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Whompy-Jawed Words and Phrases
Here is another in what has now become a series for me (I guess three hubs constitute a series – It started with Eating Corn on the Cob Through a Picket Fence) about uniquely Southern words and phrases. As you might be able to discern, I apply a highly technical approach to the selection of words and phrases (I write them down as I am reminded of them). If you haven’t read my other two hub epistles on language in the South, I will tell you that I have lived my entire life east of the Mississippi River and south of the Mason Dixon Line and have heard many interesting words and phrases that I think are unique to this area. Some of these may possibly have originated elsewhere and worked their way into Dixie (or vice versa) but in my travels across the United States, this batch of “Southern Speak” is still alive and well in the Southeast.
Big House – I have heard this used to refer to the main house on any property that is several acres in size – particularly a farm. You might hear, “Y’all get in the truck. We are going to the Big House.” I have also heard this used to refer to Heaven, God’s House in Heaven or prison (not the local jail).
Also in the South, if we are out somewhere and are returning to our abode, we don’t say we are going home—we say instead that we are “going to the house.”
Broad side of a barn – This is typically used to refer to someone’s prowess with guns or rocks (or anything else that is aimed and fired or thrown). The phrase is, “he/she couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn”.
Broke in – This refers to objects that are “comfortable” or functioning as well as you would like after being very stiff or tight when you first got them. The most common usage I have heard pertains to baseball gloves and shoes. An example might be, “Come on outside and throw with me. I have to get this glove broke in before the big game.” You can also say “broken in”.
To give you a little more information on this (this may be more than you want to know), it was a common practice to rub your baseball glove (or any other leather product) with “neatsfoot oil” which is oil that is rendered from cattle shins and feet (not hooves) to help break it in. It has a unique smell (not unpleasant) and will help soften and preserve leather products. We used to rub our baseball gloves with it to help break them in. We would also put a baseball (or softball) in the pocket of the glove, give it a liberal coating of the oil, and wrap it with rubber bands to help keep the proper shape and preserve the glove’s suppleness during the off-season. I only need to smell this oil (or cut grass) to be transported back to the old diamond.
Chester drawers – This is a slangy way of saying “chest of drawers” which is also called a “dresser”. “Go put your clothes up in your chester drawers.”
Devil’s own time – Used to refer to having a bad time with something as in having lots of problems. “Buford sure is having the devil’s own time getting his car started.”
Dirt nap – Referring to a person that is dead and buried. A way to put this for someone who has passed on would be, “Lamar ain’t coming to pick with us no more. He’s done gone and taken a dirt nap.”
Drunker than Cootie Brown / Drunk as a skunk – Phrases used to indicate someone’s level of inebriation. I heard it said as “Cootie” or “Cooter” but Wikipedia actually has an entry on “Cooter Brown”. An example might be, “Look how James is weaving down the street! He must be drunker than Cootie Brown!”
Everybody and their brother – This refers to a place being crowded, i.e., there are so many people there it looks like people came and brought family with them. I can remember going with my family to popular restaurants in town and we would pull into a restaurant’s already full parking lot and one of my parents would comment, “It looks like everybody and their brother are here!”
My other favorite phrase to describe a place that is full of people is to say that you “can’t stir the people with a stick”. This refers to there being so many people at a place that they will be packed in very tightly. Both of my parents would use it to refer to crowds: “You want to go to the fair tonight? You won’t be able to stir the people with a stick!”
Full as a tick – If you have ever seen a tick full of blood, they are huge—many times their normal size! It is the perfect representation of having eaten too much. An example is, “Naw, mama. No more pecan pie for me! I’m full as a tick!” I’ve also heard it where someone has said they “ate so much they might pop like a tick”. Ticks full of blood will pop spectacularly when stepped on by the way.
Get a switch – Whenever a child needed a spanking, often as not the person spanking would tell the child to “Go get me a switch!” with a switch being a relative thin tree branch or something like it. Of course we kids would bring back some tiny and frail little tendril to lessen the pain on our backsides so parents started adding to it, “and it better be a good one or I’ll go pick it! And you don’t want me picking it!”
God willing and the creek don’t rise – This phrase has two uses: 1) a quick prayer and 2) a way to keep from “jinxing” yourself when you state something. You might hear something like, “God willing and the creek don’t rise, I should have good grades this semester.”
Hell’s half acre – Used to refer to a place of desolation. My mother used to come into my room when I was a teenager and say, “Your room is starting to look like hell’s half acre.” Of course, I heard it used more commonly to refer to any place that had been decimated by a fire, storm, etc.
Hoot and a holler – Believe it or not this is a measure of distance with “hoot” and “holler” being units of measure. In this case a “holler” is a “hollow” or valley and I am not sure of the context for “hoot”. Typically this is used when referring to something being not very far away: “You’re looking for the Smith place? Why, that’s just a hoot and a holler from here.”
Horse is already out of the barn – Used to describe when someone has fixed something but the damage has already been done. Here is an example conversation:
“You put too many hot peppers in the chili and made Ralph sick.”
“Well, I will change my recipe so it won’t happen again.”
“The horse is already out of the barn as far as Ralph is concerned.”
If that don’t beat all – This phrase is typically used as an expression of disbelief mixed with disgust: “If that don’t beat all! I have been telling Joey for three weeks to get his brakes checked and now he’s run into a tree!”
Jaw – Another wonder word for “talk”. An example would be, “Herman! Come over here and jaw with me a while!”
