Okay, Listen Here

Okay, Listen Here

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Wordsmiths: That's What We Are

Lately, I have been thinking of my grandmother (we called her “Bigmama”) and her quaint little words or sayings. As I have grown older, those words have been coming back to me and I realize that I should have listened a lot closer to things she had to say. Born in 1906, she lived through two World Wars, a Depression and living on a farm all her life – yet, she knew many things that common people didn’t know. She was well read and well mannered: a genteel Southern Lady till the end.

Funny thing about genteel Southern Ladies, they have a wicked sense of humor and sometimes a mouth. One of my favorites was when she saw a woman who had an inflated opinion of herself. Bigmama would say she wished she could buy the lady for what she was worth and sell her for what the lady thought she was worth. Then Bigmama would laugh and say, “I’d be a millionaire.” Nuff said about that lady. I use that one frequently when I run across similar “ladies.” Another one was to call the woman (same woman with an inflated opinion of herself) "Mrs. Astorbilt." I never got clued into that one until I got older and learned about the Astors and the Vanderbilts. Bigmama had made a new word up by combining two very wealthy families with high opinions of themselves to describe a conceited woman. She had quite a few sayings, some of them not printable.

The one I only recently learned the meaning of was “karn” (pronounced ke yarn – long e). If there was a bad smell in the room, she would say it smelled like karn. I always thought it was just one of those things she made up. Until…I was watching a documentary on Ireland and the “cairns” – burial places on hills (guess that didn’t smell very good). Bingo! The Irish say it the same way as Bigmama did. So, putting two and two together – Bigmama was using a word her Irish ancestors had taught her. Amazing!

I looked at some other sayings recently; always wanting to learn new things and avoid doing things I should. Here are a few:

Hussy – a corruption of housewife – guess all us married ladies are hussies!

Tawdry – Once a cheap lace was sold on the island of Ely at a fair in honor of St. Audry. It was called St. Audry’s lace. Over time the first two words were run together resulting in tawdry.

Toady – Originally a magician’s assistant who swallowed toads (to show the magician could cure anything – toads were thought to be poisonous). The toady did what it took to please the master.

Window – comes from the term “wind hole” in a castle. The wind hole was a hole in the wall which let in fresh air. Run together, it became window.

Boudoir – from the French bouder meaning to sulk or pout. Women went to their rooms to sulk and pout. Guess we don’t do that any more in our boudoir – we have fun, right?

Swashbuckler – (In honor of Kathy) – A buckler is a small shield. To “swash” means to swish. A swashbuckler “swishes” his sword and rattles it on his shield or “buckler.”

Naked Truth – Once Truth and Lies went bathing. Lies got out, dressed in Truth’s clothing and ran. Truth, unwilling to appear in Lies’s clothing, went “naked.”

(I got some of these from “Why Do We Say It?” Published by Castle Books. This is a fascinating little book I could look at all day long.)

One more Bigmamaism (Hey I made a new word) is about people who dream big dreams and do nothing about it. She would say, “Yeah and if a bullfrog had wings he wouldn’t bust his butt trying to fly.” I definitely do not want to be such a bullfrog! So maybe I shouldn’t be looking at all these sayings when I should be writing…

On that note, I leave it with you folks. I would love to hear some sayings or words your family uses. Or maybe give me some meanings of words that are unusual. Word origins fascinate me. I am waiting to learn more new things so tell me a few…


  1. Cheryl, loved the swashbuckler!

    Great blog post today! I've always been interested in why we say what we do. We say a lot of what we do without realizing why, which makes the differences between north/south, east/west, in the US alone greatly fascinating. Besides accents, add on top of that European influence.

    "Don't you know." "Jeepers." "You bet 'ya." These come from North Dakota and the higher mid-west states because of Danish influence. Really made the movie FARGO come to life for me when I visited ND.

    I'm also always amazed to learn how many words/place names we have that are Native American as well.

    This is what makes America so great! We are a melting pot of different cultures and societies. And life will never be dull if we look deeper into what has molded us into Americians. ;)

  2. I agree. I am married to an Italian and have picked up some words from him that I don't even think about when I say them in public. I think we Southerners picked up a lot from our Scot-Irish ancestors.

    By the way, I loved Fargo but it drove my New Yorker husband crazy.

  3. We live in the land of "Do What", which means will you repeat what you said? I have conducted a scientific study, which means I pay attention when Ithinka about it. When I tell people they say "Do What?" they deny it. One guy said, "I'm sure you're wrong. I say pardon."

    I think "Do what?" is charming.

  4. I wasn't finished, but the post demon took control of my hand while I was trying to correct Ithinka. Anyway. You know what I meant.

    I was going to say that "Spitin' image" or "spit" (as in little Brantley Carlyle Tradd IV is the spit of his daddy, Trey, and his granddaddy, Big Brant.")comes from spirit and image.

  5. Cute post Cheryl! Bigmama sounds a lot like my Granny. And I too wish I had paid more attention to all those interesting tidbits of information she had to say. I can't think of any whimsical quotes at the moment. My brain hasn't recovered yet from conference information overload. :-D

  6. Too true! As a kid, I rolled my eyes at my mother's ingrained sayings. Now I hear myself quoting from her invisible handbook of axioms on a daily basis. And if I'm not repeating it out loud, I'm at least thinking it. I used to think it was awful, but now that I have kids, I'm actually glad for it. :)

  7. Jean, I get so tired of hear "Doo Whut?" around here. It drives me crazy! I didn't know that about spitin image. See - I am learning.

    Sherry - I think we need to sit down and write all our grandmothers's sayings down for posterity. I think if we all got together, we'd have one funny book.

    Red Peril - Kids make you say things, then you stand there and look around asking "Was that my mother who just said that?" I am becoming my mother!

  8. Ooops, the post demon got me too, Jean! Meant to say hearing...

    My fingers aren't working well today!

  9. Cool post. I like the expressions that evolved when folks needed to vent their frustration and anger but didn't want to say the actual cuss words: dadgummit, for instance. There have been any number of variations on the theme: dadblastit and dagnammit, to name a few. I like my mother's use of the word "foot," as in "Well, foot!"

    Sorry, that's the extent of my brilliance today.

  10. Crystal, my sister uses the word "foot." I find that amusing. Wonder where that one came from? She's a school teacher and really has to watch what she says. Me, on the other hand, well...

  11. Yeah, me, too. Sometimes the word "foot" just doesn't suffice.