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Dumber Than a Bag of Hammers

Updated on January 4, 2010

Think of this as some of the "leftovers" to another article dealing with interesting phrases in the South (See Eating Corn on the Cob Through a Picket Fence). I have lived my entire life south of the Mason Dixon Line and east of the Mississippi River and have enjoyed the phrases that are a way of life in this area. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. I would love to hear any that you have as well! I have only included phrases in the list that I have actually heard being used as they were meant to by people native to the South.

All the bells and whistles - When you have something that has EVERYTHING. Cars are perfect for this. A car with all the bells and whistles has every add-on available. Example: "Here comes Hubert in his new car. That vehicle of his came with all the bells and whistles."

Bag of hammers - This comment is made when you are indicating the level of someone's intelligence being very low. Example: "There goes Scott. I swear but I think he is dumber than a bag of hammers." You can also use "box of rocks". The weirdest one I have heard along these lines is "he's about as sharp as a sack of wet mice". I would really like to know if anyone else has heard this one!

Barking up the wrong tree - This has to do with using dogs to hunt - especially raccoons. You send the dogs out to flush out any potential targets which eventually end up trapped in a tree. The dogs settle in at the base of the tree and howl, allowing you to find them and the prey. However, raccoons are smart little critters and they can sometimes cross over to another tree using upper branches which means at that point, the dogs are "barking up the wrong tree". When used for something besides hunting, it means you think the wrong option was chosen when posed with a multiple choice decision. Example: "Mary thinks that Paul dipped her pigtail in the ink well. She's barking up the wrong tree because it was actually Peter."

Beat the tar out of - Another way of saying you are going to beat someone. Example: "Billy broke one of my new dishes. I am going home and beat the tar out of that boy!" I have always thought this related to beating the "devil" or evil out of someone so they would behave (see "Tarnation").

Beat like a rented mule - Used to describe any situation where the results were one sided or someone gettin' a whoopin'. Take for example in football: "Did you see last night's scores? Doyle beat South-Young like a rented mule! It was 44-7." You may have heard the punch line "it's a rental" which refers to how people treat rental cars (or anything else that is rented). I have also heard of someone being beaten "like a red headed stepchild."

Bitten off more than you can chew - You have taken on too much. Example: "Look! Willy has started a fight with Melvin! I think Willy has bitten off more than he can chew!"

Can't see the forest for the trees - You are too close to the details to see the big picture. Example: "Juanita! If you wouldn't spend so much time trying to make that cake look so pretty you might have had the entire dinner ready on time. I swear but you can't see the forest for the trees sometimes!"

Caterwauling - This typically refers to terrible noises coming from animals - most especially being applied to a cat in heat. It can also be used to refer to people as well (see "Couldn't carry a tune..."). Example: "Tarnation! That damn Smith cat is in heat again! Listen to it caterwaulin'!"

Caught with your pants down - Basically this means that you were faced with a situation that you were unprepared for. We can make the assumption here that this started in the days of people having outhouses. Example: "Ole Mr. Smith really surprised me with that pop quiz. He definitely caught me with my pants down."

Chew the fat - Meaning to have a conversation. Example: "Why don't you invite the Griffith family over so we can chew the fat and see how they are doing?"

Coon's age - This is a very general measure of time referring to the lifespan of a raccoon (on average about 2-3 years). It can be any length of time you choose but basically expresses that the length of time is too long. Example: "How have you been, Jimmy! I haven't seen you in a coon's age!"

Couldn't carry a tune in a bucket - You would use this expression to describe someone that does not sing well. Example: "Listen to that caterwaulin' from Ed! He's so tone deaf that he couldn't carry a tune in a bucket!"

Count your chickens before they hatch - I would say most people have heard of this one. It involves having a group of hens that lay eggs and you expect them all to hatch into healthy chicks which might not be the case. Example: "You're making a down payment on a new milk cow before having sold all of your ponies!? Don't count your chickens before they hatch."

Cow peeing on a flat rock - I have heard this expression used when it is pouring down rain. I cannot say that I have ever heard a cow peeing on a flat rock nor to do I aspire to hear this anytime in the future. Example: "That rain is coming down! It sounds like a cow peeing on a flat rock!"

Crotchety - The way I have heard this used typically refers to someone that is temperamental due to old age. Example: "My granddad is getting downright crotchety. He beat the tar out of his dog because it peed on the rug!"

