Fall is upon us, which means that the term “leaf-peeper” is currently gracing newspaper sections, iPhone apps, half-marathons, and concert series from Boston to Burlington, Vt., and far beyond. 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.' "
Of course, New England isn't the only place with words for people "from away" (as you'd say in Maine) in the Dictionary of American Regional English. "Outlander" is more common east of the Mississippi. The dictionary quotes Mark Twain from Harper's Weekly in 1904, "One relative or neighbor mixed up in a scandal is more interesting than a whole Sodom and Gomorrah of outlanders gone rotten." "Yankee," obviously, means the most when you're south of the Mason-Dixon line. Various islands, including Nantucket and Block Island, talk about their "off-islanders." Hawaii has "haoles," with its racial subtext, and Alaska has "cheechakos," for "newcomers," from the Chinook language. In Vermont, apart from "leaf-peepers," there's also "flatlander" — a derogatory term for a nonnative, or someone from the nonmountainous southern part of the state or from southern New England (it pops up in Maine and New Hampshire as well).
"Leaf-peepers," used within New England, began with some of the negative connotations of these other words. But once it went national — you can be a leaf-peeper in North Carolina, California, or even Paris — it became more neutral. With leaf-peeping now huge business, even in New England it's become a gentler term, more often used to attract tourists, through initiatives like "leaf-peeper tours," "leaf peeper rides," and so on, than to make fun of them. Today's leaf-peepers are very unlikely to be accused of importing rats.
Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.