Chapter 51

Colorful Language

My Grandmother Bond came from New York state, from what has been called “the burned over region” for the religious fire that burned there, a very different culture from the more easy gong West Virginia culture. She had many unusual sayings. These are a few that she used, but they may not all have originated in New York.

  1. Two heads are better than one, even if one is a sheep’s head. (Sheep were considered very stupid, so this had a depreciating connotation for who ever was the “second head.”)
  2. It takes three generations to make a fortune, and one to spend it.
  3. “black as Toby’s hat”
  4. “queer as Dick’s hatband”
  5. (To a pouting child) “Let me borrow your lower lip to build a chicken house on.”
  6. A lot of the humor was a strained use of an obscure word, something a knowledgeable person would understand, but unintelligible to the uninitiated. For example, my grandfather, T. M. Bond, used to delight in telling people he was “five feet thirteen inches tall.” He often got the reply, “Why, I thought you would be six feet, at least,” which made him laugh. He would also ask, “How are the ill and afflicted?” Another phrase he would use, which I think came from New York state, was “Are you traveling or going some place.”
  7. Back to Grandma: “Three moves is equal to a fire.” Moving in those days was by farm wagon, over unimproved roads.
  8. “poor as a church mouse” This is a play on words. “Poor” is an old word for “thin.” The idea is that a mouse which lived in a church would have no food. By my day, thin cattle were sometimes referred to as poor, but never people. Poor describing people meant absence of wealth, just as it does today.
  9. “down little red lane” Disappearance of food own a child’s throat. An affectionate phrase used talking to a child.
  10. Someone’s nose “running like a sugar tree”
  11. “Marry in haste and repent at leisure.”
  12. “When my ship comes in I’m going to…” A fanciful, facetious way of saying “if I had the money I’d …” This doubtless goes back to the time of sailing ships trading all over the world from New England. Sometimes they would be gone for years, or even lost. Grandmother Bond had a grandfather Curtis that lived in Connecticut who made wooden ships. He willed his tools to Dad. Dad kept them in the garage at Aunt Lotta’s house. The box was not locked, and I lost them, one… by… one…by…one.
  13. “He doesn’t like the smell of his own sweat.” He is lazy (at least in manual labor).
  14. “worked like a dog,” meant to work very hard. A reference to working dogs must go back several generations.
  15. Troll, used as a verb. “He trolled the bull into the small lot.” This meant he used salt or sweet feed (made with molasses) to get the animal to move into the smaller lot, without driving it. It was a useful method when one wished to avoid going in the field with the animal because of danger. Or when you wanted to move cattle without help.
  16. In response to the question, “Is today Tuesday?” the standard reply (in our family) was, “Yes, all day long, if it doesn’t rain.”
  17. “One boy is one boy, two boys is half a boy and three boys is no boy at all.” This describes the effectiveness of boys sent to do a job on the farm. The more you send the more they play around.
  18. “There is a place for everyone – even the worst among us can serve as a bad example to the rest.”
  19. “a lazy man’s load” carrying so much it was a strain to carry it all, done to avoid making an additional trip.
  20. “fool tax” This was the cost of making a mistake, a really dumb mistake.
  21. Children like to wear grownup’s shoes. Grandma would say, “Big shoes, where did you find that little girl,” or “Your face is familiar, but your feet ha’m grown entirely out of my recollection.”
  22. “pleasingly plump” was the 1890s description of an attractive woman – and was still around and laughed at in the 1940s when I was a kid. (My mother and both grandmothers fit the description.) “Well thatched ‘ or “well padded” meant the same thing, but was mildly derisive.
  23. When we children would fall down and get dirt in our mouth, Grandma Bond would say, “That’s alright, you have to eat a peck of dirt before you die.”
  24. “The frost is on the pumpkin.” meant it had frosted last night. This doubtless came from New England, where pumpkins were an important staple of the diet at one time.

