Friday, August 28, 2009


Words and Phrases from the Hill Country

by Terry Thornton

Today continues a twenty-two part series of words and phrases with Hill Country examples. Each week this space will be devoted to Southern Expressions That Will Take The Rag Off the Bush.

This series is dedicated to the anonymous reader of Hill Country who left a comment on one of my other articles about southern words and expressions. Anon exclaimed that the article "just takes the rag off the bush." The comment tickled me but good. In fact, I'd never heard that expression so I had to do some quick reading to determine if I'd been complimented or if I'd been insulted.

After discovering that "to take the rag off the bush" is a perfectly good old-timey compliment, I am using this expression for the title of this series. I hope these articles will capture the full meaning of the phrase "to surpass; to beat all" and maybe this series will be so good that it will also "snatch the bush right up out of the ground, roots, and all."

Here are some words and expressions you may wish to work into your conversations this week. Impress your friends and family --- and, at the same time, help keep these old sayings alive.

A coon's age: It's so good to see you; I haven't seen you in a coon's age (a very long time).

Back log: Build your fire in front of a big back log (large log placed in back of chimney).

Branch: I fell into McKinney Branch and got all wet (little stream; a small creek; a brook).

Cattycornered: That pretty gal sat cattycornered from me at the church social over at Sipsey Fork (diagonally opposite or across from).

Contraption: I'm still learning to drive the new contraption I bought this Spring. It tells me when to make a turn if I program it properly (a device; a clever plan).

Drummer: It was an exciting time in the Hills when the drummer man made his rounds (a commercial traveler; forerunner of the "rolling store").

Fotched-up: I was fotched-up in Parham (brought up or "raised"). The first time I encountered this wonderfully descriptive phrase was at Dave Tabler's excellent article "Kentucky's Fotched-on Women" at his blog APPALACHIAN HISTORY. Read Dave's account of a differing meaning for fotched.

Grinning the bark off a tree: The photographs of Ginger's two boys at her excellent site, Deep Fried Kudzu, makes me think that either one of them could grin the bark off a tree --- that little one especially. Ginger's boys grin as if they know just how to do it. Grinning the bark off a tree is attributed by various sources to Davy Crockett --- who was one more teller of tall tales. He said he could grin the bark off a tree if need be!

There are other "tree bark" expressions still heard frequently in the Hill Country: "As tight as the bark on a hickory tree" (meaning stingy or very tight with spending money or something that holds on tightly) and "As slick as a peeled sapling" (meaning slick indeed. Most saplings extrude a sap when debarked and on some small trees, the sap is very slick). But to grin the bark off a tree is the tree bark expression I like best.

Indian file: Playing follow-the-leader, we went Indian file down the path and over the foot-log (single file).

Monongahela: "I fear I'll never get to sip on good Monongahela again," said Grandpa as he emptied the last of his jugs of "back home" whiskey he had moved with him to Hill Country (American whiskey; originally named for whiskey made on the Monongahela River which runs north out of West Virginia through Pennsylvania).

Out of kilter: My old truck went out of kilter with me ten miles from home (out of order).

Rose-fever: This fall I hope I don't get rose-fever (hay-fever). I don't know when rose-fever was dropped in favor of hay-fever --- but it is a lovely old expression to use when you wish to "put on airs."

Slat-bottomed: "Hand me one of the slat-bottomed chairs please." Although all Hill Country folks know about chairs and slats, the late author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896 - 1953) described one of her characters as being a "slat-bottomed woman." I'm still not quiet sure how a slat-bottomed woman would appear --- but I'm a'thinkin' on it!

To have a history: Her forward ways made us think that perhaps she had a history(background less than favorable).

This is it for today's list of words and phrases. It won't be a coon's age before I return with some more words and expressions --- so hang in there. I'm off to figure out how hot it must be to be as hot as Paula Deen who said on her television show, "I'm as hot as a fat girl writing her first love letter."


Terry Thornton is a retired college administrator and former Amory Middle School principal who resides in Fulton. He can be contacted by email at



Dave Tabler said...

Terry, thanks so much for doing the legwork on the origins of these phrases.

I find no matter how long I investigate all the delightful regional idioms out there, there's always one that comes up, taps me on the shoulder, and catches me by complete surprise.

My dad was talking with a Kentucky friend of his several months back, and they agreed that the content of one of the church programs they'd recently attended was a real "Duke's Mixture."

That sent me on an interesting research trek; if you haven't heard this phrase it harks back to a turn of the century chewing tobacco product named after Washington Duke, founder of the American Tobacco Co. (today known as Fortune Brands).

Seems this brand was American Tobacco's cheapo brand, and was derided by consumers, who assumed the company used 'filler' lots of tobacco to manufacture the product. Hence the term "Duke's Mixture" came to mean a hodge-podge of something.

Terry Thornton said...

Dave, Thanks for the "Duke's Mixture" --- I probably chewed some of AmTobCo cheaper chews back in the 1940s (yes, I chewed tobacco on occasion as a very young lad --- whenever I could sneak it!) and didn't know I was gagging on the taste of Mr. Duke's mixture. LOL!

Isn't it fun, however, when a new-to-you idiom catches you by surprise? That was the case with "don't that just take the rag off the bush" which inspired this series.

The "hootie hoo" (used on the Andy Griffith show as the special greeting among lodge brothers) is one I'm trying to research. It has become a modern slang term --- but I think it has much earlier use in the Southern hills. My older son uses hootie hoo along the lines of "hodge-podge" which of course gets us back to "Duke's Mixture."

Terry Thornton
Fulton, Mississippi