Thursday, December 3, 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.

As mean as a rooster in a thunder storm: At times when I was five years old I thought my otherwise mild and meek brother could turn as mean as a rooster in a thunder storm (mean indeed). Oh, we had some good fights.

Biddy: The biddy clucked nervously to her brood of children worse than a real hen when a chicken hawk was flying about (old lady; hen).

Cane-brake: Along Splunge Creek are found several thick cane-brakes (cane plants grown in profusion; a thicket of cane).

Clabber: Cold clabber is a treat to drink (sour milk before churning).

Dirt-dauber or Mud-dauber: The dirt-dauber's nest completely blocked the opening to the pipe (mud-wasp).

Fish story: That little kid would tell one fish story after another to his teacher or to his classmates (improbable tale; a cock-and-bull story).

Good as pie: We sat there looking as if we were as good as pie while the teacher tried to figure out who was splatting up the chalkboard with spit balls each time she turned her back (exceptionally good).

Hopping mad: He pulled her pigtails and she got hopping mad (very angry).

Man alive: "Look at the size of that! Man alive! I ain't never seen such a big catfish. Man alive (exclamation)!"

Off color: The only time my father ever slapped me was on the occasion of me telling him an off-color joke when I was less than ten years old (risqué; mildly obscene). Earlier use of the phrase meant "out of sorts." I can attest that my father went off color when I told him that joke. [And as I still remember that joke I recall the red print of his hand on the skin of my leg. At one time it was considered amusing to pose a question and then let the titles of hymns be the answer. And the joke worked best if you could sing the name of the hymn. Kids would amuse themselves for hours at church asking silly questions and then flipping through a hymnal reading answers. One of the older guys sitting around at Thornton Store told the gang the joke and I thought it was funny --- the question is "What did one skirt say to another?" The answer, which I sung loudly to my father was, "Love Lifted Me."]

Pupelo: When in Quincy avoid getting drunk on the pupelo they serve over at the stage stop (distilled cider --- brandy). Note: Actually I've never heard the word pupelo but keep running across it in old word books. And, yes, once at old Quincy brandy was distilled by the barrel for local consumption and for export. Back in the times before the church ladies and parsons took over, the county had stills, saloons, race tracks, and gaming houses. Hill County was the "frontier" and had a lifestyle more like the wild and wooly west so widely written about and presented in the shoot-em-up westerns.

Shoat: Our shoats broke outa the pen but then all came home 'cept one and the one that old rascal had in his feed lot fattening up sure looked like our lost one (a half-grown pig). In the early days of the county, livestock was free ranging and owners used marks to identify their animals. Rustling hogs and cows and horses was always a threat --- and still is.

Take the cake: "Well, don't that just take the cake" (expression of surprise with mild distain)!

Use up: The picture I have of my great-grandmother show her as an old, used-up woman (finished up; worn out).

That is it for today's list of words and phrases. I've got to skedaddle outa here and get busy. Actually, I need to get to the liquor store and buy some pupelo --- I need some peach pupelo for purely medicinal purposes. Next column I'll be back with some more words and expressions to pert you up and to enthuse you into studying more about the words we use.


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


No comments: