Toboggan: Do You Ride It or Wear It?

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A few years back, my family and I were visiting some friends in New England in the heart of a frigid winter.  The scenery may have been breathtaking, but the chilly wind and frigid Arctic air combined to make simple tasks such as walking outside to get inside a frozen vehicle a miserable experience.

On one such occasion, as we were all bundling up in hopes of surviving a 15-second trek to our awaiting cars, I asked my wife if she knew where I had placed my toboggan.

“Your what?” enquired our baffled hosts.

“My toboggan. I think I put it back into my suitcase,” I answered unwittingly.  My response was instantly met with a barrage of laughter and confusion on their part.

A moment later, my wife was holding my yarn knitted cap in her hands and a half-second afterwards, I was placing it on my head; still, not fully sure of what our Yankee friends had found to be so amusing by my use of the word toboggan.

Though I’ve found that the things we have in common with our northern friends are often far greater than the trivial items which separate us, the truth remains that there remain a countless number of things between our two sub-cultures which are worlds apart: Once I asked a grocery store worker where they kept their Texas Pete and was perplexed when he took me to the frozen food section where boxes of Texas toast was stored… and fruit flavored tea is absolutely not the same as “sweet tea”, regardless of what anyone says!

At first, I simply assumed their laughter was yet another instance of them finding my pronunciation of a commonly used word odd; however, I was soon told something I had never in all my years of living heard before: a toboggan is a sled.

Imagine that.  A toboggan is a sled!

Growing up Appalachian, I’m certainly not above taking part in a good ole fashioned fight.  My dad said that during my early years of life, I’d fight at the drop of a hat… and sometimes I’d be the one drop the hat just so I could fight; however, my mother taught me two things about fighting: First, you need to choose your battles and secondly, don’t ever fight a fight that you’re on the wrong side of.

Choosing one’s battles is certainly good advice and when it comes to linguistics, the battle for App-ah-latch-ah is one that I’ve deemed worthy of my participation, but when it comes to a toboggan being a hat, I’m afraid that this is a fight I’m no longer interested in taking part in — primarily, because they’re right!

After a little bit of research, I learned the word “toboggan” originates from the word “tabagane” which was a French interpretation of a Native American word for a sled. Use of this form of the word was first documented in 1829.

As tobogganing (the practice of sled riding) gained in popularity among the youngsters of New England, so too did the need for warm hats to protect their heads, neck and ears from the blowing snow just inches below their faces — ready to answer this call were a legion of northern mothers who knitted tobogganing hats for their sons and daughters.

In the days that followed the American Civil War, relations between the North and Dixie began gradually improving and soon the two regional cultures began mixing increasingly.

Though there were little opportunities to go tobogganing in South Georgia and along the Virginia shore, the warm knitted tobogganing hats became a much appreciated staple of winter dress.

By the 1920s, in the South, toboggan had become the simplified word for the knitted hats and with each southern generation that followed, this thought was only reinforced.

These days, more and more northern restaurants are catching on and are actually serving real sweet tea and in exchange, we’re enjoying their warm tobogganing caps — not a bad trade, though I’ll never call a sled a toboggan!

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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