he remained in Detroit. "I will not be interrogated on any except public questions," he replied. "There have been intimations in various newspapers and injustice may have been done you." "I want no vindication. I am not the only Senator who has been away. Cameron went to Europe and Logan was in Illinois during the session of the legislature, and I do not see why I cannot do as others have done. It is nobody's business." "When do you intend to go to Washington?" "That I won't say."

Although a senator was quoted in the example given here, he was an Arkansas senator (so most likely also a farmer). I've read these papers extensively, and can say that you will find occasional quotes from farmers, and lots of humorous tall tales written in authentic dialect.

Also keep in mind that the newspaper (in print for 80+ years) was locally read by a mostly farming, very rural community. Even doctors and other professionals were usually also farming in that region, in those times. The publishers knew their audience, quite intimately, and did a great job of reflecting their personalities, speech, and mannerisms.

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