Cut off your nose to spite your face - In doing something spiteful to someone else, you are willing to go do injury or damage to yourself to accomplish it. Example: "I wouldn't mess with Dave. He is so mean he would cut off his nose to spite his face."

Dagnabit - Another of the wonderful Southern expletives here in the middle of the "Bible Belt". I remember being in grade school using expletives of this nature that would allow you to "cuss" like our parents without using a true expletive. Teachers at my grade school kept an ear open for the real thing. You can imagine what "gosh darn it" and "geez" are replacing. (See "sh*t fire for another example). Example: "Dagnabit! I just dropped my teeth into the soup kettle!"

Downright - The best way I can describe this is that someone or something has fulfilled a certain emotional state: you are not halfway there - you are all the way there. See "Crotchety" for an example.

Drawers - Another word for underwear. Example: "Look! I ripped my pants so badly that you can see my drawers."

Fart in church - Typically an indication that something is not a good idea. Example: "I suggested that we change the meeting time from one hour to two hours. That went over like a fart in church!" You can also use "like a lead balloon".

Fell out of the ugly tree - This is a useful phrase when commenting that someone is ugly. Example: "That Russell is so ugly he looks like he fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down!" You can also use "so ugly his mama had to tie a pork chop around his neck to get the dog to play with him". I have also heard, "so ugly they could make a train take a dirt road" and many, many more.

Give me some sugar - Another way of asking for a kiss. I had a favorite aunt that always said this when she was leaving after a visit. Example: "I'm going home now. Give me some sugar."

Go to hell - This is a popular way to express your displeasure with someone and in the South we had some pat answers to it. Example (Some tells you to "go to hell" and you would reply): "I did and your mama told me to get off your back porch." You could also use, "I did and your mama told me to get out of your room." Or your house - You get the idea.

Going to hell in a handbasket - This phrase is a perfect way to remark about something going downhill fast. Example: "Look at all those ugly condos they built in the middle of that beautiful piece of land. That area is going to hell in a handbasket."

Half cocked - Like a pistol. It means unprepared. Example: "Don't run off half cocked. You need to do your homework before you buy a car with all the bells and whistles."

Have a dog in that fight - This phrase is used to express the fact that you have no business in a particular event. This saying has probably grown in popularity ever since the Michael Vick debacle. Example: "Joe! You butt out of Matilda's business! You don't have a dog in that fight!"

Heebie jeebies - In the South, this refers to someone or something that makes you uncomfortable. Example: "Fred gives me the heebie jeebies." I have heard this also used when referring to a person that gets the "shakes" from drinking too much.

Hog tied - This can indicate that you are unable to proceed any further. Example: "I think I need to talk to a manager. The sales reps have me hog tied when it comes to getting answers."

Hogwash - This word indicates that what someone has told you is a lie. You can imagine how delightful hogwash can be. Example: "I don't believe for a minute that Priscilla can afford a new vehicle with all the bells and whistles. That's a bunch of hogwash."

If wishes and buts were candy and nuts... - The entire phrase ends with, "my, what a fine Christmas it would be!" This phrase is used to take aim at excuses - i.e., the things you wish you had done but... Most people understand this phrase by only saying the first line. Example: "Too bad I never made it big in country music. Oh well, if wishes and buts..."

Johnny-on-the-spot - This refers to someone that is eager to do something. Example: "Romina was the first person to come up front when they asked for volunteers. She was Johnny-on-the-spot."

Jumpin' Jehozephat - A Southern expression of surprise or disbelief. I know there has to be a good story behind this but I don't know what it is. Example: "Jumpin' Jehozephat! What does it take to get this mule out of the barn?!"

Mountain out of a molehill - You would use this phrase to tell someone that they have taken a fairly small issue and blown it out of proportion. Example: "Lilly, you have made a mountain out of a molehill about this small issue!"

Ornery - Someone or something that is very uncooperative, stubborn, or mean. Example: "I don't ever go around Phil anymore. He has become downright ornery."

Puppies fighting in a sack - This is used to make comment on someone's backside as they are walking. I have heard it used for attractive and not-so-attractive backsides. Example: "Would you look at Gladys' rear end? It looks like two puppies fighting in a potato sack." I have heard ruck sack, burlap bag and pillowcase used in place of potato sack (which typically comes out as "tater" sack).

Riled - Another way to say you are angry or you made someone angry. Example: "Now Brooksie! Don't you go and get me riled!" You can also say "riled up".

