What Does That Mean?

Some time ago, I was writing a story and used a variation of the sentence, “He wished he could be fly on the wall when they had that conversation.” This puzzled my critique partner, who didn’t know it meant. She had never heard the expression “fly on the wall” before and didn’t know it meant the character could be an unobtrusive observer. I decided to change the sentence for fear others wouldn’t understand, either.

I grew up in rural Virginia, and we had some unusual local expressions. Consider:

ugly as homemade soap

screaming bloody murder

grumpy as an old sitting hen

bleeding like a killing hog

slow as molasses on a December morning

Grandma was slow, but she was old (used in chastising a young person)

doesn’t know any more than a Yank in Georgia

high as a Georgia pine. (This expression was popular before drugs reached rural areas, so it meant drunk. Or it can mean a high price. Much to the chagrin of my teenager, today I still might say, “Wow, that caviar is high as a Georgia pine.”)

These popular expressions have less regional flair, but are still colorful:

low man on the totem pole

You get what you pay for.

Money talks. BS walks.

Your turn:

What regional expressions did you grow up using?

Should you use regional expressions in your novels?

47 Responses to What Does That Mean?

  1. Rick Barry January 26, 2012 at 4:27 am #

    Regional expressions can and should be used if done so in a way that helps to pin the character to an area without unduly confusing the reader. In my current work, Katherine from Atlanta gets shaken up and confesses she feels “like a ramblin’ wreck from Georgia Tech.” Her Yankee partner doesn’t immediately capture the full sense, but enough to know she has survived a tough moment.

    Widening the thought, professions often use jargon that can inject realism into a character. So my Air Force captain will often say, “Roger that” for “Okay, understood” and other military terms that the reader will grasp from context. In fact, we could argue that it would be a mistake to strip all such expressions from a character since they help to paint the person realistically and colorfully.

  2. Tamela Hancock Murray January 26, 2012 at 4:33 am #

    Good points, Rick. I’d never heard the GA Tech expression but it’s great!

  3. Timothy Fish January 26, 2012 at 5:35 am #

    I grew up in southeast Missouri. As you know, that is a long way from Virginia, but with the exception of the one about Grandma, and the two about Georgia, I’ve heard all of these, or some variation thereof. The one about the “fly on the wall” is probably the most common of all. That tells me that these aren’t regional sayings, but they are an engrained part of American English. We may be losing some of these because so few people have experience with homemade soap, hens, hogs, and molasses, but flies still get into houses. But still, there is no reason we should dumb down our writing just because one or a few of our readers are ignorant of a word or saying, especially when it is so widely used as these. For the most part, these are self-explanatory, if people stop to think about them. Other than that, if the context of where they are used doesn’t tell the reader what it means, they can Google them.

  4. Karen Power January 26, 2012 at 6:11 am #

    How are you doing? “Finer than a frog’s hair split two ways.”

    I could stretch a mile, if I didn’t have to walk back.

  5. Lisa Carter Sweet Tea with a Slice of Murder January 26, 2012 at 6:20 am #

    Some people live “high on the hog” in NC where I’m from.

    • Abigail Richmond January 26, 2012 at 11:44 am #

      Good afternoon neighbor!
      I am from Blanch, N.C. Do you know where that is? probably not since it is a very small town.
      Where are you in North Carolina?

    • Susan Gregory January 31, 2012 at 9:18 am #

      My grandmother lived in Churchland, NC which is near Lexington. “High on the hog” is as familiar as “this neck of the woods”.

  6. TC Avey January 26, 2012 at 6:32 am #

    I hadn’t really thought about how a few of those sayings could be confusing to others because they are so common to me. I guess this is like the difference between saying soda, pop, coke or whatever else different regions use.

    Thanks for the great tip!

