Ghostly fetches and dialect features

This should have gone out at Halloween, but anyway. Based on my regard for Daniel Woodrell I was given a copy of The Cove by Ron Rash, and the recommendation was fully justified: the story is engrossing and poetic, lingering in memory. Set in rural North Carolina, it’s also rich in local dialect, and contains an unusual sense of the word fetch:

There were stories of hunters who’d come into the cove and never been seen again, a place where ghosts and fetches wandered.

I had to look it up to remember it. The American Heritage Dictionary says it’s a ghost, apparition, or doppelgänger, calling it chiefly British, while the OED defines it more narrowly as “the apparition, double, or wraith of a living person”. Its etymology is uncertain, though it may derive from the older compound fetch-life, which referred to a messenger that came to fetch a dying person’s soul.

The first cited appearance of this fetch is in Francis Grose’s Provincial Glossary of 1787, wherein he assigns the word to northern England, but the OED finds no evidence that it was ever in popular use outside Ireland. John and Michael Banim’s later Tales, by the O’Hara Family (1825) is more precise about what the appearance of such an apparition meant:

In Ireland, a Fetch is the supernatural fac-simile of some individual, which comes to insure to its original, a happy longevity, or immediate dissolution: if seen in the morning the one event is predicted; if, in the evening, the other.

The W. B. Yeats–edited Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888) puts it thus: “As in Scotland, the fetch is commonly believed in. If you see the double, or fetch, of a friend in the morning, no ill follows; if at night, he is about to die.” P.W. Joyce may have drawn on these glosses for his entry in English As We Speak It In Ireland (1910):

what the English call a double, a preternatural apparition of a living person, seen usually by some relative or friend. If seen in the morning the person whose fetch it is will have a long and prosperous life: if in the evening the person will soon die.

Other citations in the OED show how the entity manifested: “She believed she had seen his fetch as a forerunner of his death”; “The Earl of Cornwall met the fetch of his friend William Rufus”. The Mask of Reason blog says fetches were common in 18th–19th century folklore, and says one has a central role in The Stray Sod Country, a Patrick McCabe novel I haven’t read.


ron rash the cove book coverThe Cove also has examples of comma splices and the modal+of construction (“might not of”), so I’ve updated my giant collection of comma splices in literature and my post on would of, could of and co. to include these.

For your further linguistic enjoyment, here are lines of dialogue from Ron Rash’s novel that include choice verbings, double modals, multiple negation, and other grammatical delights:

(1) “I don’t notion I’d ever forget hearing that match strike neither.”

(2) “I confidenced them of that,” Slidell said, smiling. “They’ve been of a wary nature since their scare last week.”

(3) “Damn if he don’t look like a bobcat for the spots on him,” Hank said when she finished.

(4) “You might could get that well done before the snow flies.”

(5) “I misdoubt there’s a man alive who’d not have wished for it sometime in his life…”

(6) “The telegram said his lungs is scorched. Hurt his eyes too but he ain’t blinded, and that’s a blessing for there’s many what have been. But he won’t never be the man he was.”

(7) “They’s folks will pay cash money for music handsome as that.”

5 Responses to Ghostly fetches and dialect features

  1. wisewebwoman says:

    I love your collection, Stan. And I had heard about the “fetch” back in the day but only in terms of foreboding a death.


  2. Roger says:

    I’ve heard /might/ used as an adverb:
    “Might you will like to . . . “, ” Might it is time for lunch . . .”
    — as if in place of /maybe/. That was in the Philippines, regional, long ago. The speaker was a teacher, first language Tagalog.

  3. Roger says:

    In “They Drive by Night”, 1940, a character played by Alan Hale, having just seen an all-out fist-fight between George Raft and A.N. Other, says “I used to could fight like that.”

  4. John Cowan says:

    This kind of “old-timey mountain dialect” is, of course, shot through with Scotch-Irish (aka Ulster Scots) influence.

  5. Stan says:

    WWW: I don’t know when I last encountered the word – many years ago anyway. A lot of these old beliefs just weren’t in keeping with Ireland’s sense of itself as a modern nation.

    Roger: Interesting use of might, and “used to could” is a nice construction. My language-acquiring niece has been saying “I can’t able”, which I love. You might also enjoy this post on double modals.

    John: Yes, I ought to’ve mentioned that. The aforelinked post on multiple modals includes the link you sent me to Michael Montgomery’s research into the Scotch-Irish influence on East Tennessee grammar.

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