This Speech of Ours


Many of our ancestors lived, at one time or other, in isolated regions of the the Appalachian Mountains. Their forbears had originated in Scotland, Northern Ireland (the "Scotch-Irish"), and from England. Later generations moved west to Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas, while others migrated south and settled in Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana. The "Southern drawl" of the Deep South is well known, but those who settled in the Ozarks were, for the most part, semi-isolated for a hundred hears or more. Away from the mainstream of western movement and the American melting pot of cultures, their descendants retain many characteristics of Elizabethan and older forms of English grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary, long after these forms were discarded elsewhere. It is still possible to hear old-timers say "hit" for "it," "et" for "ate," "rid" for "rode," and "hep," for "help." These, as well as many others, were once forms of "correct" English.

This archaic English helps make an interesting dialect, and when combined with the country humor and imagination of Ozarks area people, it became one of the most colorful in the United States. No longer isolated, the Ozarks speech is rapidly becoming standardized, but if an outsider listens closely, he or she may still hear some of the old terms and phrases.

Following are a few old-time sayings and expressions that our parents and grandparents may have used, and perhaps you use one or two of them as well.

She talks ever which way: Her stories change often.

This thang is plumb whomper-jawed: This thing is out of alignment, or not straight.

Iím between the devil and the deep blue sea: I can't decide what to do.

Give him time and heíll come to his milk: Give him time and he'll come to his senses.

Sheís as common as pigís tracks: She has a bad reputation.

Heís lowerín a snakes belly: He's a very disreputable person.

He wuz grinniní like a jackass in a corn patch: He was pleased, and has a wide grin on his face.

She was madderín an old wet hen: She was very angry.

She wuz rode hard and put away wet: She has had a hard life.

Heís like a dog with a bone: Refers to someone who won't let a subject die.

Heís as busy as a one-eyed man at a burlesque show: He's very busy.

Youíre chasiní rabbits agin: You're exaggerating again.

Lord williní and the creek donít rise: If all goes well.

I do declare...: Really?

Well, I canít dance and itís too wet to plow: I don't have anything else to do.

That dog donít hunt: I don't believe that.

Thatís too much sugar for a dime!: You're exaggerating.

Iím as happy as a pig in slop. I'm very pleased with myself.

Straighten up or Iíll slap you bald-headed!: Behave yourself!

She can talk the leg offení a chair: She is very persuasive.

Her tongue wags at both ends: She tells different stories to different people.

Heís as tight as a frogís hind end: He is very careful how he spends his money.

Sheís heavierín a ton of lard in a molasses can: She's overweight.

Heís mad enough to chew splinters: He is very angry.

Sheís as busy as a stump-tailed cow in fly time: She is very busy, and is concentrating on her task.

Heís so tight heíd skin a tick for its tallow: He is a very conservative with his money.

Itís as cold as a well diggerís hind end: A comment used when it is very cold outside.

Heís too lazy to yell sooey if the hogs wuz eatiní him: He's very lazy.

Itís just a hoot and a holler down the road: It's just a short distance down the road.

If it donít rain itís agoiní to miss a good chance: It looks like it might rain.

Beggars can't be choosers: Be Thankful for anything that you get free.

Don't count your chickens before they hatch: Don't make assumptions.

Don't cut off your nose to spite your face: Think twice about what you're about to do.

Don't let it rattle your bones: Don't let it bother you.

If wishes were horses then beggars would ride: Don't just wish for something, go out and get it.

A new broom always sweeps right: A new thing is always good at first.

He/she is older than dirt: He/she is very old.

His head's wore out two bodies: He looks old for his years.

He's long in the tooth: He is very old.

I'm finer'n frog hair and twice as fluffy: I'm very fine.

I feel like snake shit in a wheel track: I don't feel well at all.

He couldn't fall offen a fence in a windstorm: He's useless!

He's as crooked as a dog's hind-leg: He's dishonest.

He'd rather wait till the cows come home: He's a procrastinator.

It don't make me no never-mind: I don't care.

Could you carry me over there?: I need a ride.

Aincha' got no fetchins' up?:  Didn't anyone teach you manners?

Itsa' comin' down like a cow pissin' on a flat rock: It's raining very hard.

Shit-fire boy, you ainít got the sense of a rock: Dimwitted or slow. This one I remember well; it was my Dad's usual retort when I required a repeat of instructions on some particular task.


Some English words that we take for granted have very interesting sources. For instance:

  • The clink: The name of a prison which was on Clink Street in the Southwark area of London.