  7. JoAnne Potter January 26, 2012 at 6:37 am #

    Funny you should mention this. Was just thinking about it the other day, when I used “didn’t bat an eye”. Now that’s not quite as evocative or regional as the ones you brought up, but whenever we use a “canned” expression, I think we need to do it with intention and understand its specific purpose. Otherwise, we’re just being lazy.

  8. Connie Almony January 26, 2012 at 6:40 am #

    You lie like a rug.

    That one came from my husband’s family in NE Pennsylvania.

  9. Wynette James January 26, 2012 at 7:15 am #

    This took me back to my childhood growing up on a ranch. Neighbors might have been five or ten miles apart but they often helped each other out. I remember those sturdy ranchers coming into our house on cold winter days to warm up. They always entered the house with care. Wiping their feet or taking off their boots. They would always smile and nod to my mother and say “That’s a mighty fine firr ya got there Mrs. G”. Even if there wasn’t a fire! It was the way they said “You have fine and cozy home.” Now speed ahead several years when I was a young wife and mother. My husband was helping a young man work on his snow machine in the dead of winter. When they entered the house to warm up a bit and take a break (after taking off his boots at the door) he stood next to our wood burning stove looked at me and said “That’s a mighty fine firr ya got there Mrs. M”. At that moment I was able to see his grandfather entering my childhood home.

    As an avid reader I am more apt to enjoy a book that speaks the language/expression used in that region or time period. It helps me; as a reader become part of the scene building in my mind. It’s even more helpful to the reader to add a dictionary page of slang used. (Preferably in the front of the book.)
    I suppose if the writer said “I wish I was a fly on the ark walls so I could have seen how Noah handled the animals”. I think it would have defined itself enough so that the reader understood the meaning.

    • Timothy Fish January 26, 2012 at 8:40 am #

      That reminds me of a story. My mother was raised in a family that called any and all facial tissues Kleenex. She continued this practice after she got married. But Dad was working for the Procter and Gamble Paper Products Company, which makes Puffs. In a meeting one day, he referred to a tissue as a Kleenex and was quickly educated on the fact that Kleenex was the competition. By the time I came along, Kleenex was not a frequently used word in our household.

      • Wynette James January 26, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

        Timothy, That is a great story! Thanks for the smile!
        Love it!

  10. Jill Kemerer January 26, 2012 at 7:21 am #

    These are great, and we used most of them too! I know I have plenty of fun sayings from my aunts and uncles, but do you think I can think of a single one right now? I need two more cups of coffee before my brain kicks in. :) Thanks for the smiles!

  11. Candy Arrington January 26, 2012 at 7:43 am #

    To indicate someone doing something fast or moving fast, my grandmother, who was an Alabama native, often said “she went like a house a-fire.” She also said, “he lied like a rug” and that phrase usually referenced a man!

    In South Carolina, people often say someone is “dumb as a box of rocks” or “not the sharpest knife in the drawer.”

    Regional expressions work in novels if they are self-explanatory, but not if they are so colloquial the meaning is fuzzy.

  12. Angie Arndt January 26, 2012 at 7:52 am #

    “I don’t know him from Adam’s housecat,” meaning that you don’t know them. I’ve also heard, “don’t know them from Adam.”

  13. Laura Kirk January 26, 2012 at 7:57 am #

    Screaming like a stuck pig. I wished I may never! Well, I have never! Good night nurse! Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. Hit the road Jack and don’t you come back. We’re you raised in a barn? Cute as a speckled pup. Praise the Lard and pass the biscuits! One bad apple spoils the bunch. Tastes so good make you wanna slap yo momma!

  14. Laura Kirk January 26, 2012 at 7:59 am #

    Good grief! (lol that’s another one) I meant Were you raised in a barn not We’re. Sorry!

  15. Melissa K. Norris January 26, 2012 at 9:08 am #

    This is fun and I think gives color to books when characters use these terms. Though I agree too much slang may require an explanation list.

    One from my neck of the woods is, He’s as crazy as a pet ‘coon.

  16. Tara Johnson January 26, 2012 at 9:11 am #

    I think the use of fun phrases like this strictly depend on the character speaking them. I am writing a character right now whose speech is peppered with these phrases—she’s a hoot! But to put these phrases, in say, a Victorian woman of means would be a mistake. It depends on the characters personality, socioeconomic status, historical period, etc.

    By the way, I live in Arkansas so you can only imagine the phrases that I could add in here! lol

  17. Ruth Douthitt January 26, 2012 at 9:57 am #

    “He’s as gay as last year’s Easter bonnet!” -heard that one a few times living in NC. Must be a Southern thing? I grew up in Phoenix, AZ.

    The South is great for these sayings. I think most of the one’s you listed could be used in a story. It would add some ambience!

  18. Rachel Wilder January 26, 2012 at 10:58 am #

    I’ve heard them all and used nearly all of them, except the Grandma one and the Georgia specific ones.

    Down here in Louisiana I grew up with bleeding like a stuck pig, you lie like a dog, slow as molasses in January. I live in the parish that divides cotton country from sugar country. Then there’s Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, he’s ugly as a blue tick hound, and I know there’s more. I love being from the South!

    • Susan Gregory January 31, 2012 at 9:25 am #

      I’m from over yonder, too. I reckon being born and bred in NC is just fine.

      • Tamela Hancock Murray January 31, 2012 at 9:31 am #

        Susan, have you seen reruns of the first Andy Griffith shows, in which he used “reng” for “reckon” — not often, so it was easy to miss. We use “reng” where I grew up in Southern Virginia. Did you ever hear that in your part of NC?

  19. Janet Ann Collins January 26, 2012 at 10:59 am #

    I’d avoid the BS. ;-)

  20. Steve Laube January 26, 2012 at 11:03 am #

    Come Hell or high water.

    One brick short of a load.

    Steve Laube doesn’t know what he is talking about. (this last one is universally accepted.)

    • Wynette James January 26, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

      Hell or High water reminded me of

      Lord will’en and the creek don’t rise.

  21. Steve Laube January 26, 2012 at 11:32 am #

    I opened a can of worms with that one.

    And when I lived in Alaska we referred to the “Lower 48.” Even after Hawaii became the 49th state.

    I can keep doing this until the cows come home.

    • Rick Barry January 26, 2012 at 11:40 am #

      Uh oh. No cow jokes, please. Cow humor is udderly terrible, even though some friends milk ‘em for all they’re worth!

  22. Jo Lawler January 26, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

    I was struck by the changes from one region to another. I grew up in the desert southwest and learned these three somewhat different:

    grumpy as an old sitting hen vs. mad as a wet hen

    bleeding like a killing hog vs. bleeding like a stuck pig

    slow as molasses on a December morning vs. slow as molasses in January

    Funny how things change over time and distance, yet retain that nostalgic, folkish wisdom.

    I really enjoyed this post. Thanks!

  23. Roberta Hegland January 26, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

    My problem is this – I grew up in SoCal, particularly the San Fernando Valley (tho I come from the other end of the Valley than those Valley Girls). Anyway – most folks came from somewhere else in the country. So, I grew up with all of the above, not necessairly knowing ‘whence they came’. When I moved to Oregon (almost 40 years ago) I suddenly found that many expressions (…in a coon’s age) were considered racist. Who knew we weren’t talking about racoons! And I won’t even get into nursery rhymes that are considered nasty. Sigh. I tread lightly in this area as a result, though I love the color that is possible with a well-turned phrase.

  24. Patti Jo Moore January 26, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    Have to chime in with an AMEN for Rick Barry’s Georgia Tech example (I’m a GT daughter AND a GT mom!). :) And the expressions I was going to offer have already been offered here today (well, they say “great minds think alike” LOL). :)

  25. Robert Michael January 26, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

    West Virginia born-and-bred…

    My father was full of these phrases (some not appropriate to mention here, of course), but most were phrases intended as metaphors or similes.

