Wampus caterwauling

Wampus caterwauling

Drinkin too much likker causes wampus caterwauling . As we explore western Virginia and West Virginia we are really enjoying it. That doesn’t mean we understand the locals when they talk. It is way different than I expected. The locals call it mountain talk. One local even mentioned the word hillbilly. I will explain more as we go along.

This has been a hard post for me to write for several reasons. Some of the very smartest people I know are self-described hillbillies and talk with a strong layer of backwoods country slang. Perhaps with some luck, day (they) may lay down some suitable country talkin the comments.

From Marion in Western Virginia, we visited North Carolina and Tennessee. Marion is almost at the western tip of Virginia. Marion is in the Great Appalachian Valley on the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains. This was the valley explored by Daniel Boon and described as the Wilderness Trail. Eventually, the valley crosses from Virginia into Tennesee. At any point in the valley, if you turn south you will be in North Carolina. If you turn west or north you will be in West Virginia or Kentucky. Everything northwest of Marion and the Great Appalachian Valley is what I call the lost corner of Virginia.

The lost corner of Virginia

The lost corner of Virginia is home to untouched forest and some huge open-pit coal mines. Most of the mines are way bigger than all the nearby towns combined. In this area of Virginia, they are moving mountains. All the cities are in the valley. We didn’t go very far into the mountains but I’m so curious about the area. At the same time as my curiosity feelings, I have this feeling of dread. Entire mountain tops have been removed. How can the mountains ever recover from something like this?

Madam Russell Methodist Church Saltville, Virginia 1824
Madam Russell Methodist Church Saltville, Virginia 1824

Our Virginia visit

Our visit so far in Virginia has done a pretty good job covering the areas of Virginia with the lowest population and also the least population growth in the state. With the exception of counties around Roanoak population in most of the areas we have visited has decreased from 5 – 15% between 2010 and 2015. I discussed these things in my previous post. Two Virginias

Our West Virginia visit

Last week we moved north from Marion into southern West Virginia. This means one new state is now on our map. This will be our northernmost state this year and from here we will be heading east, back to Virginia.

The twisted lines of the states in this area are a little confusing. I like the simple square states. Go north from Colorado you always end up in Wyoming. In this area, you can go north from Virginia into West Virginia or you could go west from Virginia and end up in West Virginia.

I have been a little hesitant to explore West Virginia in or motorhome because in my mind the roads are narrow, steep, and twisted. With exception of the Interstates, my prediction has come true. We have made a few travel firsts last week. We are camping in West Virginia for the first time. For the first time we have traveled through major tunnels and we traveled a toll road (on the Interstate). Note for travelers: Interstate 64 in West Virginia, east of Beaver is rough enough to knock the fillings out of your teeth.

East River Mountain Tunnel
Wampus caterwauling 9

Mostly West Virginia looks a lot like Virginia, only a little steeper. Perhaps the economy isn’t quite as good as Virginia, but remember we have been in the poor parts of Virginia.

As our energy economy has moved away from coal, the people who used to work in coal mines have left both southern and western Virginia and West Virginia. Our current campsite is in a West Virginia State Park and in many places, there are abandoned houses or houses that should have been abandoned years before. West Virginia’s economy was (is) based mostly on coal and steel. The state so far has failed to shift to a more modern economy.

Farmers and hillbillys

In terms of two Virginias, one of the locals who grew up here explained that when she grew up in a town south of our current campsite is that compared to townfolk, there were two kinds of country folk. Country folk is (are, was, pick one) either farmers or mountain folk. She called the mountain folk hillbillies.

When these settlers came to the United States (more than 250 years ago) they found that Pennsylvania was already occupied by previous immigrants. So the newer immigrants followed the Great Appalachian Valley southwest to areas not already claimed. Much of this movement was prior to the United States Independence and some of it was done against the wishes of the English. England had declared that the mountains and the area west of the mountains as off-limits to settling. These settlers didn’t really care what England wanted.

Hungry Mother Lake
Hungry Mother Lake


The settlers were primarily Scotch/Irish from a population of Scotts that immigrated to Ireland before coming to America. Settlers in this area have been generally isolated from the rest of the country due to the lack of good roads. Whereas the farmers in the area had to bring their products to market and then thus communicated with the rest of the country. The mountain folk lived a much more isolated lifestyle. They had nothing that needed selling because they made, grew, or hunted everything they needed. This difference tended to isolate the mountain folk. The Isolation preserved the language rather than creating the mixed language that was happening in the rest of the country.

The mountain talk that I have been having problems understanding dates well prior to Queen Victoria in England. As you might assume from the first sentence, the Virginia drawl of the Appalachian mountain dialect is getting the best of me. Often I don’t understand what people are saying. Everyone is very friendly and I get the feeling that they have something important to tell me, but I am at a loss as to the meaning of the words. It is not just the accent, the words are different. Translation for me, on the fly, is difficult.

About that wampus caterwauling

The word wampus means not right, bad, or horrible. It is a real word. This is a word that I was somewhat familiar with. Catawampus or cattywampus means that something is not straight. Caterwauling is a howl or wailing. So wampus caterwauling is a very bad sound.

Likker is a word that describes moonshine but also describes the fluid that remains after boiling green vegetables. Likin is the local pronunciation of liking. So perhaps a translation of drinkin too much likker causes wampus caterwauling means too much liquor leads to very bad noise.

In the holler (a word that describes narrow canyons), a party with dancing is either a hoedown or perhaps a shindig. In a shindig, there is a show involved. Both will have a live band involving bluegrass music and folk dancing. Typically, the dancers will have fancy footwork called clogging (similar to an Irish jig or tap dancing).

Shindigs and hoedowns both may include square dancing and one of the band members chants a patter call (sometimes called a hash call) that others will then follow the prescribed dance routine. If the caller is all likkerd-up (drunk) then he will make bad calls.

Kayaking on Hungry Mother Lake
Kayaking on Hungry Mother Lake

Other words and sayings

Other strange words include mam-meye or mam-ma for grandma. Far means at a distance, fair, or fire depending on the context. You might want to put some coe (coal) on the far.

Kin is for family members not living in the same house but kin could be a shortened word for kinlin (kindling) which are small sticks used to start a far. Scrounging is going to find something. You might want to scrounge up some kin to start a far so wees (we) can have some grub (food).

Tradin means to go shopping. At the store, you might buy aloni is the pronunciation of baloney which includes sausage of all kinds.

If you don’t have money for shopping you may get it on a tick (credit). If you don’t pay your tick, then the merchant will get ticked (angry). When you whine or complain you are a ticker. There are at least ten different meanings for the word tick.

Pop is soda pop and comes in a bott-L. Coke is a carbonated liquid of any color including clear. Soft drinks will often be offered as opposed to likker. If you are offered “a gallon” they are talking about sweet tea by the pitcher.

Mash Fork waterfall
Mash Fork waterfall

More and more

A root that you might eat is taters. When you go tradin you bring home the taters in a poke (sack). The term “pig in a poke” does not mean that the pig is in a sack but rather a cage you can’t see into.

You can always tell when it is worch day, because after you worch you hang the clothes on a line. Sometimes the clothes moving gently in the wind, after dark, will remind you of hanks. Hanks is a word for ghosts. Children are told hank stories in the evening around a campfire.

At the bottom of nearly every hollar is a crick (creek or stream). You don’t want to live in a holler with dem (them) people uphill from you because sewage might find its way into the crick. In that case, you might want to rund dem off (run them off). At a minimum, you’d (you would) call-dem (call them) to carp (complain) about it.

Spelling is hard for me and not just when trying to make the words sound like they are said. When the old statement “Daniel Boone kilt a bar” (Daniel Boone killed a bear) is said, they would say it exactly like it was spelled.


In the last couple of weeks, I learned that local dialects are formed in the first four years of a person’s life. It is mother to children and takes place well before school and television influences language. I have always been amazed at how television has not erased words like y’all. This explains why in the northeast they still say wuter to describe water and in New Jersey, they don’t say y’all but instead, they say “use-guys”.

Mash Fork waterfall, on the next day
Mash Fork waterfall, on the next day after Hurricane Ida remnants.

Shakespeare would have understood mountain talk quite well, including wampus caterwauling. Some of the new words may have confused him. Shakespeare even used the phrase “learn ya” in a play. Shakespeare would have understood because compared to modern American English, mountain talk hasn’t changed as much. I also have to admit that I don’t understand Shakespeare.


Since even the most remote areas that we have visited people still have all the modern conveniences, including television, and since the mountain folk understand modern American English completely, my conclusion is that it is my lack of ability to understand the locals.

Here is a link to a serious study on Appalachian English. Since it is 135 dollars I guess I will just remain ignorant and try to pick it up as I go. Dictionary of Southern Appalachian English

Please subscribe and join us on our journey

We will add you to our email list and send you updates about once a week. Here is a link. Subscribe

3 thoughts on “Wampus caterwauling”

  1. West Virginia always stands out in my mind because we had one of our scariest drives there. It’s beautiful, but you are not just kidding when you describe the roads as “narrow, steep, and twisted.” We, too, noticed how the economy had not modernized. We saw plenty of coal being hauled on trains and not much else. I think tourism is huge though – their rivers are intense.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *