My father was an English major and school superintendent so I was carefully trained to speak and write “proper” English. I didn’t realize that I had learned another language in grammar and vocabulary from my family (even my father), friends and classmates. Yes, it is similar to standard English, but it largely is based on a time and culture that has remained largely unchanged since the 17th Century when the early English migrants arrived in America.
Old-time words and expressions came to my attention recently while “binge-watching” the TV show “Outlander”. In the show, characters move between the late 1700’s (before the American and French Revolutions) and the mid- to late 20th century. The story, costumes and language fascinate me. A character said she was feeling “a little bit dauncy”. An expression I had heard from my mother and immediately knew the character was feeling unwell. Then I went to my “Bible” on historic language, “Down in the Holler: A Gallery of Ozark Folk Speech” Published in 1953 by Vance Randolph. It says that “dauncy” meant particular about food in the 15th century. Evidently the term had morphed a little by the time my mother learned it.
The only books I was forbidden to read at the McDonald County Library as a child were the works of Vance Randolph, a famous collector of Ozark folklore and song catcher for the Smithsonian Institution. His books were literal and contained “dirty” words and stories. Consequently, I have collected his writings as an adult. Most of them are out of print and some quite pricey, but I love reading them. A favorite is Randolph married a woman from Pineville and collected a lot of data from local residents, some of whom I remember knowing.
This led me to think about other terms and expressions that had been little changed since the 1600-1700’s that were still commonly used Pineville, Missouri, my hometown when I was growing up. Words and expressions will sometimes leap from my mouth and totally confuse others.
It became painfully clear to me that people on the East Coast were not very tolerant of my quirks of speech. I later found out they called me “Pocahontas” long before Elizabeth Warren was slurred by it. I was late to a meeting one time and apologized by saying “I’m sorry I was out of pocket.” My boss said, “Do you need money?’” I certainly didn’t anticipate that.
Another time when we were invited to stay for dinner, I blurted “You didn’t take us to raise” as part of declining. My friends looked puzzled and asked me. “Who is Ray and why are you upset we didn’t take you to see him?” That required some clarification.
A phrase that still puzzles me is my Mom’s remark “She is silly as Kate Mullin.” I asked who Kate was, but she is lost in time.
As I said earlier, my dad was a school superintendent. That meant certain standards of decorum and language. Conventional swearing was not possible, so he would indicate his wrath by saying things like “thunder and guns” or “confound it”. Different words, but it was clear he was swearing.
Like the Eskimos who had many words to describe snow, we Hillbillies found many ways to describe temperature. Some of my favorites are:
“Cold as kraut”,
“Cold as a well-digger’s (or witch’s) - add appendage of your choice, e.g. elbow,
“Hot as a depot stove”,
“Hotter than 11 bears”.
My co-workers at the University of Minnesota made me a chart of hot and cold words they had heard me say. I was a little embarrassed.
My occasional use of old words and expressions help preserve them in a small way. I enjoy surprising people by saying things like: “I’m sorry to be late, but we went all over hell and half of Georgia to get here.” or “He has enough money to burn a wet mule.” (The latter may be more recent. I have seen it attributed to Huey Long, a Governor of Louisiana in the 1930’s, but it sure is colorful.) or “The judge sat there looking as wise as a tree-full of owls.”
Thank you for following me down the memory lane, that is called “sifoddling along" in the Ozarks.