    “slicker than cat snot on a doorknob”

    “more nervous than a whore in church”

    “hoot and a holler”

    “were you born in a barn?”

    and, Roberta, I know what you mean about the racial comments…I was almost thirty before I realized saying “cotton picker,”(or “cotton pickin’”)was a racial ephitet. I wasn’t raised a racist, but in some regions, growing up in the 70′s and 80′s, much of the languange didn’t change, even though attitudes and outward actions were coming around. It is a shame that even today we are still stamping out language that is hurtful. It goes to show that language can be powerful.

  26. Peter DeHaan January 26, 2012 at 5:09 pm #

    Interestingly, the ones that come to mind are all colorful ways of putting someone down. As in:

    “His elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top floor.”

    “The lights are on, but no one’s home.”

    “She’s a few of fries short of a Happy Meal.”

    “He’s a couple of bubbles off center.”

    “He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer.”

  27. Roberta Hegland January 26, 2012 at 5:12 pm #

    “Cat snot!”
    “Cotton picker” was a familiar saying that, to my knowledge, had no negative connotations. Do some of these phrases eventually lose their stigma with time and distance? What happens when the offended uses these phrases themselves, about themselves? Do you call a person of color black, negro, african-american, colored? I find it depends a lot on who you are talking to – their age, education, where they live…
    So, as I write I really need to consider my audience and realize that I’m probably going to offend someone, sometime, no matter how careful I am.
    Meanwhile, I’m going to go back and copy all these great phrases!

    • Steve Laube January 26, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

      Let’s stick to the topic of fun and colorful expressions. A discussion of potentially racially charged words is beyond the scope of this blog and is guaranteed to raise the ire of readers. Thank you.

      Steve

  28. Roberta Hegland January 26, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

    Movin’ on to the topic at hand I’ll add:
    Cat on a hot tin roof.
    Loose lips sink ships.
    and
    Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.

  29. Linda Caviness January 26, 2012 at 7:42 pm #

    My Arkansas Ozark granny used to say, “Child, I believe you’d argue with an iron skillet.”…or a fence post. Meaning I was always willing to enter into debate. I like the iron skillet metaphor better.

  30. Judith Robl January 26, 2012 at 8:21 pm #

    Nobody mentioned “out of the frying pan into the fire” or “putting all your eggs in one basket.” And I hate to be argumentative, but I think it’s “slicker than goose grease on a glass doorknob.”

    Loved them all, and knew most of them from my own grandmother’s vocabulary.

  31. Tamela Hancock Murray January 26, 2012 at 8:34 pm #

    I have had such a great time reading all the comments! Thank you all so much for sharing.

  32. Marielena January 27, 2012 at 6:50 am #

    I love regional sayings! They are so full of color and add so much to a book if the characters come from those areas. I grew up spending my summers in rural Tennessee where my dear, late grandmother had expressions not heard today, some with English/Scotch/Irish roots:

    Company’s coming, so I’ll put the iron wedge in the coffee pot.

    That wind is right out of Miss Hadley’s peach orchard.

    I bet you wisht you hadn’t a-goed.

    (And here are two expressions that come straight from the British isles):
    I’ll be bound.
    I says to Nathan and Nathan says he.

  33. Laurie Alice Eakes January 27, 2012 at 7:25 am #

    Absolutely you should use them. It adds authenticity to the story. That said, keep them to a minimum so as not to confuse the reader and frustrate her right out of the book.

    And make sure you use them correctly. I threw out a $20.00 hard cover Regency rather than sell it once it was so terrible and full of misused Regency phrases.

    A little surprised someone hadn’t heard the fly on the wall phrase. It’s definitely not just colloquial rural Virginia. I grew up with it in urban Michigan, heard it in rural Kentucky and urban Iowa… all over.

