Dec 04 2010

Popular Culture 20101203: The Old Language

Many of you who read my posts on a regular basis know that I was born and raised in Hackett, Arkansas.  Hackett is about nine miles south of Fort Smith, and just about a mile from the Oklahoma border.  Many people are of the mistaken opinion that the hill country of Arkansas are all Ozarks, but that is not right.

There are actually two major hill ranges in Arkansas, the Ozarks and the Ouachita (pronounced wash’-a-tah) Mountains.  These two ranges are quite different both in geology and in the old language.  The Arkansas River is roughly the dividing feature betwixt the two ranges.  You might know the Ouachitas because of the excellent natural sharpening stones that are quarried there.

To give you a better idea whence I came, here are a couple of maps.


If you look to the very left, an expanded map of the county one from the right, lower part of the image on the left, that is just about where I grew up, and so did my brother.  More about him later.

I call the way that the old people spoke in my part of Arkansas the old language because it is rapidly fading away.  Radio, and especially the TeeVee, has caused it to disappear rapidly.  I am 53 years old, and the people who really used the old language were old when I was a small child.  Hardly anyone uses even the words any more, let alone the rather bizarre grammar and syntax.  One of the reasons that I like to use terms like betwixt, burnt, and the like is that they are part of the old language.  In many respects the old language was very similar to Elizabethan English, both because of regional isolation of settlers and the influence of the King James version of the Bible in this heavily religious part of the nation.

I thought that I would set down a few of the words that I remember from my childhood.  Most all of the people who used them on a regular basis are now long dead.  I wish that I had have had the foresight to make tape recordings of the old folks talking, but I did not.  All of this is from memory, but my memory is pretty good.  In no particular order, here are a few examples, mostly vocabulary but also some instances of usage.

Hickry.  Obviously, this refers to a hickory tree, but the second syllable was invariably omitted.  Interestingly, the nuts from the tree were not called hickry nuts, but rather hicker nuts.  By the way, these are excellent nuts for baking, and I have over five pounds of clean nut meats ready to go for holiday cooking.  The term hickry was also used for in instrument of corporal punishment, regardless of the species of woody plant from which it was obtained.  I recall my grandmum using them fairly liberally on me, and they stung a little but did not injure, much, since they were thin and pliable.  The worst part of the punishment was the psychological part, because she always made me go cut my own.  The anticipation was awful.

Gom.  This is a generic term for a real mess, but most often used in the context of some sort of a pasty mass, usually produced as a cooking error.  My great aunt Edna (Ednie for all of us) had what would now be called obsessive compulsive disorder, and one of her rituals was her morning cereal (cerels to her), either All-Bran or Grape-Nuts, which she would stir until they became a homogeneous mass.  Many times my grandmum would lose patience with her (after half an hour of hearing a spoon contact a bowl every couple of seconds) and shout, “Ednie!  Quit that peckin’!  You just made a gom out of your cerels!”  I was able to trace the origin of this term back to the French gomme, or rubber.  However, the term was invented before vulcanization was discovered, and unvulcanized rubber is sticky and messy, hence the term in the old language.

Tuckto.  (Pronounced with a long “o”).  This was often used in a sentence like, “I was jes plumb tuckto!”  This one took quite a bit of thought, and I have never been able to establish any verifiable etymology, but it means to be surprised and bewildered simultaneously.  I strongly suspect that it is a variation of the modern “taken aback”, and has an almost identical meaning.  I think that I am going to use that word more often.

Bile.  This one is not limited to my area, and is often found in other dialects.  It means boil, but I have only heard it as the infinitive or in the present tense.  Thus, “Now, let the kettle bile” is correct, but never “I bilt the water.”  That was always, “I boilt the water”.  Go figure.

Souse.  (This is with an unvoiced second “s”).  This is actually a proper word, but is now archaic.  Its dictionary meaning is “to immerse an object in boiling water or hot oil”, and that is exactly how it was used, except in the old language the liquid did not necessarily have to be hot.  Thus, it was proper to say regarding a full immersion Baptism that, “the preacher, he soused your cousin clean under that water!”  By the way, that term was occasionally used for what many people would call scrapple today, a gelatinized meat dish made from biling a scraped hog’s head until the meat could be removed from the bone, cutting it into small pieces, and then sousing the meat pieces in the reduced cooking liquid and cooling it.  Most often folks in my part of the country would call it head cheese.

By the way, good head cheese is excellent when seasoned nicely whilst being bilt.  (Remember, long “i”).  Some poor cooks would make a gom of it by chopping up the ears and snout and adding them, but they always are gristly and make awful souse.  However, they are wonderful to add gelatin to the broth as it cooks.

Cheese.  The word has the same meaning as today, but was always used as the plural, never in the singular.  Thus, “Have some of this cheese” would be either, “Have some of them cheese,” or “Have some of those cheese” or some other plural adjective or pronoun.

Most people associate the south with the term “Yall” for more than one person.  This was foreign to my part of the country until quite recently.  Almost invariably the term You uns was used instead.  Connected with the term was the possessive pronoun yourun, for an object that belongs to the person with you.  That made eight year old boys giggle when the old folks said it, since it is pronounced “urine”.  I strongly suspect that the origin of both of those terms was derived from “you ones” and “your one”.

Ellum.  Like hickry, that is a tree.  However, whilst hickory lost a syllable, elm gained one.  Contrary to popular belief, the old folks did not go out collection slippery ellum bark as far as I ever was able to tell.

Fix.  This word had two major meanings, in addition to repairing something.  First, it was synonymous with “cook”.  Thus, my grandmum “fixed supper”.  “Cooking” was rarely used, and “making dinner” was just not said, since that was a Yankee term.  By the way, lunch was always “dinner” and dinner was always “supper”.  Breakfast was just breakfast.  The other meaning of fix was to prepare to do something.  Thus, “I’m afixin’ to go to the store” had the meaning of “I’m about to go shopping”.  The term was often contracted to “afixinta”.