Grandma Bond was very frugal. She saved string, making balls of it, saved tinfoil from candies, separating the foil from the paper, because a man came around and bought it. She also melted down soap from the remains of soap bars and cut it into bars about the size and shape of the ones you buy at the store.

Everyone knows that with the appearance of electronic and print media, folk songs and oral traditions disappeared. Also family memories beyond two generations disappeared and most colorful language with it. Well edited material aiming for the most efficient transfer of information to a broad audience doesn’t have room for unique and colorful expression. Someone might have to pause and think a moment. (This book doesn’t qualify, my readers are all thoughtful, so I have used some colorful language in places in it.)

Some expressions that were in general circulation when I was a child are:

  1. “Pretty is as pretty does.”
  2. “Beauty is only skin deep.”
  3. “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” (This is from the Bible.)
  4. “So slick a fly wouldn’t land on it.” (A way of saying something was very clean.)
  5. “slick as a whistle” (A whistle was made from willow.  The bark slipped back and forth to modulate the tone. I saw two or three of these as a child, but they were forgotten by the time I was a teenager.)
  6. “crooked as a dog’s hin’ (hind) leg” (This was often used to describe a person’s business ethics.)
  7. Good pasture grass was “so thick a snake couldn’t crawl through it.”
  8. “flat as a pancake”
  9. “hard as a brick” (This often referred to an intransigent person’s head.)
  10. “old as the hills”
  11. “’till the cows come home” ( I suppose this referred to a time cows were kept without fences – in use it was an indefinite, very long time, essentially forever.) “From here to kingdom come,” meant the same thing. “To hell and back” was more uncouth, not used by those with religious pretensions, but meant the same thing.
  12. “quiet as a mouse”
  13. “straight as a ramrod” And another involving the ramrod, “A gun is dangerous without lock, stock or barrel – a man was once known to beat his wife to death with the ramrod.” Kids brought up with a gun in the house (as most were) were trained with this expression. It meant guns were dangerous and unpredictable. And another, “to ramrod [something] through,” meaning to force some social, legal or political process, a derogatory expression.
  14. “Flash in the pan” meant something that generated interest at first, but which did not amount to much in the long run. I understood this also went back to the days of guns that were fired by flint lock.
  15. “Shot his wad” meant someone had used his best argument or had said his piece, ineffectively, and could do no better. This expression referred to the muzzle loader going off after the powder had been put in, and the wad, but not the lead ball. “Cocked and primed” described a flintlock ready to fire but was used in my youth to describe someone ready and anxious to do something they had planned.
  16. “not fit to shoot” doubtless went back to hunting for a living days but was applied to any worthless object.
  17. “more fun than a barrel of monkeys” Monkeyshines were antics performed by children (usually), and “monkeyshiner” was an affectionate pet name for children. Sometimes the term was used to characterize contemptuously the behavior of someone older who should have known better.
  18. “came out the little end of the horn” This refers to the little end of the Horn of Plenty or Cornucopia. It could be applied to financial endeavor or other risk taking which resulted in gradual serious failure, the inverse of the usual idea of the Horn of Plenty.
  19. “It wouldn’t pull the hat off your head.” – describing a vehicle that was not running well.
  20. “It was like a story from the back pages of the almanac.” - describing a series of events during the day, each of which was bad luck.
  21. Sleeping “like a log” meant sleeping very soundly.
  22. “dead as a door nail.” Applied to anything that was surely dead, but also to a battery which had no detectable charge.
  23. “a shrinking violet” Someone who was weak or lacked the aggressiveness to accomplish the job. A “weak sister” was the same, referring to religious conviction.
  24. “… has been eating on (me, him, her).” Some problem has been so serious it is affecting the performance of the person mentioned.
  25. To “stoke” meant to deliberately eat too much, usually because one expected to miss one or more meals or because of stress. To observe someone “ate like (he, she) had a tapeworm,” was more passive, indicating the person had a strong appetite, or was self indulgent.
  26. “See you in the funny papers.” Obviously of relatively recent origin, a facetious good bye.
  27. “It’s a cryin’ shame…” or “It’s a crime that…” Meant, very seriously, “It is too bad that…..”
  28. “If…then I’ll eat my old hat.” An assertion of high strong disbelief on the part of the speaker.
  29. “Snuggies,” “long John’s,” “long-handled underwear” Contemptuous terms for heavy long underwear from which only hands, feet and neck and head protrude. Worn only by older folks or in extreme cold in my time.
  30. To “sweat up a storm” meant to sweat a lot.
  31. When you said someone did such and such to support his habit, you were referring to his drinking habit. I have said, “I only do such and such to support my farming habit,” which laughingly identifies farming as a bad habit. It isn’t uncommon to have farmers disparage farming or talk about it like it was an uncontrollable urge. 
