Hopkins County Folk Lore
Old Talk in Hopkins County and KentuckyBy Contributing Editor, Carolyn Buntin Eveland
If you grew up in Kentucky or anywhere in the south before the 1960's, the following phrases and expressions will most likely be familiar to you. Indeed, even now, quaint colloquialisms and sayings are still in use with new ones being added every day. My suggestion for an intriguing conversation is to find any middle aged or elderly citizen, sit down for a chat, and enjoy the rich language heritage that is fast fading from our society. I find it most important now to preserve our old speech habits for future generations to enjoy and appreciate.
"Chillern" were tucked into bed and drifted off to "fairyland". Fairyland is a good example of how our words today may teach us of our ancestral roots. Fairyland was the common name of the dream state brought to Kentucky by immigrants of Ireland, Scotland and Wales who believed in fairies, elves, and little people.
We owe many of our expressions to our ancient ancestors who left clues of their motherland to us by their speech. Our ancestor's vocabularies were peppered with phrases and words also from England, France, Germany and many Indian tribes who occupied the south centuries before our forefathers came here.
Down through the generations, syllables were dropped and the mispronunciations became standard speech. Some words were invented or combined to explain a tool, situation, or event. From county to county, region to region within the South, the language was personalized and bastardized from the origin of the mother tongue. Thus, it became uniquely ours. . . a southern language of our own.
Early talk in Hopkins County would have been spoken and worded in the following manner: "Now Ma, I'm gittin' up with the chickens (early) as allas (always), but I got a passel (extra) more work to do after that. I need to take myself on down to town for terbacker (tobacco, sometimes called backy) seeds first thing after milkin'. So let's sop (eat as in sop up the gravy) before the feedin' (morning chore of feeding animals) and I can be on my way."
The everyday language of our grandmothers and grandfathers was and is highly descriptive. For instance, a conversation between men then and now, could sound like this: "What in tarnation is he a doin'"? a man might ask, pointing to an individual whose behavior was questionable. "Is he plum bumfuzzled or just whacked in the head"? Another gentleman could answer him with "Shucks, he's just a little tetched. Musta been dropped on his head when he wuz a baby." A further explanation of the antics of the poor man in question could be given by an old saying still around today, "He's been acting that way since Jesus was a corporal". In this manner, the group of men held a serious discussion while "jaw jackin" with a touch of humor.
When parents corrected children one could loudly hear them say the familiar phrase, "I'm gonna beat the livin' tar outta you," or "I'll whip you within an inch of your life." Those were serious threats but rarely carried out. "Close that door, was you raised in a barn" or "wipe them feet, are you a heathern", or "hurry up, get the lead out" were used to intimidate children into obedience. "I'll switch them legs for you good" and the popular, "get out from under my feet" were just a few more of the harmless idioms used to control wayward children. "Crackin' the whip," meant a period of stern discipline was being initiated for the mischievous child.
When we were growing up one of our neighbors constantly threatened her son with "I'm aiming to part your hair with a two by four". Adults and children alike would laugh aloud when Bobbie's mother screeched these words at her son's fleeing back.
Siblings could be heard bashing each other with even more colorful descriptions of bravado. I've heard my older sisters say to each other in the midst of childish disagreements, "I'll knock you into kingdom come" or "I'll kick you to Timbuktu and back again" and "I'll knock your socks off"! Double dog dare you and you're just a yellow-bellied coward were spoken with fierce scowls and pumped up chests. I've often heard the phrase; "you're so ugly, you have to sneak up on a glass just to get a drink of water". How about, "Ah, go stand on your head and gargle cornbread". Now, all smart southern children know that this phrase means to shut up or choke down.
I've heard my elders offer such answers to inquisitions of their health in the following manner:
"Fair to midlin'" - meaning all right, no better no worse.
"Mighty poorly" - ill or sick
"I ain't doing no good" - sick or troubled
"Mighty sprite or pretty good" - very good
"As well as can be expected" - usually if a death or illness had occurred in the family
"Tobble well" - meaning tolerating things well
Greetings that I grew up with are most likely very familiar to southern-born persons even now. Older persons in Hopkins County still greet you with a "howdy", "hidy "or "how do". "How in blue blazes are you" can still be heard every now and then too along with the well used "Mighty proud to meet you."
Words such as "y'all" and "youins" are still used constantly in everyday speech such as "Y'all come back now" and "youins come again". 'Y'all' is most commonly used in the lowlands, while youins has stayed in the mountainous regions although this isn't a perfect rule.