Rode like a new pony - This basically indicates that you rode something to excess. Example: "Wolfie got a new bike and he rode it like a new pony." It can also refer to picking on someone unmercifully. Example: "Ralph tripped and fell in the mud and his classmates rode him like a new pony about his clumsiness."

Ruffled her (his) feathers - This means to make someone angry. Example: "You should never have said that to Sue Ellen. You ruffled her feathers!"

Sh*t fire (and burn the matches) - A favorite southern expletive. People typically only use the first two words but I have heard the entire phrase used - especially when there is an audience. There is a weird tradition that I have only seen in the South where people will go to the bathroom (in a serious way) and light a match afterwards thinking it will kill the smell. To me it just smells like burnt crap but I am assuming that maybe this is where this came from. A kinder, gentler version (said at grade school) of this is "shoot far" or "shoot fire". Example: "Shoot fire and burn the matches, Ellen! I swear but you would cut off your nose to spite your face!"

Sitting like a knot on a log - You are impersonating an inanimate object. Used mostly by parents trying to implore a child to action. Example: "Stop sitting there like a knot on a log! Get outside and play!"

Sore tailed cat - This typically refers to someone that is grouchy. Example: "Joey is grouchier than a sore tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs."

Strut your stuff - This pertains to a rooster walking proudly around the barnyard. Pertaining to humans, it means to show off a talent the best way possible. Example: "Jessie - Get up there to the microphone and strut your stuff."

Tall drink of water - This phrase is used to describe someone that is quite tall. Example: "Will you look at that girl. She sure is a tall drink of water!"

Tarnation - This word is generally thought of as being similar to "damnation" and is used to express disbelief or amazement. Typically occurs as "What in tarnation!" Example: "What in tarnation! Jenny has done gone and run off with Homer!"

Teats on a boar hog - A great phrase to express your feelings about someone or something's lack of usefulness. Example: "Adding pepper to that already spicy recipe is about as useful as putting teats on a boar hog." I have heard many derivatives of this phrase.

That dog will hunt - A saying used to express that something will work or is appealing to you. Example: "You are willing to split gas with me if we take my boat out to fish? That dog will hunt!" If you want to be truly Southern, it is said, "That dog'll hunt!"

Three sheets to the wind - This relates to someone that has had too much to drink. Example: "Jeffery is walking kind of funny. He must be three sheets to the wind."

Two peas in a pod - Two things that are very similar. This is used particularly to refer to people and almost always in the negative. Example: "Look at Felicity letting her drawers show! And Hermione is just like her! They are two peas in a pod!"

Water off a duck's back - You did something that had no effect, referring to how a duck's feathers shed water. Example: "Putting fertilizer on the bare spots in your yard won't do you any good. It will be like water off a duck's back."

What goes around comes around - This phrase is typically used when you want to highlight someone's bad behavior coming back to hurt them in some way. I've always thought this saying had its roots in the "Golden Rule" ("do unto others..."). Example: "Al was so mean as a child! Now that he is an adult, for some reason children are always mean to him. Oh well - What goes around comes around."

Whistle bit - You are extremely eager to leave work. This relates to a business using a steam whistle to sound shift change. Example: "Zeke's already lined up at the time clock! He is really whistle bit today."

Want some more Southern fried phrases? Try this:

Eating Corn on the Cob Through a Picket Fence


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Excellent page, friend. And a valuable resource for the ESL learner. You left out "Hoot Gibson," as in coming apart at high speed. I built a house fan out of a lawn mower, but when I turned it on it went Hoot Gibson on me.

    • BeyondMax profile image


      6 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Oh, gosh, I had a field trip with that, laughed my head off! Awesome =)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Ha, came across this because I couldn't remember the hammers one... I was thinking "jar of hammers? Box of hammers? Useless as? What was it?" Anyway, this was entertaining, thanks. I grew up in St. Louis (technically not so southern) and I heard many,many of these. I think your definition of "tall drink of water" is a little off... I've always heard it as a way to describe a very good looking, cool man, mostly by women. As in, "That Cary Grant is one cool, tall drink of water."

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Im from sw missouri and know all of these. Also as the crow flys, gravy train on biscuit wheels,drop you like a bad habit, darker than a sack of black cats, colder than a well diggers ass, callin the kettle black. A lot more but you know. Go mizzou in sec!