  32. “Am I in time for dinner?” The meals were breakfast, dinner and supper. Dinner was the big meal, and supper was more than soup, in spite of the name. Getting a meal in the days when the cook had to use a wood or coal stove was a big chore. There was no running water and hot water came from a container on the stove. There wasn’t a convenient refrigerator, either, in those days to store the remains of the meal. The left overs went in the slop for the pigs. There were all kinds of subtle innuendoes in this greeting: flattery for the cook (I’d really like to have some of your good food); begging (Aren’t you going to take care of me?); criticism (You’ve cleaned up already!, or You should have expected me!); complaint (I’m starving!); familiarity (I know you’ll take care of me.); and so on, depending on how you said it and what the circumstances were.
  33. “two holer.” An outside toilet (privy) that had two openings for people to sit on. My grandfather and grandmother Kennedy had seven children. They maintained a “three holer.” It was next to the pig pen, but did not have the relation to the pig pen that it would have had in Ancient China. (See above under Pigs, Chapter 15, near the end.) Outdoor toilets were often referred to as “Mrs. Roosevelt’s living room,” or “Mrs. Roosevelt’s parlor,” or some such, because of the emphasis Eleanor Roosevelt had placed on them in the resettlement of the poor in New Deal days. Privies had been pretty primitive once, but by my early years a well designed and equipped one was quite sanitary. It would have had a horizontal wind passage, with a T connection extending vertically down to the pit. This drew the odors out and dispersed them. At the outside wall on both sides there was flyscreen. The toilet would have had a supply of lime to sprinkle on each deposit of solid waste, and the outdated Sears and Roebuck catalog, or a container of corncobs to wipe with. Each “hole” had a cover and everything was sufficiently tight that flies could not get into the pit. Properly constructed privies were written into law for dairies selling milk, residences in populated places, etc.
  34. “skin you alive” A threat of great physical pain, not literal. Apparently the American Indians did this in some cases. It was the equivalent of burning at the stake, a practice of our European forebears, the religious ones, anyway. The unique characteristic of both of these methods was that overwhelming pain could be inflicted over the entire surface of the body at once. (Added later: TheJuly/August 2002 issue of Archaeology mentions that slaves were burned at the stake after the slave revolts in 1712 and 1741 in New York City. So we are not so far from that bestial behavior as we might like to think.) To “take a piece of his skin (or hide)” meant to injure him at the emotional level, and “skinned” as in “I got skinned,” meant to lose money and face on a business deal.
  35. “You can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.” People are more likely to do what you want if you are nice to them.
  36. “… over my checkered apron…” This was a threat to spank a child. “Sassafras tea” was a switching with a thin flexible branch. Spanking meant application of the hand, and paddling was done with a wooden paddle, and was practiced at school, seldom at home. Adolescents sometimes were disciplined with a man’s belt doubled with both ends held in the adult’s hand. Adolescents received corporeal punishment only for open insubordination or very serious infraction of the rules. The usual punishments for them were loss of privileges, negative response to requests for a limited time, social pressure such as being less friendly and attentive.
  37. “homely as a mud fence.” This is an obviously ancient phrase since wattle and daub building has been out of style for several centuries. “Homely” originally meant “home-like,” but since has become an alternate word for “ugly.” The phrase was sometimes applied to persons, but more often to their constructions.
  38. “like pounding sand down a rat hole” was a favorite expression of my mother’s. It meant doing something completely ineffectual to solve a problem. She would say “ ’deed?” (from indeed) to express surprise and dismay.
  39. “don’t stand on ceremony” or “didn’t stand on ceremony” Meant use of direct, simple, forceful language or methods.
  40. To “bend over backwards” meant to go to some considerable length to please someone or to meet some other objective.
  41. To “lose your shirt” meant to lose everything financially. “He would take the shirt off your back” meant someone who would cheat you without mercy.
  42. To “spill the beans” meant to disclose a secret to someone who was not supposed to know it. “Let the cat out of the bag” meant the same thing, but was more serious.
  43. “dirty as homemade sin” may have been used for something else earlier in time, but when I heard it, it simply meant disgustingly dirty, such as a good hat dropped in the mud, a puppy that had played in cow manure (not a rare event), or a good handkerchief that had been used to wipe axle grease. The latter would be an almost total loss, because soap was the only detergent available until after WWII and it was not very effective for many kinds of “dirt.”
  44. A “ripsnorter” meant a person, animal or process that was not dependable, certain to “get off on the wrong track.”