When southern people ask who you are, they not only expect to hear your name, but will invariably want to know, "Now whose daughter are you"? If you were originally from the local area the dialogue would continue with "didn't your daddy used to work" at so and so. They will also ask, always, where it is that you're making your home now, what kind of work do you do, who is your husband or wife and where are they from.
Countless times, usually at the local funeral home in Dawson Springs, I will be introduced to an unknown person and will have no idea who she/he is. It always begins, "So you're one of Glenna's daughters, which one of the three are you?" When told that I am the youngest, the next remark is standard issue. "I'd a knowed you anywhere 'cause you look just like your daddy's people." It seems that a person has to look just like their mother or father and it has to be acknowledged right on the spot. "Now let me see, your daddy Jewell was old Billy Buntin's boy, wasn't he? Knew your daddy well before he died. . . a fine man. Your momma talks about you ever time I see her. Where you livin' at now and how many kids you got"?
Others who are not "used" to our ways might consider the old person just plain nosy. Not so. In Hopkins County, associations are made with your family, not just you. You are an extended part of someone they know or once knew. You are not just a name, but part of a family that connects them to their own past.
A child's activities are still described as "tadpolin" (crawling) "shimmying up a tree", "turning somersets", (somersaults), "frisky", "pert" or "queer natured". A youngster might be referred to if short in stature as "stunted", "stumped", "sawed off" or "liddle biddy" (little bit). The child that experiences a sudden growth spurt is described as "growing like a weed", "shootin' up", "lanky as a willow", or a "tall Tom".
When men and women dated, they were said to be "courting", "smooching", "sparking", or "lovey dovey". If a person had a crush on someone of the opposite sex, they were known to be "sweet on them". Engaged is the common word now used for a couple that are to be married but Kentuckians still know that "being pledged to each other" or "betrothed" has the same meaning. If one speaks of "my intended", it is automatically understood a reference to his/her fiancee is being made.
A person might ask you to come quickly for which a reply of "be there drekly" will be issued. Of course, the proper terminology isn't needed for we all know that person will come directly to us when they can. Another retort could be, "Hold onto your dry goods, I'm coming"! This particular colloquialism probably began in a general store long ago, as dry goods are food staples or supplies.
An utterance used to emote dislike of waiting for something or someone would be said as "I'll still be waitin' when the cows come home, "slow as molasses", "slow as Job's turkey", and the favorite, "slow as all get out."
If an individual is observed to be in a hurry, it could be said that "he's hot footin' it", "high tailin' it", or "flyin' low". The term "they ain't leaving no tracks" also applies here as well. The above descriptions could also denote a person who was "running from the law".
Women cleaned the "winders" or "winder panes" of their homes, "stoked the fire", "wore size mejum" instead of medium, wore "shimmys" or "petticoats" instead of slips, whispered about "bosoms", not breasts, to their "female companions", and becoming pregnant as being in the "family way". They spoke of "the witter women" in the community whose husbands had died, and the "witter men" who had been left alone through the death of their wives.
A woman's house could be said to be "filthy as a dishpan, jumbled up, dirty as a dishrag, unfittin' for company" and the harshest of them all, a "pig pen". Then again the house could be mentioned as "clean as snow", "clean enough to eat off'n the floors", or "company ready."
Behavior indicating nervousness or insanity was talked about as "losin' his marbles", "itchy", "comin' undone", "crazy as a bedbug", "loony as a bird", "headed for the crazy house", "no sense atall", "stretched out", "wal-eyed", which I'm pretty sure indicates a person is wild-eyed, or "dingy as a brickbat". I've often wondered what a brickbat is and have never fully understood the word.
Men who were either strong or uncaring were described in much the same words. "Solid as a brick", "tough as nails", "strong like Job", "mean hearted", "stout hearted", "rock of Gibraltar" or "God fearin", "ornery" and "stubborn as a mule" could all be used depending on which adjective explained his behavior best.
Our speech today in most southern states, especially in the mountainous and rural regions, is still peppered with idioms handed down through countless generations.
Our spoken words from Virginia, to Mississippi, Louisiana to the Carolina's, Texas to Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia, and West Virginia. . . even with the additions of accents and local dialects, remains virtually southern. Even now, it is our own unique pronunciations and terminologies that make us most extraordinary. No where else in the world is the English language spoken as we speak it in the South. Our talk is historically valuable and at the same time golden and colorful, playful and humorous, incredibly descriptive and musical.
I for one am proud of my Kentucky roots. I think everyone who is Southern should strive to keep our legacy alive. Just think, if all the boring lectures we've been subjected to in our lifetime could have been given "southern style", we might have stayed awake!
Copyright © 2000 by Carolyn Buntin Eveland
Nancy Trice, © 2000