My daddy, a Tennessee farmer, had a number of sayings that have stuck with me to this day. He was a little boy when World War I broke out, living out his life within a one-mile radius in Montgomery County, except for the last three years of his life in south central Kentucky when he went to live near my stepmom’s family.
Throughout his life Daddy relished storytelling, laughing, and just talking to people about experiences and events of the day that stood out. He had a repertoire of sayings that he sprinkled into his language. Here are some that stuck with me and became a part of my vocabulary:
Crooked as a barrel of snakes—Daddy used this saying most often to describe someone whose business dealings were shady, or who was a plain old cheat. Daddy spent most of his adult life buying and selling something—cattle, hogs, chickens, eggs, tobacco, corn, hay, farm supplies, farm equipment, and pick-up trucks. So it was not uncommon for him to come in the house and describe so-and-so as “crooked as a barrel of snakes,” and sometimes more pointed language. Occasionally he would also use this term when a politician was caught using his office to feather his own nest at the expense of the people.
Dry as a bone—Daddy and others in the area used this saying commonly to describe an abnormal degree of thirst, or an empty water jug after a several hours of working in the fields, or a dry creek that normally ran through the cow pasture. In periods of drought, our fields would get dry as a bone.
Top o’ the mornin’—This was an almost universal greeting that Daddy used in the mornings with family and friends. The only other place I remember people using this greeting was on a 2004 trip to Ireland, where it was commonly heard on the streets. Back in Scotland where we were spending several weeks, I asked a few Scots on the streets if this greeting was also common there. They basically said “never” among native Scots, with a touch of disdain in their voices, but it could be heard on the streets of Glasgow where a significant number of the Irish had settled.
Colder than a well digger’s ass—Daddy used this saying to describe blustery winter days on the farm, while many of our friends and neighbors preferred the saying, “Cold enough to freeze the balls off of a brass monkey.” [Incidentally, people from the upper tier of states in the U. S. and from other cold parts of the world may not think Tennessee can be all that cold. However, in the context of the U. S. map, Clarksville, our county seat, is pretty near St. Louis, Missouri, a place often depicted in wintry stories in the news.]
Bled like a stuck hog—Most often Daddy said this in reference to his own wounds on his hands and forearms from doing farm work. His skin tore easily and tended to bleed freely for a time before stopping. The saying was applied pretty often when one of us would get a bad nosebleed. This saying had real meaning for us because we slaughtered our own hogs every year and “hog sticking” was part of the process.
Grinnin’ like a mule eatin’ saw briars—Imagine a mule on a scant pasture in late summer trying to forage off a scrawny, spiny stem with heart-shaped leaves—a saw briar plant. Then imagine how the mule would eat from such a plant, trying to extract the leaves from a stem of briars by delicately holding the stem between his teeth to nip off the leaves while holding his lips as far away from the briars as possible. This toothy image is the basis for this saying, which Daddy would use to describe someone smiling from ear to ear, showing as many teeth as possible.
The best lesson is an expensive lesson—Daddy believed it was easier to ignore mistakes that had no real consequences than it was to ignore those that cost a lot in pain, money, or other notable loss. So if he knew there was a small stump in a pasture and did nothing about it, but later hung the seven-foot long mower blade on it and did $200 worth of damage to the mower, that was an expensive lesson to be remembered.
Rough as a cob—The root of this saying is from the roughness of a dried corncob, after the kernels have been removed, in the very old days before I was born when they were used in outhouses as an alternative to citified toilet paper. There were two contexts in which Daddy used this saying. One was as a descriptor for someone who was unkempt, ill-mannered, crude in language, or lacking in some of the other basic tenets of civility. For example, he often told the story of one of the Rye brothers who attended Baggett’s Chapel School where Daddy got his eight grades of schooling from 1920-1928. This particular brother chewed tobacco at school, and when the juice built up in his mouth he would lift his wrist to his mouth, pull out the cuff of his shirt with one finger, and spit down his sleeve. The other context in which Daddy used “rough as a cob” was to describe a particularly bad cold or other acute malady. For example, he might say after a sleepless night of coughing and congestion, “Last night was rough as a cob!” This example was used interchangeably with another saying that meant the same thing, namely, “I’ve got gallopin’ consumption.”
Got gallopin’ consumption—When any in the family got a terrible cold that we couldn’t easily shake, usually associated with a persistent, deep cough, Daddy would say, “You’ve got gallopin’ consumption.” While in the olden days of tuberculosis this saying was used in clinical reference to TB, it was often used in our family in the context described above to describe a particularly severe cold. He used it interchangeably with “that’s as rough as a cob” and “I’ve got epizootic,” below.
Got epizootic—When Daddy was suffering from a deep cold or upper respiratory symptoms, he’d more likely say, “I’ve got epizootic!” Nearly all my life I thought this was a word he made up because I never heard anyone else use it. Then on a recent national newscast, there was a report about an apparently new and frightening disease afflicting herds of cattle in Africa, and a veterinarian described the situation as a serious epizootic. This sent me to an online dictionary where, sure enough, there was a formal definition of epizootic, namely, “. . . a disease that appears as new cases in a given animal population, during a given period, at a rate that substantially exceeds what is “expected” based on recent experience (i.e. a sharp elevation in the incidence rate).” (Wikipedia) How was it that Daddy, with an eighth grade education, knew this word while I had been an animal science major in college and had never heard of it? I don’t know.
Too big for his britches—This saying was often used to describe people who displayed way more confidence than was warranted by their ability, or people who were just smart asses. More often than I care to remember this is a term Daddy applied to me when my Problem Child tendencies really got under his skin. In no case in my memory was it ever used to describe someone whose pants were too small.
Slow as all get out—Daddy used this saying interchangeably with “slow as molasses in January” to describe an almost painful slowness. Occasionally, or maybe more often than that, he would apply this saying to my brother Nolen Robert and me if we had exhausted ourselves throwing a baseball or shooting baskets before going back to the fields after Daddy’s midday nap. It mystified him that we could exert unlimited energy to play but have practically none left for chopping weeds in a tobacco or cornfield. He had a good point.
Slow as molasses in January—In our part of the country molasses were made in late summer or early fall from mature sorghum plants. Special equipment was required for this–a sorghum mill powered by a mule or by a belt from a gasoline engine–so we usually bought our sorghum molasses (sometimes called sweet sorghum) at farm stands or grocery stores. They were a sweet, thick, dark liquid that we poured on our plates at the end of a meal, usually breakfast, and sopped up with Mother’s amazing hot biscuits made with Martha White flour. In the warm days of October sorghum molasses poured easily, but in January colder temperatures made them stiff and very slow to pour. Hence this saying communicated very clearly to us, especially when Nolen Robert and I were tired from playing ball and moved too slowly to meet Daddy’s expectations.
Most if not all of the above sayings were not original with Daddy, but they were part of him and later of Nolen Robert and me. These sayings can be found online, or in books of American idioms or Southernisms.
When I hear someone else use one of these sayings, I remember Daddy. When I notice myself using one of these sayings, I wonder how many other ways my parents influenced me that I have not yet come to recognize. Tarnation! (That was another saying. Look it up sometime.)
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My thanks to these reviewers of this post: J. Robert Warmbrod, professor emeritus, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio (my graduate adviser from 1969-1971 and a Tennessee native) and Barbara Wilbur, former professor at Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, Tennessee, who is a central figure in my post, “The Infamous Chicken Hunt.” She is also an avid collector of sayings, hundreds of them.