QUESTION: “My sister and I are working on hand-stitching Laura Ingalls Wilder quilts. We are also both reading all the Little House on the Prairie books to get into the whole pioneer frame of mind.
I was surprised to come across the word ‘boughten,’ which Laura uses to describe anything that is store-bought. I looked it up and it is actually a word! (Even though I see my spell-checker doesn’t agree.)
Dictionary.com states that it is a Northern and North Midland U.S. nonstandard word.
I am from Illinois and we never used that word. It’s always been “store-bought” when describing items that were not hand-made.
Do people still use this word today or is it now out of fashion, (as the Little House books were published between 1932 and 1943)? Was it out of fashion even back then yet written into the books as it was a word she may have used as a child and the books are written from her childhood days? Or was it a perfectly acceptable word to use at the time of publishing? (Or now, too, for that matter)? It just sounds so weird and incorrect.” – (Becky Kelly)
ANSWER: This is a really interesting question, Becky, and I love the “Little House on the Prairie” books, so I’m excited to have received it.
The earliest recorded use of “boughten” I could find was 1738. Several sources identify it as a Midwestern word – and it does have that sort of feel to it – but I suspect a better description would be a “homesteader” word.
While the “Little House” books first began publishing in the early 1930s, the first few books were set during Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood in the 1860s in what was essentially the undeveloped wilderness of Wisconsin and Kansas (and later Minnesota). Wisconsin had only been a state at that point for about 20 years (it was entered into the Union in 1848), and Kansas’ statehood was in its infancy (it was admitted into the Union in 1861).
All of that is to say that the books take place in parts of the country were language often took an older and more stratified form. Homesteaders often lived far away from one another, keeping contact and exchange of language to a minimum. Access to formal education wasn’t assured, nor was it necessarily a priority. And finally, many of the homesteaders themselves were from an earlier era: Laura’s father Charles Ingalls was born in 1836, and her paternal grandparents (both of whom appear in at least the first book), were born in 1810 and 1812.
I also have a feeling, admittedly unsubstantiated by my research, that the word “boughten” carried a special meaning in places where almost everything was homemade out of necessity. If I recall the books correctly, the Ingalls had glass window panes they had purchased from a store that they carried around everywhere with them like a treasure. I imagine they probably were, being nearly irreplaceable in the prairie of 1870s Kansas.
What it boils down to is that, no, people were probably not saying “boughten” very often by the 1930s when the books were published, but Laura very likely did hear it often growing up on the prairie. And I’m OK with that. To me, it seems like a very quintessentially Midwestern word.