    • Bryan Robertson profile imageAUTHOR

      Bryan Robertson 

      7 years ago from Tennessee, United States

      Hi, alphagirl - I have heard "smart as a tack" and "lie like a rug" but had not thought of them when I wrote this. I had not heard the chicken with lips (lol). What is funny is that I will start hearing or thinking of these sayings in "clumps" until I get enough to do a hub and that's when I start writing them down. I am hoping another clump starts soon (grin).

    • alphagirl profile image


      7 years ago from USA

      Never heard of the wet mice in a bag..How about smart as a tack?Talking like a chicken with lips!(used when people lie like a rug!

    • Bryan Robertson profile imageAUTHOR

      Bryan Robertson 

      7 years ago from Tennessee, United States

      Thanks, Karen - I read your hub and enjoyed it!

    • Karen Wodke profile image

      Karen Wodke 

      7 years ago from Midwest

      A bag of hammers can be a frightening thing. See my hub about Woody.

      Great article by the way!

    • Bryan Robertson profile imageAUTHOR

      Bryan Robertson 

      8 years ago from Tennessee, United States

      Thanks, Itfawkes and thanks for adding to the list!

    • ltfawkes profile image


      8 years ago from NE Ohio

      Lots of fun. A new one (new to me, anyway) I've been hearing lately is "Drive it like you stole it."

      Good job.

    • Bryan Robertson profile imageAUTHOR

      Bryan Robertson 

      8 years ago from Tennessee, United States

      Thanks Carolina Muscle - I had fun putting it together.

    • carolina muscle profile image

      carolina muscle 

      8 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

      There's some really fun ones in here!!

    • Bryan Robertson profile imageAUTHOR

      Bryan Robertson 

      9 years ago from Tennessee, United States

      Thanks, Mr. Nice - Glad you enjoyed it.

    • Mr Nice profile image

      Mr Nice 

      9 years ago from North America

      Hi Bryan Robertson; Interesting phrases I really enjoyed the hub. Thanks for sharing.....hahaha.

    • Bryan Robertson profile imageAUTHOR

      Bryan Robertson 

      9 years ago from Tennessee, United States

      Hi, Suzie - Being just over the mountain I would say you can appreciate most if not all of these. Thanks!

    • suziecat7 profile image


      9 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Loved this! Thanks for becoming a fan.

    • Bryan Robertson profile imageAUTHOR

      Bryan Robertson 

      10 years ago from Tennessee, United States

      Hi, Brooke - Thanks for the additional examples! Despite having heard them both, I still laughed when I read them.

    • brookeschnaubelt profile image


      10 years ago

      How about "Butter my butt and call me a biscuit?" As in, "Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit, Tennessee actually won a game!!"

      And don't forget the ever-popular "I'm gonna beat you like a red-headed stepchild!"

    • Bryan Robertson profile imageAUTHOR

      Bryan Robertson 

      10 years ago from Tennessee, United States

      Hi, Amanda - I appreciate the comments - I had a lot of fun pulling together the words and phrases. What is even crazier is that while I was compiling the list I would find myself using another phrase or word and then have to quickly write it down before I forgot it. I haven't even touched my mother's vocabulary - she's from Texas! I notice that you are from the UK and would really enjoy seeing a list of your favorite phrases!

      Christoph - I'm glad you enjoyed it and I appreciate your response! I've previously read and enjoyed some of your hubs and should have recognized a fellow Tennessean. Feel free to add to the list of words and phrases! I would love to see what you might add.

    • Christoph Reilly profile image

      Christoph Reilly 

      10 years ago from St. Louis

      As a fellow Tennessean, I love reading this stuff. One of my favorites is "I've got a bone to pick with you," meaning we need to have a serious talk. Great hub!

    • Amanda Severn profile image

      Amanda Severn 

      10 years ago from UK

      Hi Bryan,

      reading your hub took me right back to childhood and the stories of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Great fun!

    • Bryan Robertson profile imageAUTHOR

      Bryan Robertson 

      10 years ago from Tennessee, United States

      Shadesbreath - Thanks for the kind words. I have enjoyed your sense of humor in past hubs and look forward to perusing your entire collection!

    • Shadesbreath profile image


      10 years ago from California

      I love old southern axioms, that was one of my chief attractions to Foghorn Leghorn as a kid. I've heard all of these, or read them, and several varations of them too. I used to call it "collecting" trying to remember them all. This was fun to go through and see some that I'd forgotten.

    • cegainesjr profile image


      10 years ago from No Mans Land


      Love your new hub! I also enjoyed CLICKING on some of your ads!


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