Short Rows:  More about ‘baulk’ – and a bonus word to boot

Published 7:38 pm Friday, September 2, 2022

A Short Rows about farm life 60 to 70 years ago inevitably prompts some readers to react. “I remember that” or “What on earth are you talking about?” are both typical responses.

The column two weeks ago about the month of August (“August offered a short respite for farm kids”) was no exception. The paper hadn’t been in print more than a few hours when longtime reader, friend and occasional language critic Sarah Wright called to say how happy she was that I had written about peanut “baulks.” It had been years, she said, since she had seen the term in that way, and she was delighted to see that piece of rural life preserved.

The next day, another column reader asked the inevitable: “What’s a baulk?”

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Thus, to honor Sarah’s — as well as my — proclivity to preserve a few quaint words from our youth, as well as answer the second reader’s very logical question, following is probably more than you ever wanted to know about the word baulk or, in its more common modern usage, balk.

Balk, or baulk (its alternate spelling, originating in England and found in rural areas years ago), is a pretty versatile word. First, as I used it in the recent column, it refers to the space between two rows of any crop — no matter whether it’s corn, beans, cotton, peanuts or something else. And when doing hand work in a field, you would put your foot in the balk to begin whatever chore was assigned.

You won’t find that precise definition in a dictionary. The closest you’ll come is “a strip of land left unplowed,” and it appears to have come from land separating two fields or fields and woods. As used by farmers of my time — and I suspect many still do — a balk was specifically that space between rows.

In an obscure manner, I suppose that usage can be said to have come from the word’s more general definition, which is to place an obstacle in the way or to hinder or thwart. Likewise, it refers to stop and refuse to go. That was used on the farm as well, and before my time often referred to a contrary mule that would balk, planting all four feet and refusing to move.

Balk is also a baseball term. It refers to a pitcher who suddenly stops rather than following through a pitch. It’s illegal.

Then, there are billiards — not pool. A billiard table, which has no pockets, does have balk lines drawn on the surface. They are used in whatever obscure scoring system billiards involves, but I have better sense than to venture further into that, knowing absolutely nothing about the game.


Other country words

A niece who visited recently said she had always been amused by her grandmother’s (my mother’s) reference to a car “boot” rather than the trunk. She never recalled anyone else using the term. For the record, many people in the country did. It too was a British term, but I couldn’t have told you when or why it originated until her interest prompted me to do some research.

Turns out the term is probably four centuries old, and originally referred to some type of side-facing seats used to transport additional people in public carriages. These devices in some instances were shaped like an oversized boot, and thus the term.

Carriages eventually were designed with more interior seats and the exterior “boot” disappeared. They were replaced by platforms or boxes for storage in the front and back of carriages, but those continued to be referred to as boots. Like many British terms, the “boot” came to this country and was widely used. When carriages gave way to automobiles, the term boot persisted.

The term “boot” declined rapidly when automobiles came along. Early cars carried goods in detachable trunks, fastened to the back of the car with leather straps, and eventually, that gave way to interior rear-compartments and those compartments retained the term “trunk,” which remains today.

During the days of carriages, however, many Americans had continued using the phrase “boot,” and quite naturally, they saw no good reason to call new-fangled storage areas in cars anything else. So, boot persisted for a while among older Americans.

Other word uses were also carried forward from the days of horse drawn to the days of horsepower. People of my parents’ generation were most likely to invite company who drove into the yard in a car to “get down and come in,” just as they would have done when folks had arrived in a carriage or farm wagon. 


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is