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.
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.”)
- It takes three generations to make a fortune, and one to spend it.
as Toby’s hat”
- “queer as Dick’s hatband”
- (To a pouting child) “Let me
borrow your lower lip to build a chicken house on.”
- 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.”
- Back to Grandma: “Three moves is
equal to a fire.” Moving in those days was by farm wagon, over
- “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.
- “down little red lane” Disappearance of food own a child’s
throat. An affectionate phrase used talking to a child.
- Someone’s nose “running like a sugar tree”
- “Marry in haste and repent at leisure.”
- “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.
- “He doesn’t like the smell of his own sweat.” He is
lazy (at least in manual labor).
- “worked like a dog,” meant to work very hard. A reference to
working dogs must go back several generations.
- 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
- In response to the question, “Is
today Tuesday?” the standard reply (in our family) was, “Yes,
all day long, if it doesn’t rain.”
- “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.
- “There is a place for everyone –
even the worst among us can serve as a bad example to the rest.”
- “a lazy man’s load” carrying
so much it was a strain to carry it all, done to avoid making an additional trip.
- “fool tax” This was the cost of
making a mistake, a really dumb mistake.
- 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.”
- “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.
- 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.”
- “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
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.
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.)
expressions that were in general circulation when I was a child are:
- “Pretty is as pretty does.”
- “Beauty is only skin deep.”
- “You can’t make a silk purse out
of a sow’s ear.” (This is from the Bible.)
- “So slick a fly wouldn’t land on
it.” (A way of saying something was very clean.)
- “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
- “crooked as a dog’s hin’
(hind) leg” (This was often used to describe a person’s
- Good pasture grass was “so thick a
snake couldn’t crawl through it.”
- “flat as a pancake”
- “hard as a brick” (This often
referred to an intransigent person’s head.)
- “old as the hills”
- “’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.
- “quiet as a mouse”
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “not fit to shoot” doubtless
went back to hunting for a living days but was applied to any worthless object.
- “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
- “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.
- “It wouldn’t pull the hat off
your head.” – describing a vehicle that was not running well.
- “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.
- Sleeping “like a log” meant
sleeping very soundly.
- “dead as a door nail.” Applied
to anything that was surely dead, but also to a battery which had no detectable charge.
- “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.
has been eating on (me, him,
her).” Some problem has been so serious it is affecting the performance of the person
- 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.
- “See you in the funny papers.”
Obviously of relatively recent origin, a facetious good bye.
- “It’s a cryin’ shame…” or
“It’s a crime that…” Meant, very seriously, “It is too
- “If…then I’ll eat my old
hat.” An assertion of high strong disbelief on the part of the
- “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.
- To “sweat up a storm” meant to
sweat a lot.
- 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
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “don’t stand on ceremony” or
“didn’t stand on ceremony” Meant use of direct, simple,
forceful language or methods.
- To “bend over backwards” meant
to go to some considerable length to please someone or to meet some
- 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.
- 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
- “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.”
- A “ripsnorter” meant a person,
animal or process that was not dependable, certain to “get off on
the wrong track.”
- 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.
- To say “You’re lookin’ a
little peaked.” with emphasis on both “peak” and “ed”
meant the person was looking ill.
- “Wooly” meant unkempt when
applied to a person or farm, and intractable when applied to
something that was a problem.
- “I need to wet my whistle”
meant “I need a drink of water.”
- “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.
- 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.
- “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.
- “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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- “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.
- “as full of stuff as the
Christmas turkey,” meant “that is a contrived story.”
- “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.
- “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.
- “She was crying her eyes out.”
- “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.
- If someone “drank like a fish”
the expression meant he drank (alcohol) constantly. A fish always
has its mouth open.
- 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.
- “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.
- “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.
- 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.”
- “Too big for (his, her) britches”
meant self-important, over reaching, egotistic.
- “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”.
- “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
- “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
- “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.
- “chompin’ at the bit,” meant
impatient. This behavior is observed in nervous or “high strung”
- “Tickled to death.” Very
I was tickled to death to learn my daughter was valedictorian.
- “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.
- My grandfather and my father would
say “you must have the epizootic” when someone would cough. We
all knew that epizootic was an
- "keep body and soul together”
was a phrase that meant to barely stay alive (the soul left the body
We had just enough food to keep body and soul together that winter.
- 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
- “Handy as a pocket in a shirt.”
- 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
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.)
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.
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!”
A time gone but not forgotten (unknown persons and
Copyright © 1998, 2006, 2008, 2011 S. Tom Bond (stombond at hughes.net)