  • Black market: In medieval England there were nomadic mercenaries who wandered the countryside, selling their services to the highest bidder. These were hardened fighters who lived solitary lives in the wilderness. They didn't have the luxury of servants to polish their armor and it would oxidize to a blackish hue, and they came to be known as black knights. At local town festivals they would have exhibition jousting matches in which the winner of the fight would win the loser's weapons and armor. The local gentry, softened by the good life, would lose to these black knights. The nomadic knights didn't have much use for an extra set of armor and would sell it back to them immediately after the fight. The losing nobility would be forced to buy back their armor, and thus this after market came to be known as the "Black Market."

  • Son of a gun: After sailors had crossed the Atlantic to the West Indies, they would take the native women on board the ship and have their way with them in between the cannons. Some of the women the sailors left behind would have boys, who were called sons between the guns.

  • Patent leather: After the Patten shoe which the young women wore in the buttery (creamery) in England. When the cream spilled on their shoes, the fat would tend to make the leather shiny.

  • Cut through the red tape: English solicitors (lawyers) kept their clients papers in a file folder tied with red ribbon to prevent the papers from falling out. Of course, when they wanted to get at the papers, they would have to cut through the red tape.

  • Mind your P's and Q's: Ale was served at local taverns in England and Colonial America out of a "tankard" The price paid for a tankard of ale depended on the angle of your elbow... half-way up... you drank a pint, all the way up... you drank a quart. Since the quart cost so much more than the pint, you were warned to "Mind your Ps & Qs."

  • Getting tanked: When someone drank too much out of the above "tankard" it was said that he or she was "tanked." There were serious consequences if one got "tanked" and passed out, for there was a chance that somebody might think that the drinker had actually died. Back then they didn't have experience with taking pulses, and it was possible for a "tanked" person to be buried alive while in a drunken stupor or otherwise comatose.

  • Pitcher: A leather jug treated with tar pitch to help it hold its shape.

  • Wet your whistle: Many years ago in England, pub frequenters had a whistle baked into the rim or handle of their ceramic cups. When they needed a refill, they used to blow the whistle to get some service.

  • Saved by the bell: When our ancestors realized that they were burying a great deal of people before their time had actually come, they came up with a solution. They tied a string onto the "dead" person's hand, buried them, and tied the other end of the string to a bell and then tied it to nearby tree branch. If the person revived enough to ring the bell, their survivors would rush out and dig them up. Hence... "saved by the bell."

  • Getting the short end of the stick: Candles were expensive to make, so often reeds were dipped in tallow and burned instead. When visitors came, it was the custom for guests to make their exit by the time the lights went out. Therefore, if your host didn't want you to stay very long he would give you a "short stick."

  • Burning the candle at both ends: If the host REALLY didn't want his guests to stay very long, he would light "both ends" at the same time!

  • Giving someone the cold shoulder: When someone would wear out their welcome as a house guest, the host would (instead of feeding them a good, warm meal) give their too-long staying guest the worst part of the animal, not warmed, but the "cold shoulder."

  • Getting a square meal: Dinner plates were made of a square piece of wood with a "bowl" carved out to hold the food. It was customary in medieval England to have a perpetual stew always cooking over the fire. The kettle was never actually emptied and cleaned out. New ingredients were simply added to the muck. You always took your square plate with you when you went traveling, thus the "square meal."

  • Clean your plate before you have dessert: The square plate (above) was never washed either. After your daily dose of stew, you wiped your plate clean with a piece of bread. Then you flipped it over which provided a flat surface for your dessert portion (if there was any, that is).

  • Frog in your throat: Medieval physicians believed that the secretions of a frog could cure a cough if they were coated on the inside of the throat of the patient. The frog was placed in the mouth of the sufferer and remained there until the physician decided that the treatment was complete. Ugh!

  • Upper crust: Bread was put, as a raw lump of dough, straight into the bread oven. No bread tin was used; it just sat on the floor of the oven. The oven, heated by the direct flame of the fire in an open fireplace, was very hot at the bottom. When the bread was done baking and taken out to cool, the base of the loaf was overcooked, black, and also dirty, while the top of the loaf was done just right, and still clean. The bottom of the loaf was for the servants to eat, while the upper crust was for the master of the house.

  • Rule of thumb: An old English law declared that a man could not beat his wife with a stick any larger than the diameter of his thumb.

  • Getting your goat: This refers to an old English belief that keeping a goat in the barn would have a calming effect on the cows, hence producing more milk. When one wanted to antagonize/terrorize one's enemy, you would abscond with their goat rendering their milk cows less or non-productive.

  • Honeymoon: It was the accepted practice in Babylonia 4,000 years ago that for a month after the wedding, the bride's father would supply his son-in-law with all the mead he could drink. Mead is a honey beer, and because their calendar was lunar based, this period was called the "honey month" or what we know today as the "honeymoon".