Appalachia Appalachia Through My Eyes

Appalachia Through My Eyes – Spelling Granny

My life in appalachia - Spelling Granny In The Garden

A few days ago on my Garden Edition of the Appalachian Vocabulary Test more than a few of you were confused by this sentence:  “Mommy had to come out and spell me a while after dinner.”

In Appalachia the word spell has several different meanings.

  1. Of course the most obvious: to say or write out the letters of a word. “Can you spell Mississippi?”
  2. A period of time. “Won’t you stay and visit for a spell before you have to go?”
  3. 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.”
  4. According to the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English spell can also be used to describe a short distance. “The old house that burnt down was just up the creek a spell from here.”

In the sentence “Mommy had to come out and spell me a while after dinner.” I was using spell as a period of time, meaning I was so tired Mommy had to come do my job while I rested for a few minutes.

It is very common in my area of Appalachia (and in my house) to use the word spell in the first three examples.


Appalachia Through My Eyes – A series of photographs from my life in Southern Appalachia.


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  • Reply
    Eldonna Ashley
    July 1, 2016 at 6:56 pm

    I am familiar with all four and grew up hearing them. I probably use some of them now, but seldom do so. I am constantly having to explain what I mean from some of the phrases and words I use. The part of my state I have lived most of my adult life has German influences and my hubs is half German. His career took us north and here we are. We will stay here due to the proximity to our grands.
    I miss down home though, and I miss the language of my youth.

  • Reply
    February 11, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    Just found this site while looking up spelling and pronunciation of Appalachia. Thank you all so much! I’ve got a big ol grin on my face while readin and listnin to all the old songs my mama and daddy (pronounced deady in my youth) used to sing. Since I went and got educated I plum forgot how to tawk.

  • Reply
    April 12, 2012 at 7:12 am

    I’ve heard the word spell in all the ways except in the way you used it. LOL

  • Reply
    April 9, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    No, I’ve heard distance described as a “piece”, as in a far (sometimes pronounced “fur”) piece down the road, but not a spell. Once I used the term “fur piece down the road” to a new boss. He thought I was talking about a coat or hair piece, and kept saying “What!?!” . LOL
    God bless.

  • Reply
    Patty Hall
    April 7, 2012 at 10:27 pm

    I’ve heard it used in all of these ways.

  • Reply
    Gorges Smythe
    April 6, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    I’ve spelled many a person on many a job, but I’ve never heard thye term used as a distance either.

  • Reply
    Suzi Phillips
    April 6, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    All of them are common in my house now & way back in the day when I was a kid too. I was so suprised that people didn’t know what “spelling granny” meant the first time around-I had no idea it was mountain talk, but, then again, you could write a looong book about things I don’t know!

  • Reply
    Jen Y
    April 6, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    Growing up I used all four & so did my family. I don’t hear most of the old meanings anymore.

  • Reply
    susie swanson
    April 6, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    I’ve used them all Tipper…Still do..I haven’t visited your post in a spell but I’m trying to change that..Been busy, hope you’ll forgive me..Be back in a spell..

  • Reply
    April 6, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    I have heard spell used for distance. My grandpa used it a lot to give directions, “go up the road to the brown house; the turn is just a spell beyond.” We also used spell to mean serve as backup safety as in, “will you spell me on this ladder?”

  • Reply
    B. Ruth
    April 6, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    I am so glad you posted this today…As I mentioned in my comment to you before, I figured that was the way you mean’t, using the word for distance/time. etc….I have never used it as “spell me out a while.” All the others we use in a like ways.
    Here’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it, the way I was told by my noggin’……
    Mommy say-ed,”It was a ‘mergency and took us a spell a’gettin’ over thar, we had to go round the mountain a spell ’cause of the ‘slider down,’ that took a spell to move hit over to the other side of the pig-trail that went toewards to grannies, all of sudden-like ‘hit rolled down, ‘hit hit grannies house and made her have a spell, so’s we had to spell a while til the ‘old hermit wormern’ come down from the back holler and relievered her of her ‘nervy spell’ with a ‘backerds slide spell’ that she brung in her little ‘spit-n-spell’ of a poke, since the ‘rock knockers’ that stobbed in the ‘go round mountain’ sign spelt hit wrong and we disrememered the way and hit had been so’a long dry spell since we’d been the backerds way to grannies, now poor old thang, that big old brown, mossy, slippery rock is still a sittin’ on top of the “pissery” behind the house, guess hit’ll be thar quite a spell with the haf-moon door a’hangin’
    and a’sittin’ plum cockeyed!”
    Sorry, the devil made me do it..
    Thanks Tipper

  • Reply
    April 6, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    Kris-I’ve never heard the saying threw a six but maybe someone else has-and they’ll chime in!
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Celebrating and Preserving the
    Culture of Appalachia

  • Reply
    April 6, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    All these uses of “spell” are familiar to me, but I didn’t know even one of the gardening vocabulary terms!

  • Reply
    Karen Larsen
    April 6, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    They all make complete sense to me and I’m not even from there! I have used most of them, too.

  • Reply
    April 6, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    It always surprises me how these words are so distinctly associated with folks in the Appalachian area. I used to spell family members quite often by watching the younger ones. However, my relatives from Ohio never use that term. We also used to giggle when family south of here wanted to carry us home instead of drive us home.
    Thank the Lord for our differences which make us unique, and it would be such a boring world if we all looked and talked the same way.

  • Reply
    April 6, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    I don’t think I’ve heard spell to
    describe a distance either. Here’s
    something for thought: This July
    will have 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays,
    and 5 Sundays. This only happens
    every 823 years. A friend told me
    this and I thought I’d pass it on.
    Enjoying the music player today!

