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Old Southern Sayings Say It Best

Things to Know with Nancy Jo

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Last spring, I found a small, almost empty bottle of hand-sanitizer in a bathroom drawer and jumped for joy even though it had expired five years beforehand. I’d won the lottery and was holding a golden egg. A year ago, because of Covid-19, hand-sanitizer became “scarcer than hen’s teeth.”

The hen’s teeth analogy brings me to the topic of today’s “Things to Know.” In the South, we first learn how to speak and then to talk. It takes more than knowing how to pronounce words to communicate in Southern tongue. Actually, while such sayings are used profusely by Southerners, they aren’t unique to the South. Many can be heard across the country and abroad. Their heritage dates back to centuries ago.

Profound adages convey our thoughts prudently and without much ado. There’s no need to waste words or time over what a simple proverb can describe effortlessly. For example, when someone is being deceptive or two-faced, they are “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and when some ordinary person tries to be uppity an onlooker might say, “Well look at them acting like that and they’re as poor as owl’s grease.”

My all-time favorite saying comes from my grandmother: “There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.” In other words, much can happen between now and then. I don’t know where my grandmother picked it up, but it dates back to an old Greek myth. Nobody says it better than the sages of ages ago and many of the adages and metaphors used today are extremely old. Old as Methuselah, in fact.

Some, such as “Take you under my wing,” were begun from Biblical verses. Many derived from German, Italian and Spanish. Shakespeare is credited with starting “Go to the Dickens.”

“To be hanged, drawn and quartered” is an expression said to one in a jocularly threatening way in mild reproof. It means to subject the direst penalty. However, the original term was no joking matter. Prior to the 15th century, a person sentenced to a major crime was to be drawn at a horse’s tail or by cart to the execution site, hanged by the neck until dead and his body cut into quarters and scattered to various parts of England.

Folklore may not be worth a “hill of beans” to you, but I don’t want to “pick a bone” about it. I’ve compiled a few of my favorites, and I’d love to hear yours. If you know of any not listed write or send an e-mail to me at the address below.

            “Let a sleeping dog lie.”

            “Too many cooks in the kitchen.”

            “Beat a dead horse.”

            “The best thing since sliced bread.”

            “Eating high on the hog.”

            “Still waters run deep.”

            “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.”

            “That’s the pot calling the kettle black.”

            “If you hold hands with the frying pan, you run the risk of being burned.”

            “The tree withers long before it falls.”

            “He who sups with the devil needs a long spoon.”

            “Every tub should set on its own bottom.”

            “Make hay while the sun shines.”

            “Fast as greased lightning.”

            “Even a rose has thorns.”

            “Like a bat out of H—.”

            “Jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.”

            “Dead as a doornail.”

            “Too many irons in the fire.”

            “Stiff upper lip.”

            “Fit as a fiddle.”

            “No ifs, ands or buts.”

            “Unable to see the forest for the trees.”

            “Cry wolf.”

            “For Pete’s sake. Heavens to Betsy.”

If you were expecting a serious column today “you’ve come to the goat’s house looking for wool.”

Award-winning journalist Nancy Jo Maples has been writing about Mississippi people and places for more than 30 years. Contact her at [email protected]

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Written by Nancy Jo Maples

Nancy Jo Maples is an award-winning journalist who has written about Mississippi people and places for more than 30 years. A former daily staff news reporter for the Mississippi Press, she currently writes for various media and teaches communication at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Reach her at [email protected]

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