Photograph by Chris Ford
From The Boston Globe:
Autumn is an economic windfall for New England, as millions of visitors descend waving foliage maps and cameras. There is even a peeper lingo: “peak,” “leaf spotter,” “foliage traffic.” Over the years, as “leaf-peeping” has come to mean just about any search for colorful leaves, some of the eye-rolling embedded in the phrase has waned. The original term is far more ambiguous.
“Leaf-peeker,” peeper’s older sibling, seems to have originated in Vermont in the middle of the last century, according to one interviewee of the Dictionary of American Regional English speaking in the 1980s: “My husband and I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s saying ‘leaf peeker.’ ” The first apparent written record — found with help from Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus — is in a 1963 Bennington Banner headline: “ ‘Leaf-Peeker’ Proves to be Kissin’ Cousin.” The quotes suggest that the word was still unfamiliar to many of the Banner’s readers. By 1967, in an editor’s note about rats invading Bennington’s “unspoiled Vermont village,” the quotes are off: “The creatures were probably stowaways in the car of some leaf peeker from New York.”
“Leaf-peeper” first shows up in the Banner in 1966, in a rhapsodic column, “Thoughts of a Leaf Peeper,” extolling Vermont’s autumnal “carnival riot of color.” Nearby is an editorial supporting a freeway to replace US 7, so that foliage traffic, the worst in remembered history that fall, won’t deter tourists: “A new highway . . . would make it easier and safer for them to get here, and the present road would still be available for those who want to poke along, peaking [sic] at each leaf.” Other locals weren’t as welcoming to these slow-moving “peakers” — the editorial mentions the sign on an “ancient Volkswagen”: “Tourists Go Home!” A 1973 Globe column, sprinkled with what it called Vermont “dialect” terms like “jacked” for poached, describes, mockingly, “Busloads of Golden Agers and other assorted ‘leaf-peepers.’ ”
Cover image by Anthony Quintano