Friday, August 8, 2008

Folk Phrases

One of my fellow teachers laughed the other day when I mentioned that some incident really “frosted my flakes.” That is just something I say instead of a mildly offensive description of disgust that can begin with “just chaps my . . .” Some things are better left unsaid or rephrased in my estimation.

Mother-in-law has made some comments over the years that just floor me or make me laugh aloud. When asked how she is doing, her reply tickles my funny bone: “Finer than frog’s hair split eight ways with a grubbin’ hoe.” She used to talk about something being as scarce as hen’s teeth. And she was so well off that she felt she was “in high cotton.” Of course, I knew that chicken didn’t have teeth, but never having picked cotton, that one made me stop and think. She was kind enough to explain why some things were not any better than a “tinker’s dam” or no bigger than a “pewter fizzle.” These old sayings were once just as much a part of people’s vocabulary as “show me the money” and “talk to the hand” are now.

Granddad once told me that his mother always had him hide her sewing needles when the gypsies were anywhere in their community because “gypsies will steal a needle from your pocket.” Needles were not an easily obtained commodity in those days. Loss of a needle was a big deal. It made me think of why they used the saying “like looking for a needle in a haystack.” Most floors were covered with straw or hay in early cabins with dirt floors. Imagine losing a needle in all that hay! And imagine the distress of the poor woman who lost her needle.

We may never know the origins of some of the sayings we have heard or used throughout our lives. I once asked my dad why Grandmother used to say, “J Y, you lie” when someone would tell a tall tale expecting us to believe it. Apparently they had a neighbor when dad was young who liked to drink. When they went in to the big city on Saturdays, he would buy TWO pint bottles of whiskey and drain one completely. Then he would take two swallows out of the other. When his wife would catch up with him after her shopping, she would berate him for drinking, and he would show her the pint bottle minus the two swallows and try to convince her that he hadn’t been “drinking.” Melba would exclaim, “J Y, you lie!” So, when our family doesn’t believe someone’s tall tale, we will drawl out, “J Y, you lie!”

In much the same way, our youngest son asked about where he got the saying of “drunker than Cooter Brown.” Apparently that one came from the mother-in-law and someone she knew as a kid. I don’t suppose old Cooter Brown will be a famous as Job—as in “poorer than Job’s turkey.” But most of the younger people I meet lately don’t recognize any reference to the characters of the Bible. Maybe that is why Texas is beginning to teach the Bible as literature and history—so our children will know why David was impressive when he slew Goliath or why Samson was spectacular when he used the jaw bone of an ass.

We used to hear the term “as solemn as a judge.” I wonder how things will change in the next generation. Maybe there will be “as pitifully poor as a politician” or “as criminally inclined as a congressman” or “as hard hearted as an HMO.” We all know the meanings of “gas guzzlers” and “cell phone junkies” or “tree huggers.” Someday we might expect each area of life to have its own little catch phrase: schools will be information stations; banks will be credit repositories/suppositories; motion lotion parlors will provide fuels; and medical facilities will be body shops. Somehow I just can’t imagine one change, however. It will always be Wally World.

1 comment:

Lance said...

"Cattle in the bank and money out west" was always my favorite of my grandmothers.