  45. Children were usually referred to as “kids,” but could be called “monkeys,” “indians” or “wild indians,” “my tribe,” “my guys” and so forth. A child accompanying it’s father might affectionately be referred to as “my sidekick,” or “my partner in crime.” One’s extended family was his/her “kith and kin,” or humorously as “my tribe and tribulation.” A child who had a dark tan was “brown as a berry,” and one who talked a lot was a “jabberbox.” Aunt Bert, Elizabeth Kennedy, who taught school, always referred at home to her fourth graders as “itcombittles.” A small child might be addressed as “short stuff,” “shorty,” or “half pint,” an older boy as “kid” or “fellow,” an older girl as “missy” or “sister” (even if she was no relation). “You are getting opinionated in your old age” was a reproof to a three or four year old child who had been too assertive. A very small child or baby might be addressed as “punkin head.” If a child asked for something to eat, a cookie, perhaps, the adult would look him or her straight in the eye and say, “It will make your hair curly,” as if this was a terrible fate. When the child would realize they were being teased, both the child and the adult would laugh. If a child left his/her hat on indoors the adult would say, “Take your hat off and stay a while.” If a small child tumbled, the expression “down went McGillicuty” was used to sympathize.
  46. To say “You’re lookin’ a little peaked.” with emphasis on both “peak” and “ed” meant the person was looking ill.
  47. “Wooly” meant unkempt when applied to a person or farm, and intractable when applied to something that was a problem.
  48. “I need to wet my whistle” meant “I need a drink of water.”
  49. “Hang on to your hats” meant “there are serious bumps in the road ahead.” “Are you still with me?” meant “Those were some pretty bad ones, weren’t they?” and “Whoopsie-doodle!” meant “That was a surprisingly bad bump!” “Whoopsie-Doodle!” was also an expression of surprise, used in other connections.
  50. To “pull one out of his hat” meant to do something unusual and creative. If it was said you’d have to “pull something out of your hat” it was acknowledgement that the solution to some particular problem would require extraordinary creativity or resourcefulness.
  51. “brown as the big road,” was a description of drought conditions. “It was so dry the Baptists were sprinkling and the Methodists were using a damp washcloth,” was another reference to drought. “gnawed to the roots” described a pasture in times of drought.
  52. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” This was my mother’s admonition to her children upon failure at a difficult task. There was a lot of training in optimism for children. It was needed. Her mother, Grandmother Jessie Kennedy, told the story of “The Little Engine That Could.” Going up the hill it said., “ IthinkIcan, IthinkIcan, IthinkIcan.” Going down the other side it said, “IthoughtIcould, IthoughtIcould, IthoughtIcould.” When Grandmother told it, it imitated the sounds of a steam engine.
  53. If we were injured, but not too seriously, Mother would say, “Be a good little soldier.” which meant “have grit,” or “have fortitude.” One precaution I remember quite distinctly was the injunction to be careful about how you put down a rake or pitchfork and to be especially careful about places where there might be a nail sticking up from a board. This was due to the danger of tetanus, then called lockjaw, caused by an anaerobic bacterium entering puncture wounds. It almost invariably caused a particularly horrible death.
  54. My Grandmother Bond advised me a thousand times against whittling toward myself, “always cut away, so you don’t cut yourself. Copperhead snakes (blacksnakes are OK, just don’t corner them), rabid animals, male domestic animals, eating mushrooms and other wild plants without adult supervision, old dug wells, poison ivy, were among the precautions. Strangers weren’t much of a problem. There was much better social order, and kids didn’t see strangers much, so they were naturally more shy. Usually the effort was to get them to be sociable. If a child was too young to do something, such as use the ax, he or she was “too short in the britches.”
  55. “Would you care to partake of the dead cow?” This was my father’s humorous way of asking close friends and extended family to stay for a meal featuring beef. This, too, had been in the family for generations.
  56. “as full of stuff as the Christmas turkey,” meant “that is a contrived story.”
  57. “Simple” had two meanings when applied to people. The soft expression meant the people described were not sophisticated, perhaps lived without conveniences, etc. The harsh expression meant the person was not intelligent or not prudent. When someone said he/she was “bored for the simples,” they were suffering from full-blown ennui.
  58. “I felt like I had been pulled through the wringer backwards.” (Refers to the wringer, two rubber rolls used to press water out of washed clothes, on early washing machines.) This meant someone felt really bad, physically or psychologically, the victim of many bruises and abrasions, rather than a single bad hurt.
  59. “She was crying her eyes out.”
  60. “Worlds,” used as an adjective, meant many. The phrase “I found a world of people in a Chamber” is in a short piece written by John Evelyn in 1645 included in the book “Eye-Witness to History” edited by John Carey. This is exactly as it was used when I was a child, so it had been in idiomatic use in the English language for over 300 years.
  61. If someone “drank like a fish” the expression meant he drank (alcohol) constantly. A fish always has its mouth open.
  62. My father would say “Thank you, until you’re better paid!” to someone he was buying from on credit (someone who knew him well). When I got to negotiating with Dad about work I was to do, if he said “anything to suit you and make me a quarter,” I was allowed to work out the details. Both of these were used by his father, I am sure, but may have come from Grandmother. My father also told me once, “I don’t have much to give you but good credit, so take care of it!” He was quite serious about it.
  63. “I don’t trust him as far as I could throw a bull by the tail.” Another expression which invoked the largest, most dangerous farm animal was to “take the bull by the horns,” which meant to make a thorough resolve and attack the problem, intention to show initiative.
  64. “pants at half-mast” A problem men with pendulous bellies have: The pants are caught over the buttocks behind, but below the iliac processes (the bony bumps that are part of the pelvis in front, just above the legs), and thus below the belly.
  65. In referring to places, the native West Virginian of my youth invariably made use of up, down or over to designate the position of other locations. Lost Creek was “up to Lost Creek,” and West Milford was “down to West Milford,” because they were at a higher elevation in the watershed and a lower one, respectively. Weston, where we shopped a lot, was “up” and Clarksburg was “down.” When there was a hill or several hills in the way it was “over.” Mt. Clare and Good Hope were over, and so was Philippi. If a location was some distance away, the position on the map determined the use. Morgantown (north) was “up,” Charleston was “down,” and Parkersburg was “over.”
  66. “Too big for (his, her) britches” meant self-important, over reaching, egotistic.
  67. “A stick in the mud” indicated a prude, a person who refused to have fun on moral or personal grounds. As in “She was such a stick-in-the-mud no one kissed her until she was 19 years old”.
  68. “A ring tailed peeler” meant a wild one, uncontrollable, some degree of danger involved for someone. This may have come from the raccoon, an animal that is very intelligent, gets into mischief, and has rings around its tail. One year we had one in the yard at night on a regular basis. It would pull out the Christmas lights and chew on the cord. “A rip snorter” meant the same thing. This expression summons up a wild horse.
  69. “Three sheets in the wind,” meant the individual was so drunk he was not accountable and perhaps was funny. “Drunk as a lord” refers to a lord of the manor and implies a boisterous, rollicking or aggressive drunkenness. “Drunk out of his mind,” or “drunk as a stone,” implied insensibility or unconsciousness.
  70. “Ornery” was one of those useful words with a wide range of meanings. For a teenager (or occasionally an adult) it referred to malicious mischief. For a toddler it meant persistently doing what the child knew was wrong, part of the process of exploring the boundaries of what would be allowed by the parent or other person supervising. Used by one teenager to another of the same sex, or a close friend, it referred to a person of the opposite sex who was persistent in asking for, or taking, sexual liberties. It was a criticism for expected, but mildly condemned behavior. It was also sometimes used as a term of affection, implying independence.
  71. “chompin’ at the bit,” meant impatient. This behavior is observed in nervous or “high strung” horses.
  72. “Tickled to death.” Very pleased. Example: I was tickled to death to learn my daughter was valedictorian.
  73. “Easy kept” originally referred to cattle that stayed in good flesh without eating a lot, but by my youth was also was waggishly used to mean a wife that did not require expensive pretensions.
  74. My grandfather and my father would say “you must have the epizootic” when someone would cough. We all knew that epizootic was an animal epidemic.
  75. "keep body and soul together” was a phrase that meant to barely stay alive (the soul left the body at death). Example: We had just enough food to keep body and soul together that winter.
  76. Some wives were said to “lead [their husbands] around by the nose.” Intractable bulls sometimes had a ring put in the nose, and then were led by a short pole that attached to the ring. (This practice of handling bulls has fallen by the wayside. Some husbands though, still…) “little love lost between them” was a phrase that meant two people or groups didn’t like each other.
  77. “Handy as a pocket in a shirt.”
  78. Finally, a more time-sensitive reference. “Wrong way, Corregan” was used to tell someone that the course he/she had chosen was wrong. This refers to an early aviator by the name of Corregan, one of the first to fly the Atlantic. It was illegal to make the attempt at the time, due to the danger, so when asked why he did it, Corregan said he accidentally flew the wrong way. This was a great joke, and he was afterward called Wrong-way Corregan. I looked this up on the net to see if I could find his first name, and the only reference to him was in a poem, “Love Letter to a P38” (a WWII fighter plane), by a pilot who had flown one, but who had lived in West Virginia in his youth.