  • Reply
    Janet Smart
    April 6, 2012 at 11:39 am

    Don’t you just love our language, but I bet a foreigner would have a hard time understanding what we were talking about.

  • Reply
    April 6, 2012 at 11:17 am

    i have used the spell me all my life. I’m tired, will you come over and spell me?

  • Reply
    dolores barton
    April 6, 2012 at 10:51 am

    The first three uses, I was familiar with, but the last one – maybe that was a stretch. Humm! I am going to ask my wonderful mountain friends about that one.
    Maybe the Easter Bunny will come and sit a spell with you and bring you some chocolate bunny ears. Enjoy!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    April 6, 2012 at 10:51 am

    Spell is a measure of time. a little spell could be just long enough to catch your breath, a rainy spell could last for weeks.
    Distance is measured in pieces: a little piece, a far piece. Or it can be measured in ways: a little ways, a long ways.
    Cold can be measured is spells or snaps. Heat on the other hand only spells. I can see how this might be confusing to the unenlightened.

  • Reply
    April 6, 2012 at 10:38 am

    Jim-I completely forgot about casting spells!
    You’re right on the mark about the folks who live here-you pretty much have to have Angelic tendencies to be a citizen of Brasstown or at least good at hiding your horns : )
    Blind Pig The Acorn
    Celebrating and Preserving the
    Culture of Appalachia

  • Reply
    Grandma Sallie
    April 6, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Tipper, I have heard it used in the first three, and also used as you had mentioned in your sentence. “Mommy had to come out and spell me after dinner”. My Dad used it in just that way.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    April 6, 2012 at 10:30 am

    Tipper—All four variations or usages are familiar to me, as is something of a variant on the one referring to health. When I was a youngster I occasionally heard dementia described along the lines of “she had a spell which laid holt of her so bad she ain’t never recovered.” Also, there’s a fifth usage involving casting a spell, but maybe there’s so many angelic folks over Brasstown way (never mind their occasional proclivities to catch trout in an unlicensed fashion) that no witch or haint would think of trying to lay a spell on someone in that territory.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    April 6, 2012 at 10:28 am

    Spell’s use as a noun to mean a length (unspecified) of time was quite common in Appalachian North Georgia where I grew up. However, as a verb, spell me–meaning to take my place so I can be relieved from this task for awhile–wasn’t that common. But upon reflection, why not use it in that way? If spell means an unspecified length of time, why not “spell” someone so that the work can go on and the tired one can rest? Makes sense! And after all, our Appalachian way of talking was all about making ourselves understood, and making sense! And speaking of making sense, all you loyal Blind Pig Fans, make the most of Easter, and take a spell to think on its deep meaning and how much hope and joy the Empty Tomb has brought to the world since that first Resurrection Morning! Happy Easter!

  • Reply
    Bob Aufdemberge
    April 6, 2012 at 10:20 am

    All are familiar to me too. My mother used to use “spell” a lot in the sense of temporarily sitting in for someone on a chore or the like. I am often a little surprised at the similarity between Appalachian sayings and those I heard while growing up in Kansas. I suspect it is because most of the settlers of Appalachia were Scot or Scotch-Irish, and my mother was about half of Scottish ancestry. She used such terms as “muckle” which I never did figure out, and sometimes said “Mither” instead of “Mother”.

  • Reply
    April 6, 2012 at 10:17 am

    I have heard and used the first three examples but not the fourth. My girls used to tell me I was the only grown-up that called their Mother ‘Mommy’. Just wait till I tell them!
    Wishing The Blind Pig Gang and all the readers a blessed Easter.

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    April 6, 2012 at 10:14 am

    I have heard spell used in all of those ways, even down here in South Florida, which isn’t really very Southern.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    April 6, 2012 at 10:11 am

    I too have heard all the uses of spell including the one to denote a short distance. As such it’s the opposite of a rarely used measure of distance “a while” as in he lived down the road a while, I think this came from the time needed to cover a distance.

  • Reply
    April 6, 2012 at 9:58 am

    I have heard it in both contexts, time and space/distance, it does seem that here in the mountains those concepts are somewhat synonomous…

  • Reply
    April 6, 2012 at 9:54 am

    I’ve heard it used all of these ways. Not the last one as much.

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    April 6, 2012 at 9:53 am

    All are usages I’ve known. For example, “We don’t get over to Danville much; hit’s quite a spell from here.”

  • Reply
    April 6, 2012 at 9:41 am

    Hi Tipper, yes, a time and distance thing. Sit for a spell, as in a time. Up the road a spell, as in distance which takes time. My Father, bless him, told me quite often in his latter years he “threw a six”. As in board games if you throw a six you have another turn. It was my dad”s way of telling me he had another turn as in he took a turn for the worse, not good. Do you folk use the same term?

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    April 6, 2012 at 9:33 am

    I no how to spel and I like to stop and sit a spell when somebody will spell me but ain’t never heard spell used to describe distance either.
    I missed you early this morning. I guess I beat you up.
    By the way, you got a chaw of baccer on you?

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    April 6, 2012 at 9:23 am

    Yes, I’ve heard it used quite often when giving or receiving directions. “you just go down the road a spell and you’ll see it there by the hardware store”. We use it around here in all the ways you mentioned.

  • Reply
    April 6, 2012 at 9:17 am

    sure, time or distance, same thing.

  • Reply
    Kimberly Burnette
    April 6, 2012 at 9:15 am

    I use “spell” the same way as the first three examples. I have heard and used it the fourth way also, but not very often.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    April 6, 2012 at 9:15 am

    Tipper, I’ve heard the first three a lot. Not sure about hearing the last one. It seems so natural that I think surely I’ve heard it. They are all about creating a space of one kind or another whether time, or distance, except the first one.

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