An ode to idioms: Country people talk sense

Published 5:05 pm Tuesday, July 6, 2021

I ate my first tomato sandwich from this year’s crop last week — white bread, mayonnaise and a touch of pepper only — and it was as welcome as it always is in late June or early July.

That sandwich marks the beginning of the month of plenty as far as vegetables are concerned. Tomatoes, green peppers, squash, egg plants and most anything else gardeners cherish are becoming plentiful or, as a country gardener would say, the vegetables are “comin’ in,” and doing so rapidly.

Would that we could harvest this bounty year-round. But, alas, we have to enjoy it while it’s here.

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Mac Cofer, who died in September of last year, was quoted as saying a couple of years ago that, “This time of year, lock your car when you go to church or somebody will put vegetables in it.”

Mac was a Surry County native, having grown up on the Cofer family farm just outside of Dendron. He loved the country and country lore, and was fond of the idioms that were at the heart of country conversation. A few that he used and others he would have been comfortable with follow.

We farm boys grew up learning to make do with what we had. We were taught to build or repair anything from a hog pen to a leak in a barn roof.

And we knew the difference between permanent, proper repairs, and temporary fixes. They were known as “a lick and a promise,” a phrase that actually has been around for several centuries. A lick originally referred to a quick cleaning and might or might not involve an actual “lick,” depending, I suppose, on what was being cleaned. The promise was that a better job would be accomplished at some point in the future.

Fence repairs are a good example. Hogs always seemed to root their way through a fence on Sunday morning, just about the time everybody was headed to church, or on a Friday evening when a teenager was dressed to go on a date. When that happened, everything came to a halt until the hogs could be retrieved and the fence repaired. Those repairs were made “with a lick and a promise.” If the “lick” held, however, the promise for a better repair often wasn’t kept.

Another example of “good enough” repairs came from Bill Barlow. He recalled recently that his father, Gordon Barlow, hired another Barlow, Jim, to do some carpentry work for him. When Gordon tried to tell Jim how to improve on the work, he was promptly told, “It’s good enough for who it’s fer.” He said no more.

Then, there was descriptive, if sometimes obscure, terminology.

If we, as youngsters, were helping mount cultivators or other implements on a tractor or performing some other mechanical chore, we would be expected to hand our father tools as needed. It would not be unusual to be told to “hand me that doohickey,” which might be a pry bar, wrench or whatever else was needed. Tools also became thingamabobs, whatchamacallits and gizmos at various times, and we were expected to know what was being described, regardless of the term in use.

Country expressions offered a degree of permanence and stability in a changing world. For example, my mother was likely, well beyond her 90th birthday, to ask a friend who drove into the yard to stay for a visit by saying, “Won’t you get down and come in?” With the exception of some of the monster pickup trucks on the road today, few people “get down” from cars, but they did from a horse-drawn buggy or wagon. That’s where the phrase came from and her generation used it steadfastly.

Some of the idioms that grew out of the pre-automobile era remain with us today. It’s not unusual to hear that an angry person “has a burr under his saddle.” That naturally grew out of somebody’s experience with a horse that was irritated by some foreign object lodged under the saddle.

Other references are a bit more obscure. You rarely hear today of someone “stepping out of the traces,” but it’s a very meaningful phrase. It refers to a person who refuses to follow the rules and originates from a horse or mule that had stepped outside of the “traces” that were used to pull a plow or other horse-drawn implement. Once a horse had done so, he could be quite unmanageable.

One of my father’s favorite sayings involved any horse, mule or cow with a propensity to kick — accurately — at just the right moment. That animal, he would say, “can kick the soda out of a biscuit without cracking the crust.”

Mules were as aggravating as they were valuable. They were known to be hardheaded, hence the phrase, still in use, “stubborn as a mule.” And farmers were wont to say they could only get a mule’s attention with a 2-by-4 applied not so gently between the eyes. Ouch.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is