Appalachian Dialect

Spell in Appalachia

potato in garden

In Appalachia the word spell has more than one meaning.

  • Of course the most obvious: to say or write out the letters of a word. “Can you spell Mississippi?”
  • A period of time. “Won’t you stay and visit for a spell before you have to go?”
  • A period of sickness, illness, or general discomfort. “We didn’t get to go cause Aunt Dorsey took a dizzy spell and had to go to bed.”
  • According to the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English spell can be used to describe a short distance. “The old house that burnt down was just up the creek a spell from here.”

Can you think of any other usages for the word spell?


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  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    September 3, 2020 at 1:55 am

    Like Miss Cindy…the one use of “spell” was in the form of someone having a spell…of fit of some sort…Could also be used as faintin’ spell…My friend couldn’t stand the thought of or see even a drop of blood…it brought on a “spell” and down she’d go, flat to the ground…lol
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS…We’ve had quite a few spell of rain this year. Everything’s about hid with vines, saw briars and tree branches…

  • Reply
    Auther Ray
    September 2, 2020 at 6:12 pm

    It’s been a long hot Spell or it has been a rainy Spell. Or I ain’t seen you in a long Spell.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    August 27, 2019 at 7:18 pm

  • Reply
    Hank Skewis
    August 27, 2019 at 5:28 pm

    I immediately thought of the distance meaning, “down the road a spell” but as someone else said you could use “a piece” or “a fur piece” instead.
    This is fun!

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    August 27, 2019 at 12:34 pm

    I spent most of the evening yesterday just catching up on the Blind Pig and the Acorn and deleting other e-mails that was Junk.

    On July 10th, I was talking with my oldest daughter, trying to order some Sanding Belts for my machine. Just about that time, my phone went out and I had no dial tone, or Internet. I still have no Internet or phone and no one from Frontier has come by. Yesterday, I had Hughes Satellite company to install me a new system, and I’m still getting use to it.

  • Reply
    Nancy schmidt
    August 27, 2019 at 11:01 am

    Also used in
    “You’re gonna have to spell that out for me. I never heard tell of that before.”
    As in to tell something bit by bit to explain

  • Reply
    Nancy schmidt
    August 27, 2019 at 10:58 am

    You’re going to have to spell that out for me. I never heard of that before.

  • Reply
    aw griff
    August 27, 2019 at 9:43 am

    I use spell mostly in two ways you already described, as in come in and set a spell, and someone had a long sick spell. I can’t remember hearing spell to describe a short distance. More apt to say the old house that burnt down was up the creek a short piece. After reading Miss Cindy and Vann Helms. Their comments are common in E.KY.

  • Reply
    August 27, 2019 at 9:23 am

    We gave our Daughter her antibiotic and she went into a throwing up spell, Yuck!

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    August 27, 2019 at 9:14 am

    Tipper–I’ve also heard the word used, and indeed have used it myself, in the context of relieving someone or giving them a break from work. For example, “You’ve been going at it hard for four hours. Let me spell you a bit.”

    Also, mention of spell in it’s traditional sense of providing the letters in a word reminds me of two tricks I learned very early on in school:

    George Elliot’s oldest girl rode a pig home yesterday (geography).
    George Elliot’s old mean Easter turkey really yodels (geometry)
    A red Indian thought he might eat turnips in church (arithmetic).

    Jim Casada

    • Reply
      aw griff
      August 27, 2019 at 12:54 pm

      Jim. The way we learned to spell arithmetic. A rat in the house might eat the ice cream.

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    August 27, 2019 at 8:46 am

    Yes, as several others have said–to relieve someone for a while. “I’m gonna go spell John for a while so he can eat lunch.” We speak of someone having a “spell” for many events: a mad spell, a sick spell, etc.

  • Reply
    Pamela Danner
    August 27, 2019 at 8:29 am

    I was also thinking of magic spell. I remember hearing my dad talk of a woman they called a witch living back in the mountains that used herbs to heal people. Never heard about her casting “spells” though.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    August 27, 2019 at 8:21 am

    I think you all about have it covered. I think of ‘spell’ as ‘switching off’ when doing hard or tedious work or being an indefinite period of time. There is one more though, ‘take a notion’ as in “I just took a spell of wanting to go back over to rhe old home place and get a drink from the spring.”

  • Reply
    Vann Helms
    August 27, 2019 at 7:45 am

    We’ve always used “spell” to describe a stroke or an event affecting the brain or the body. “Grandma had another one of her spells yesterday”

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    August 27, 2019 at 7:06 am

    “You remember, she used to take them spells?” A period of time when someone was acting out of their normal behavior, you know, like they was teched in the head!

  • Reply
    Sanford McKinney Jr
    August 27, 2019 at 6:25 am

    A word or formula believed to have magic power.
    A bewitched state or trance.

  • Reply
    August 27, 2019 at 6:24 am

    I am not sure this is a good thing, but first thing what came to mind was when one casts a spell. Another which would in the spelling category is a less common expression for winning which is “that spells victory.” Early morning seems the best time to study your post for a “spell” before the mind gets all cluttered up with events of the day.
    I love your picture today of a simple potato. I love how some of your pictures take everyday things and make them special. A gardener can truly appreciate a picture of a freshly dug potato still covered with soil. I still have voluntary potatoes growing where I had my compost pile, and each year as I dig them they seem like a true gift from nature.

  • Reply
    Trent Wren
    August 27, 2019 at 6:10 am

    Spell can mean “to take the place of”, as in “I spelled my brother at the football gate so he could eat”.
    It can also mean a magical spell, cast upon someone or something.

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