Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 10: No 2) >> Simms: Speaking English with a Charleston Accent >> Page 7

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Page 7

Secondary Scholarship | 2002
Transcription Gullah was everywhere apparent in Simms's day. It was an expressive,
satisfying, spontaneous and fun language, and Simms is the first American author
to use it in fiction, including the dialogue he writes for The Golden Christmas.
Had Charles Dickens grown up with it ringing in his ears, he would surely have
incorporated it into his work, too.
But readers of The Golden Christmas will find much more than Gullah
and proper English in Simms's book. He was writing for a well-educated and
cultured society whose members could appreciate an abundance of puns. A
reader of The Golden Christmas today may well need more than one dictionary to
appreciate fully this treasure chest of expressive words. Many of the puns make
sense only in light of the meaning Charlestonians gave to what were then
commonly used terms.
Simms uses the word bark, for instance, in connection with the sound a
dog makes, a particular kind of sailing vessel, a dye or tan using bark, rubbing
skin off, a medical treatment, and a medicine derived from trees or woody plants.
When Simms relates the story of a deer hunt held during the pre-Christmas
festivities, he speaks of "a mustering of Mantons and full-bloods." It is easy to
assume correctly the full-bloods are hounds specifically bred for their hunting
instincts, but you will need an Oxford English Dictionary to locate the word
Manton, which is a double barreled hunting gun far from inexpensive—and
made by Joseph Manton, a noted gunsmith who died in 1836. The Manton was
well know for the sound of its double report, an interesting detail in a story wher
words with double meanings are found in abundance.
Another Simms word not found in our American dictionaries is miching.
To miche could mean to pilfer, to lurk out of sight, to skulk, to play truant, to
grumble secretly, or to pretend poverty. Simms uses it with malico as
Shakespeare does in Hamlet, Act III, scene ii. It can be translated as a skulking
Although The Golden Christmas is easily read and enjoyed by skipping
over unfamiliar words, reading it with an Oxford English Dictionary is like giving
yourself an education in nineteenth-century Charleston English. At the
conclusion of this delightful story, you will have added words to your vocabulary,
you will know more about their origins, variants and multiple meanings, and you
will have a better understanding of the antebellum culture of Charleston when
Simms lived. For language lovers, half the fun of reading Simms is tracking
down the various meanings of the words he dearly loved to play with. For lovers
of literature, half the fun is in spotting the places where Simms is borrowing from
Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and the King James version of the
Bible, as well as form ballads, poems and songs.
It may be a shock to our contemporary egos to realize just how much
young people in Charleston learned in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries.