Some sayings crossed the Atlantic

Published 9:02 pm Tuesday, February 21, 2017

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Southern country sayings have many origins. Some took root right at home, thriving in the rich soil of southern rural lore. But others were brought to our shores from England. Here are a couple of examples of the latter.

One of the most persistent rural phrases in the south has been “tighter than Dick’s hatband.” Any country boy in the south a half century ago could tell you that a lug nut on a tire that wouldn’t budge was “tighter’n Dick’s hatband.” That same young man would not have a clue where the phrase came from, other than from his father or grandfather.

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There appears to be little doubt that the phrase is English in origin and originally political in nature. “Dick” in this case was Richard Cromwell, the son of Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan “Protector” who ruled during the years of the Commonwealth. Son Richard attempted to rule England after his father’s death in 1658. He never had the following his father did and gave up his unsuccessful reign after only nine months.

Cromwell was known irreverently as “King Dick” and it was said the the English crown sat too tightly on him, thus the phrase “tighter than Dick’s hatband.”

Another southern phrase that has probably has English roots is “He got the short end of the stick.” The meaning is clear to all who use it, that the person receiving the “short end” has been treated poorly, whether in a business deal, as an heir or in a variety of other ways.

But what, really, is the “short” end of a stick. One end could be bigger, blunter or sharper, but why would one end be shorter or longer? As we use it, the phrase just doesn’t make a lot of sense even though we know precisely what we mean by it.

Scholars seem to agree that the “stick” may have originally been a staff, used for walking and, often, fighting in old England. And the “short” end of it may have originally meant the dirty end, for a staff would have a clean end and a dirty end. And in an age when animal as well as human waste were likely to be trod upon on roads and streets, the “dirty” end would have been dirty indeed.

A phrase that may have come from either side of the Atlantic, but is clearly a southern favorite describes a person who looks overly tired or overworked. That person “looks like he’s been rode hard a put away wet.”

Horse lovers know precisely whence that came. A horse that has been ridden hard needs to be walked until he or she cools down before being taken to the barn. Otherwise, the animal suffers physically from being “rode hard and put away wet.”

Another southern favorite is the description of a person who thinks too much of himself as having grown “too big for his britches.”

The phrase is pure American and probably coined by a legendary American, at that. The first known use of the phrase was by Davy Crockett, whom we all learned from Walt Disney was “King of the Wild Frontier.”

Crockett, whose frontier life became the stuff of legend, was also a congressman who represented a Tennessee congressional district off and on for several terms.

Crockett fiercely opposed President Andrew Jackson on several issues, none more than his Indian removal policy. Crockett wrote of Jackson:

“I myself was one of the first to fire a gun under Andrew Jackson. I helped to give him all his glory. But I liked him well once: but when a man gets too big for his breeches, I say Good bye.”

One source says this phrase migrated across the Atlantic in the opposite direction, showing up in Scotland years after Crockett’s death and changed slightly to “too big for his boots.”