  34. Laurie Alice Eakes January 27, 2012 at 7:26 am #

    Forgot to add that one can’t leave out all expressions just becasue one person might not understand or the writing would be flat and dull and have no regional or time period flavor.

  35. Anita Mae January 27, 2012 at 10:09 am #

    So where is the line drawn between using regional expressions and cliches? Who decides which camp the expression falls into?

    Here in Canada, I grew up with the fly on the wall phrase, too. However, another favourite has always been, “Did you just fall off a turnip truck?”

    Yet, when I used that in a ms, I was told to find a more original way to say it. Sheesh… back in our house, the person who fell off the turnip truck really was original. With a capital O.

    Another favourite of mine: “Sitting there like a bump on the log.” Hmmm… could be regional because of my association with KC… but then again, who really knows? Does this mean we need to research and file this information incase an editor requests it, too? Perhaps I’m just a lazy writer…

    Timothy, that’s too funny. We also call it Kleenex and never thought anything amiss. I grew up in Ontario logging country where KC ruled, being the main employer. (That’s Kimberly-Clark to the rest of the world.) I never questioned why I called it kleenex until I began to associate with Americans and someone asked what a kleenex was, so I googled. Yup. KC makes Kleenex. Go figure. LOL

    Anita Mae.

  36. Mary Young January 27, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

    Writers’ Digest taught me not to use the word “kleenex” when I meant “tissue.” We grew up calling them kleenex, even though we bought Puff’s. LOL

    I grew up in Columbus OH during the Woody Hayes years (go, buckeyes!), but my folks are originally from the hills of southern Ohio, down in coal-mining country.

    We wore overhauls, not overalls (I loved my bib overhauls when I was 5). Mom liked watching heldicopters fly by, not helicopters. We warshed our close, not washed our clothes. And if you needed to make a will, you hired a loy-yer, not a lawyer.

    Phrases I remember: Busy as a cat in a round-house hunting a corner, or busy as a one-armed paper-hanger. So hungry our stomach thought our throat had been cut. So nervous it feels like our bones are trying to shake the covers off. My tongue got over my eye-teeth, and I can’t see what I’m saying.

    We were either “born yesterday” or “no spring chicken.” For my grandma, having babies was as easy as falling off a log (Mom said she’d rather fall off a log). Ask my aunt what was for supper, and you might hear “BS and popcorn.”

    When I moved to Texas, a Missouri-bred co-worker taught me about “like white on rice,” and “like ducks on a june-bug.” Someone else in Texas taught me “That dog don’t hunt.” (aka – it’s a bad idea).

    Knee high to a grasshopper is another one I grew up with, that I still use on a regular basis, along with y’all (it’s not just a southern expression, unless south-central Ohio equals southern).

    I’m sure I’ll think of a million more as I’m falling asleep tonight — to me, they show the flavor of our country, in all its variety, and I hope they don’t disappear.

  37. Karen Ball January 28, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

    In southern Oregon, we get spittin’ mad, especially when some is dumb as a post. No one here wants to be a mugwump (meaning your mug is on one side of the fence and your “wump” is on the other, so make up your mind!). If you want just a little of something, you ask for just a tad or a tad bit. (When I used this in college outside Chicago, they asked me to quantify a tad. I told them I’d do that when they started saying the name of my state right–Orygun, NOT Ore-ih-gahn) Rednecks out here are “goat ropers and chicken chokers.” When someone is getting in you way, “you’d be more help if you were less help.” When you’re REALLY upset, you’re “fit to be tied.” when you buy something sight unseen, you risk buying a pig in a poke. And that water rippling over rocks? It’s a crick, not a creek. The covering on your house is a ruff, not a roof. My Dad, who is from Idaho, does his warsh and asks God to keep saintan (not satan) in check. I could go on, but I’m all done in.

    • Susan Gregory January 31, 2012 at 9:35 am #

      In NC country we’d say”Ifn your plumb wore out and feeling puny, I reckon you oughta go to Hiwahhee and set a spell.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *