By now you know I’m endlessly fascinated by words, words, words, particularly the way different groups and cultures use them. (I’m going to note right here that some of the words that follow are strong ones. It can’t be helped. You’ll live.)
I particularly love idioms and colloquialisms. You know, things like I’m so broke I can’t pay attention (think about it, it’ll come) or I’m so sick I’m gonna have to die to get better. (We humans tend to joke about things that frighten us.)
Sometimes they tell a story: The faculty treated the new hire like the red-headed stepchild at a family reunion. Sometimes they offer advice: There’s an ass for every saddle.* Sometimes they describe, as in a simile: It’s hot as the gates of hell. Sometimes they function as an interjection: I don’t know whether to go crazy or wind my watch.**
Sometimes they fill a useful function: Blackberry winter and Indian summer, for example, perfectly describe a type of weather for which we have no other word. Always, the imagery is vivid: Every mother crow thinks her little crow is the blackest. (Or this one: He doesn’t know sh*t from apple butter. Now that, my friends, is a word picture.)
Translations are always interesting and often yield lovely imagery. I recently saw a tweet from which I learned the phrase Not my problem in Polish is “Nie moj cyrk, nie moje malpy.” Translation: Not my circus, not my monkey. I say we ditch not my problem altogether and go for the monkeys. Because there are never enough reasons to say monkey. Or zombie apocalypse, for that matter.
My father was an endless source of these sorts of things, which may be why I delight in them. If one of us kids burped, he’d say, “Bring that up again and we’ll vote on it.” If something fortuitous happened—a parking spot close to the store, say—he’d tell us, “That’s what comes from good, clean livin’, kids.” Describing his irritation with something, he’d say, “I went straight up and turned left.” (I read something similar in Indianan Haven Kimmel’s wonderful memoir A Girl Named Zippy, in which she described her perennially angry father as having gone “straight up and scattered.”) My daddy was a playful man, and if the phone rang when he was in that mood, he’d answer, “Murphy’s Livery Stable: horse sh*t, we’ve got plenty of it!” while we kids rolled on the floor, laughing hysterically.
I ask people all the time for their favorite aphorisms and colloquialisms, the older the better. (Please do post your faves in the comments.) I had an idea that I’d gather them into a book. Then I stumbled on this. I don’t like the title, because it seems to imply that only “country” or Southern folks use these types of expressions. It perpetrates a stereotype I don’t like, frankly. (Tom Petty wrote a lovely song called “Southern Accent,” which begins, “There’s a southern accent / where I come from. / The young’uns call it country. / The Yankees call it dumb.” I understand this sentiment; I’ve seen it in action.) Regardless, the book is altogether too Hee Haw for me. It also has jokes (ick) and is poorly organized. Not the book I had in mind at all.
But this is: the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). Launched in 1965 at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the project has collected and recorded local differences in American English. Six volumes. Be still my heart.
*Thank you, Margaret Pesek, for this one. It may be my all-time favorite, which is saying a lot. **And Cynthia Horn Chavez, thanks for sharing this one.
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