Jerk a knot in your tail – Typically used as a threat against someone as in, “If you do that again, I’m going to jerk a knot in your tail.” The underlying threat here is to warn someone that if they did something they shouldn’t (as in broke a curfew, etc.), they would have their freedoms curtailed.
Jerk some jaws – A phrase to describe going fishing because this refers to setting the hook. “Come on Randy! We need to hurry down to the lake and jerk some jaws while the fish are biting!” The phrase “get a line wet” refers to the same thing and is just as prevalent.
Just as soon shoot you as look at you – I have heard this phrase used to refer to someone that is mean tempered. “I wouldn’t mess with Stan—He’d just as soon shoot you as look at you.”
Leventydozen – I heard this word used to describe any large amount. You might possibly hear, “Lord that woman likes to have babies. She must have leventydozen by now!”
Lower than a snake’s belly – I have this used in two ways: to infer that someone or something is despicable and to make comment on someone’s mental state. An example of a despicable person might be, “Oh, that Rufus is lower than a snake’s belly leaving his wife for that barmaid!” An example of a depressed person might be, “I think that Rufus’ wife is lower than a snake’s belly after he left her.” I have also heard “ant’s knees” used here as well.
Might / might bit / mighty – Either of these words are used in place of “very” to help describe something. One example might be, “Whoa, Mama! You made the iced tea a might sweet today!” This could also be said as, “You made the iced tea a might bit sweet today.” See “whompy-jawed” for an example of “mighty”.
Month of Sundays – This phrase is typically used to loosely define a long period of time and I would guess it got its start by being used to comment on someone’s church attendance. If you saw someone who had been absent from the pews for a while you could say something like, “Well, well! George has come to church! Son, I ain’t seen you in a month of Sundays!” Then George has to come up with a whopper of an excuse. This is also used for any other occasion where you want to emphasize a fairly long period of time to someone. The timeframe in the phrase might look like a month but the context I always took from it was that it meant “too long”.
No skin off my teeth – I have always found this to be a curious phrase and I am not sure where it came from other than perhaps an offshoot of “no skin off my nose”. This is used when some type of action or transaction is about to happen and you want someone to know that it doesn’t bother you or have any consequences for you. “You go ahead and wear that outfit! It’s no skin off my teeth if people make fun of you.”
Not the sharpest knife in the drawer – As you can imagine, this is used to disparage someone’s mental capability as in, “Poor old Fred—he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer.” This doesn’t put a person down at the idiot level but it definitely slides you down the scale toward that.
Old as the hills – Most people know this one and it of course, is used to refer to a person that is quite advanced in age. It would sound something like, “You can’t get Billy Joe to help lift that! He’s old as the hills!” My favorite offshoot of this is to refer to someone as “older than dirt”.
Pert – The best I can tell is that this is the Southernized and shortened version of “pretty” which becomes “perty” in the South. I have heard this used mostly with the word “near” as in “pert near” meaning that something almost happened. An example could be, “Dadblastit, Herb! You pert near blew my head off!”
Plugged Nickel – This word was typically used to describe someone or something as being worthless. I am going to assume that “plugged” refers to the practice of throwing coins in the air and shooting them leaving them unfit for use in a soda machine. It also gets shortened to “plug nickel”. An example could be, “That old horse of mine ain’t worth a plugged nickel.”
Rascal –This term is typically used affectionately but also implies that you admire something sneaky or sly that a person has accomplished. An example might be, “Why that rascal, Fred! He snuck in here and helped himself to another piece of pie right under my nose!”
Scarcer than hen’s teeth – This is used to refer to something that is quite rare or hard to get. An example might be, “Tickets to that football game are going to be scarcer than hen’s teeth.”
Slicker than owl snot – I have heard this used to describe traction / footing or how cool someone or something is. I am sorry to report that I do not know what the actual measure of friction for owl snot is so you will have to find that one on your own. “The temperature went below freezing last night so be careful. The roads are liable to be slicker than owl snot!” “That new car of Pete’s is slicker than owl snot! It has every gadget know to man!”
Spitting image – Used to describe someone as looking exactly like one of their relatives. An example might be, “Here comes Tad! He is the spittin’ image of his daddy.”
Nervous as / sweating like a whore in church – This is used to describe the that fact that you are really nervous or sweating and is, of course, a play off how nervous a lady of the evening might be in a house of worship. “Man! It is so hot out here I’m sweatin’ like a whore in church!” “I’m as nervous as whore in church about my annual raise!”
Talk your arm/leg off – This relates to a person that likes to talk and the effects of their chatter on your person. An example is, “Here comes Frieda! You better run or you’ll be late! You know how she can talk your arm off.”
Varmint – Okay, I know you have heard this in just about every Western movie there is but it really is used in the South. And just like in the movies, it can refer to animals or people. The most common usage is when you are referring to an animal and you can’t tell what it is--like something in your attic: “Listen to that scratching! We have some kind of varmint in the attic!” This can be used interchangeably with “critter” and both carry negative connotations when used to describe an animal or a person.
Whistling Dixie – Used to let someone know that they have said something very true or profound. An example would be, “Ole Joe just came by and said that if the price of gas goes up any more, there will be a lot less people at the next tractor pull. He ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie!”
Whompy-jawed – I am not sure I spelled this correctly. This refers to something not being symmetrical, i.e., it’s crooked. An example might be, “Vern, that new railroad tie fender you put on your pickup truck is looking mighty whompy-jawed.”