The Secret Language of Summer Camp
By Mary McInerney
"Dear Mom and Dad: Greetings from Camp Pinecone. Guess what? Some anklebiters tried to stage a raid but wound up swamping instead. Then, they wanted bug juice for their whole cabin! Tomorrow we're doing high ropes. It's not pulpwood throwing, but what can I say?"
More to the point, what did your camper just say? A letter like this from summer camp means your child has crossed over into a special world that has a language all its own.
Camp-speak is a clubby mix of old military terms, sports lingo and -- especially today -- wilderness words. Even "anklebiters" (the youngest campers) enjoy their "bug juice." Disgusting? Not really, since bug juice is the generic term counselors use for everything from apple juice to Kool Aid. And there's nothing like a big cup of bug juice to wash down a mouthful of "s'mores" -- which, as any Girl Scout can tell you, are a delicious concoction of chocolate, graham crackers and toasted marshmallows that tastes so good you instantly crave some more s'mores. (Get it?)
Like dialects within a language, individual camps have their own pet words or phrases. You won't find "Bean Hole Beans" in any cookbook, but it's a favorite at Challenge Wilderness in Bradford, Vermont, where the kids cook their own meals twice a day over campfires. Bean Hole Beans, explains camp operator Thayer Raines, are simply a pot full of beans that cooks all day long while buried in a hole under hot coals.
Camp-speak has changed over the years, according to Kathy Young of Camp Hilltop in Hancock, New York. With more safety rules, camps have adjusted and the language has too. Old-time panty raids have dropped the "panty" -- hey, no snickering! -- and they are much tamer than anything campers of another generation would remember. In today's more careful environment, campers have to tell their counselors when they are planning a "raid" -- an attack on another cabin (usually containing campers of the opposite sex). Advance warning flies in the face of what an old-time raid was: a surprise, middle-of-the-night attack complete with flashlights, screaming and the spraying of shaving cream and toothpaste all over the place.
"No way that would go over today," said Young. "The whole situation at camp has to be more controlled because you have to be much more concerned about safety." A raid today might mean campers would storm the other cabin, but all of the counselors would know about the nighttime attack. No toothpaste or shaving cream is allowed, and the most that usually happens is that the raiders take shoes from the other cabin's members. "You might find their shoes piled up at the flagpole in the morning," said Young.
The flagpole remains the central meeting place of most camps, and "meeting at the flagpole" has all kinds of significance, whether it's before meals or for a special event. At Camp Hilltop, campers meet there to say good morning, sing a song, say the Pledge of Allegiance or read announcements. Most other camps said they, too, start the day at the flagpole.
At Camp Minihaha -- which means "laughing blue water" -- "swamping" is both a skill and a threat. According to Sally Worth, who owns the camp in West Virginia, the term comes from a water safety course in which campers learn how to swamp -- fill a canoe with water -- and unswamp a canoe.
While camps still have "color wars," games that pit one team or cabin against another, many camps no longer host the contests because they became too competitive.
Parents mystified by camp-speak can often translate some terms without the help of their "anklebiters." Anyone who understands the term "bell hop" should be able to figure out that "hoppers" are the kids designated to take food between kitchen and table in the camp dining hall. Which doesn't explain why a hopper is a "biddy" at Camp Echo Hill on Maryland's Easter Shore. Assistant Director Penny Weintraub says she isn't sure where the term came from, but it has stuck like glue at the camp.
Overnight camps often have foreign counselors on staff, usually young people looking for a summer of fun and adventure in the United States. Challenge Wilderness actually has staff meetings to help European counselors understand highly technical terms -- like bug juice. The meetings also give the director a chance to remind British counselors that common objects often have different names on this side of the Atlantic. For example, the counselor who tells campers to grab their "torches" might get more than he bargained for. He should, it turns out, ask them to bring flashlights.
The growing interest in wilderness camps has expanded the camp-speak vocabulary. "High ropes" may sound like dangling hunks of hemp to the uninitiated, but they are actually intricate obstacle courses in which campers move from tree to tree like circus tightrope walkers (with safety lines, of course). Kids love the other so-called "orphan sports" -- orienteering, rock climbing and kayaking. "We have 'logrolling' and 'pulpwood throwing' here," adds Challenge Wilderness operator Raines.
Remember those cartoons with the lumberjacks spinning their feet like mad on a floating log? Well, that's logrolling. As for pulpwood throwing, it sounds almost medieval. Raines says campers throw a 4- to 6-foot length of wood several inches thick through two upright posts using a "peavay"-- a pike pole with a "cant dog" or hook on the end of it.
At night, Challenge Wilderness campers don't go to cabins. They sleep in "three-sided Adirondack shelters". That's a camp-speak mouthful that makes parents sort of yearn for the days of pup tents.
Camp-speak apparently also has its benefits when the kids go home after a summer at camp. "A lot of times," Raines says, "the kids have fun when they come home from camp because their parents don't have a clue what they're saying."