Aside Sometimes a person would say, “I’d bet you thought I had fell in.” My family had better English than this ungrammatical statement, but we sometimes jokingly used this rather earthy phrase to apologize for being later than expected. It referred to falling into an outside toilet, the ultimate one-way trip. (A person couldn’t get out by him/her self.)

The Rockford Methodist Church still had an outside toilet when I was a teenager, and one year the Annual Sunday School Convention for Harrison County was held there. Even though we were Seventh Days, our church always participated. Our minister was Rex Zwiebel. He was there with his wife, Juanita, and kids. We were outside at dinner time, and Rex made an emergency call for Dad, who was quite large and strong, to come quick. Shortly the buzz came around that Gretchen, about three, had fallen in the toilet! She was a gorgeous child, light brown hair, round eyes and mouth, every bit as cute as Shirley Temple in her early movie years.

Fortunately the stuff in the pit was rather solid – it had lots of time to dry from one Sunday morning to the next. Dad held Rex’s legs and he went in head first and pulled Gretchen out. I have a vivid picture of that beautiful child sitting on her father’s shoulders, coming down the church yard, covered with stuff, smiling a million dollar smile like she had just had the best adventure, telling everyone “Fell in da pot,” “Fell in da pot,” “Fell in da pot!”

(Illustration 51-1)

A time gone but not forgotten (unknown persons and location)

Copyright © 1998, 2006, 2008, 2011 S. Tom Bond (stombond at