Working to Understand a Special Group of People: Early Rural Americans
GET READY TO LEARN RURAL TERMS
Honestly, I do not know where they started. And honestly, I do not know why they started in the first place. But they started. Early American rural terms of communication. I am not about to dub the people who used these terms as “backwoods” or “hillbilly” people. No. I am only going to deal with the terms that these fine Americans used to communicate with each other and people they would meet.
Some of these rural phrases and terms are humorous. And very intriguing. Some are down-right fun to say. But I wouldn’t advise that you use these terms in 2011 because look at us today--sophisticated, cultured, and ultra-civilized. We wouldn’t dare degrade our self-image and embarrass our friends by letting these rural words and phrases roll of our lips. No sir. We are better than that.
If you can believe this, to look at me today and to see me in my boyhood days around 1961 through 1964, you would swear that I had been transformed in mind and body from the way I talk and write. Back when I was young, seems that everyone talked rural. That was because where I was born and raised was totally-rural and if you did speak correctly, you were cast aside as a person who thought themselves to be better than your rural neighbors. And no one really loves to be cast away.
If pressed for the truth, I would have to concede that I do not actually know where the taproots of these rural words started. I would love to say in the Appalachian Mountain Range where people, (and this is not casting a negative light on them) never attended school, but worked hard from daylight to dark--sometimes six and seven days a week. Who can blame these early Americans for not being so well-spoken as, let’s say, the first Puritans who settled near Winston Salem, North Carolina. The Puritans had educational backgrounds. They knew how to talk correctly. And woe be to any person who lived in the mountain areas who ventured close to the Puritans and tried to talk to them. That meant certain shame and embarrassment for the mountain man or woman.
I noticed that I was a bit off track there and sounding really intelligent and learned and I wanted this to be a story of light-humor that we all could read and have maybe one laugh. Like I said, I was once uneducated, unlearned, and didn’t know how to speak correctly. I’m glad those days are gone, but by the same token, I sometimes miss my carefree boyhood days where my friends and I didn’t put that much stock into whether we spoke correctly or not. We were friends and that was all that mattered.
The first term, or terms, I want to deal with are: Mosey, Stroll, and Saunter.
Just what is the difference between these three terms? How fast does a person go if they are just going to mosey somewhere? I can understand stroll. That’s a moderately-paced walk and then we have saunter. This completely tears my mind to pieces. And early rural hill people and rural valley people would actually say things like: “Wy’ Zeb, me thinks I gonna mosey over to Jim Buckley’s place and chew the fat,” or “Hey, Jim! Did you see Reverend Billy how he sauntered over to that drunkard and give him the what for?”
The rural man easily made his point to Zeb. Zeb, being a rural man himself knew that mosey meant to take one’s time and not get in a hurry to reach your destination. Inside this exchange we see another rural term, “chew the fat,” and no, this is not a literal term. You do not go to someone’s house and ask for fat to chew. You would be laughed out of the hills. “Chewing the fat,” is merely another way to say talk to. Like “shooting the breeze” and “killing time,” these are all synonymous with “chewing the fat.”
Saunter has to mean a spirited trot or fast walk. Obviously the Reverend Billy had a severe moral issue with alcohol and had to tell the drunkard of his wayward ways. Thus, the term, “Give him the what for” came into play there. Now are you understanding how easy it is to understand early rural American lingo?
The word, “thar” was commonly-used as the word, “there.” My grandpa Avery was notorious for using ‘thar’ frequently. “Grandpa, where is your ‘hickory’?” He would wake from his afternoon nap and reply, “Over ‘thar’” and go back to sleep. And did you catch the other cute rural term, ‘hickory’ that I sneaked into my presentation of ‘thar’? Hickory had two meanings in rural America. The first meaning was Hickory trees that were used for firewood, making tables, benches, ax handles and other useful items. The second usage of ‘hickory’ meant a small branch or limb from a sapling that was used to discipline kids. I know first-hand what the second term means. I’ve had my legs covered in red welts and stripes from a hickory. And there was yet another term in my explanation of “thar,” it was the term ‘sapling’ which only means a young tree that has not reached maturity.
My grandpa Avery also used other rural terms like: ‘aggs,’ that meant eggs. “kivers” that stood for covers, or homemade quilts used on beds in the winter. Grandpa also used the term, “bust ye’ wide open,’ when he was angry with me or someone else. Do I really need to explain ‘bust ye’ wide open’? Oh yes, the word ‘ye’ was actually correct. This is an Old English term for ‘you.’ “Ye varmints are in me wine kegs,” was probably an early Scottish term used as a notice or statement to let a neighbor know that his dogs or ‘varmints’ were in his man’s wine cellar. I always loved to sit around, be quiet, and listen to my grandpa and people his age who had came from early rural Alabama. Oh, the things they could say.
“Anergns” stood for onions. “Coal oil” was substituted for kerosene as the rural folks thought that kerosene sounded too uppity. Actually they were accidentally correct in calling kerosene coal oil because that is the base chemistry of this product.
When you wanted to take a pretty, rural girl out on date, you took her to where other rural singles and married people had gathered to have a barn dance. And at this lively event, men could let loose and ‘cut a rug’ which meant that their dancing was so good and graceful, that the man was in danger of cutting a hole in the rug of whatever room he was dancing. And when this young rural man wanted to be alone with his pretty rural girl, they were said to be “sparking’ or “making time” with each other for it might be weeks until they had another chance to visit. And if it was in the cards for this young rural man to fall in love with the pretty rural girl, and proceeded to take her as his bride, then they were getting “hitched” or married to one another as a team to take life as it came. When the couple were expecting a baby, the word, ‘pregnant’ was never spoken in polite circles. The term that the rural ladies used was “in a family way,” that even when they said this, they whispered the term out of decency and respect for the expectant mother.
Children were called “toe heads” and sometimes referred to as “stair steps” if there were more than one child. And when a child acted unruly, the dad usually handed out the punishment to the wayward child by “tanning his hide,” or “putting a knot on his noggin.” Now do see why the rural people could communicate with ease and surety when they talked to one another?
Animals such as dogs, cats, wolves, goats, pigs, horses and mules, were always called “critters” or “varmints” as I said earlier, but I believe that “critters” was used more than “varmints” in early rural America.
I have “had a ball” (meaning: a great time) presenting this story to you, my sophisticated, city dwellers who work in offices and have to wear designer clothes to work. I just hope that in some small way that I have been a source of knowledge for those of you who have always wanted to learn about rural communication, but didn't know who to see or who to ask.
I would say, “farewell,” but I am going to be true to my rural roots and just say,
“Be seein’ ye’”
Before you accuse. Ridicule. Or judge. Rural Americans are as proud of their heritage as the American Indian. Or any treasured immigrant who's hard working family helped to forge our great country.
I used to be of mind to make fun of these rural people. How they talked, survived and existed, but once I stopped, looked at myself and saw how ugly and misguided that "I" had been, then learning about rural American was really an eye-opening experiece for me.
No, we are not perfect. The rural Americans. None of the nationalities who make up the fabric of our country can lay claim to this elevated state. So we have to learn to accept each other for our differences, backgrounds, speech patterns and customs.
Easy as that.