Miners use colorful language to get their point across

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho - When it gets too dirty, Lovon Fausett ''mucks out'' his pickup.

When the veteran Silver Valley miner changes jeans, he puts on a new pair of ''diggers.'' And when he wants to get rid of something, he ''gobs'' it.

After 47 years in hard-rock mining, the lingo of the industry rolls off the retired drilling contractor's tongue.

The words are part of a trade language used by miners across the country, especially so in Idaho's Silver Valley.

''In any specialized industry, you develop a specialized language so people can communicate,'' said Bill Mulligan, a professor at Murray State University in Kentucky who edited a dictionary of American industrial terms.

Hard-rock miners, in particular, needed a specific shorthand to identify tools, procedures and places in a mine. In the early days, miners worked by candlelight and couldn't rely on pointing or gestures, Mulligan said.

Fausett was just 16 when he was hired as a ''mucker'' at the Star Mine in Burke. From shoveling rock, he advanced to a ''nipper,'' or errand boy, then to a ''chuck-tender,'' helping miners handle the heavy drills used during the early 1950s.

Many mining terms still in use today come from Cornwall, where tin and copper mining predate the Romans.

In the 1840s, Cornish miners were recruited to work in the hard-rock mines of Michigan. They brought their mining terms with them and spread them to other mining districts as they migrated West, Mulligan said.

''Stope'' is commonly used in the Coeur d'Alene Mining District. It's a Cornish word for a large open space, and refers to an area mined upward. ''Stull,'' a single timber used to support loose rock, is also a Cornish word.

''Cornish, as a spoken language, was pretty much extinct by the 1850s,'' Mulligan said. ''But many Cornish words survive like a trade language.''

Idiomatic expressions survived as well.

Cornish miners said they were ''going to the grass'' as they headed back to the surface at the end of shift. When hard miners refer to the ''back,'' the ''ribs'' and the ''face'' of a mine, they're using other Cornish expressions for the over-hanging rock, the walls, and the end of the opening driven into the rock.

''It's as if you're standing inside a field-dressed dinosaur,'' said John Amonson, executive director of the Wallace District Mining Museum.

American hard-rock miners coined their own phrases in time. The slang was spread by tramp miners, who migrated from mine to mine.

Tourists visiting the Silver Valley find mining lingo so interesting that the mining museum sells a brochure of common terms.

To Mulligan, a history professor who studies changes in the workplace, it's a rich cultural legacy that ties the old world to the new.

Fausett still hears the same words that initiated him into the industry in 1953.

''Drifter, chippy hoist, pimp,'' Fausett said. ''It's all still accepted today.''


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