Putt.  None of the old folks golfed, but that was the way that they pronounced “put”.  For example, if you came in with the mail, or a bag of produce, and asked where it should be placed, the answer would be a pointing gesture and, “Jest putt it thar.”

Reckon.  This word was very commonly used in the past, and has the same meaning as it does now.  However, I reckon that very few people still use this word in everyday speech.

Many verbs were conjugated as strong verbs but are now considered to be weak ones.  I often use some of these conjugations in my writing, such as burnt instead of “burned”,  spoilt instead of “spoiled”, bilt (with a long “i”) instead of “boiled”.  Also, the word ruint was often used instead of “ruined”.  These are all throwbacks to Elizabethan English, before many English verbs underwent a transition from strong to weak.  Interestingly, the use of “to be” instead of “to have” as an auxiliary verb was never used by the old folks, like “I am come” rather than “I have come”.  I do not understand why “to be” was not used, since it was required for certain verbs in the King James version of the bible, and is still required for certain verbs in German.

Lexecute.  This is what happens when one contacts a heavy current, either accidentally or as a form of capital punishment.  Thus, “Uncle Bill got lexecuted yesterday aworkin’ of them wars in the kitchen” would refer to an accident (usually the connotation is a fatality, but not always), while “They lexecuted him yesterday fer akillin’ that man” refers to capital punishment, always fatal, obviously.

So far most of this piece refers only to single words or very basic phrases.  There was also rich lode of idioms, many of which were entire sentences.  Here are a few:

Flat as a flitter.  That refers to something that is really, really flat.  I remember my grandmum using that phrase when her biscuits did not rise, or a cake fell.  Since she was quite the cook, that was sort of unusual.  Being a woman of little patience, she would vocalize her disappointment when such did things did occur.  “Them biscuits are jes as flat as a flitter!”  As I recall, the plural was never used, so hundreds of things could be as flat as a flitter.  I believe that the origin of this comes from the word “fritter”, which is usually a skillet bread much like a pancake that does not rise very much.

I spoke with my brother earlier this evening (I wrote about him and my nephew being shooting victims around eight or so months ago, and they are doing much better than expected) and he reminded me of two more.  One of them is pretty sinister, so I will mention it second.

I’m just about to get a canful of that!  This actually conflicts with my earlier observation of “to be” not being used as an auxiliary verb.  In this case it is, and I never remember my my grandmum saying “I’ve just…..”.  That means that you need to shut up, or stop whatever you were doing that vexed her.  The etymology of that is interesting, and my brother reminded me that the “can” in the phrase is derived from the common term for a chamber pot, or the vessel that was kept in early bedrooms for holding excrement at night.  Without electric lighting or indoor plumbing, these devices were essential, and they did have relatively tight fitting lids.  We still use the word “can” in that sense when we in modern times say, “Wait a minute, I have to go to the can” although modern plumbing is in no way a can.  The connotation was that if you kept up your behavior, excrement would be expelled towards you (I try to say things gently, since this is a family friendly series).

The strangest name that I ever heard of for a chamber pot was from my grandmum’s second husband (she had been a widow, and was again after John died).  He was probably the kindest, gentlest, and most soft spoken man whom I have ever had the honor to meet.  For some reason, John called a chamber pot the hootowl without wings.  Has anyone else ever heard of this reference?  As far as I know, it was unique to him.  I wrote about him a couple of weeks ago.  He served in World War I!

The second one of which my brother reminded me was He needs killin’.  That one should stand at face value, because that is what it meant.  Back in my part of the country it was not unheard of for someone mysteriously to be found dead after being accused of some severe wrongdoing and not punished harshly enough, or at all, by the legal system.  I remembered the phraseology a bit different and called my brother back to confirm his impression (he is quite a bit older than I am, so remembers that period better).  I remembered it as He needs a good killin’, but my brother is adamant that there was no “good” in it, at least in our area.  I defer to his recollection and will go with the first phrase posited.

Whilst I am on the subject of my brother, he told me this evening that he had in his possession thousands of Kodachrome slides that our parents took over many decades, and a projector along with several circular trays for them.  He is sending them to me early next week for my viewing and sorting.  Of course, if I find any that involve him, or our parents when he was little, he gets either them or jpgs of them (I have scanner technology to make it so).  I really appreciate that act of kindness.  Happy Christmas to you, Brother, and to your mate and my nephew and his mate.

I guess that I should stop now, but there are dozens of other words, phrases, and idioms that are almost extinct.  I encourage you to poll your old relatives (there is NO dishonor in being old, and I prefer being straight out to using euphemisms like “senior” or “seasoned”, because it is good to be old, considering the only alternative).

If any of you have unusual words or phrases that your old folks used, or still use, please add to this poor installment in the comments.  That thing that you have just about forgotten might be the only remnant of the old language of your part of the country, and I also ask our international friends to take part. I know that they are out there, because I get comments from Ireland, New Zealand, and everywhere else betwixt.

Please watch for Pique the Geek Sunday evening where I examine the new FDA authorization bill that was passed this week in the Congress.  The Fox “News” SOBber was against it, but the Senate did not filibuster it.  This makes me wonder what is wrong, or right, with it.  I promise to provide a jaundiced eye deconstruction of it Sunday.

Finally, I ask that folks who just read these posts sign up so that their comments may be read.  That is you, Brother!  Get yourself a user ID and participate!  That also goes for everyone else, but was directed mostly towards him.

Warmest regards,


Crossposted at Docudharma.com and at Dailykos.com

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