I recently had the dubious honor of listening to a self-important gas-bag blow about the poor grammar of my native Eastern Kentuckians. While much of what he said is true, one could persuasively argue that it is more a dialectic question than one of grammar. I’m not a linguist, so that’s beyond my analytical ability. It did get me thinking, though, about how we all speak and how it is influenced by our surroundings. For example, my mother railed against poor grammar, although I was not particularly receptive, peppering my language with my fair share of “ain’ts” and double-negatives. (Whenever I hear a double-negative, I hear my mother’s voice: “If you ‘don’t have no’ you really have some.”). I realized that my family had its own language, which may not have been well-understood outside our small circle.
My father was the font of most of our peculiar dialect–a combination of sayings, words and colloquialisms. Here are some of the terms and sayings I learned growing up (and as an adult) which my family used liberally.
CRYIN’ RUBE: Dad had a cousin named Ruby who, by all accounts, cried at the slightest provocation. Thus, she was known as “Cryin’ Rube.” This pejorative was reserved for times when one of us kids cried for no good reason. “Be quiet, Cryin’ Rube” or “Don’t be a Cryin’ Rube” would be Dad’s frequent response. I’ve said it to my kids, but they don’t get it.
H.G.: HG was another of Dad’s cousins. One summer in the 1930’s, HG stayed with Dad’s family. He was, as Dad said, a “muscle head.” (see definition below). Dad described him as a “goofy-looking boy.” One day, HG was dancing on the front porch swinging a curtain rod around like a sword. While dancing, HG inadvertently stuck the curtain rod into an empty light socket. He was blown off his feet. If I did something really stupid, Dad might refer to me as HG. To be HG meant you exercised poor judgment or were just generally annoying.
MUSCLE HEAD: We didn’t coin this term, but Dad used it often. Essentially, it means that rather than having functioning brain matter, your skull is full of useless muscle. This was often shortened to simple “muscle,” as in “Listen here, muscle….”
THE ROUNDTABLE: The roundtable is where you sit when you have arrived. You only get a seat if you are qualified (see Portfolio below). “You are now at the roundtable” was perhaps Dad’s highest praise. Impostors or wastrels need not even consider approaching the roundtable. It’s invitation only.
PORTFOLIO: Your portfolio is a list of your accomplishments, qualifications and general worthiness. To be “without portfolio” was Dad’s way of saying that you just don’t measure up. There is no room for you at the Roundtable. In his later years, Dad was fond of saying (and saying and saying…) “I am my portfolio. My portfolio is I.” Outside immediately family, I doubt that was well understood. My brother and I knew he meant that he would stand on his own accomplishments. We knew this because he also said “I will stand on my portfolio.” What really taught us was we call The Parable of the Washer Woman. It went something like this:
If you are invited to the Roundtable, you will be judged on your portfolio. If the washer woman approaches the Roundtable, they will review her portfolio, too. “Let’s see, here, hmmm. What are your accomplishments? You are a WASHER WOMAN! OUT!” She is without portfolio. If you have portfolio, you will get your seat, but you will earn your place.”
At this point, I should note that my father had no prejudice against washer women. He was simply emphasizing that not everyone could sit at the Roundtable. The titular washer woman lacked portfolio; thus, for her own good, she need not approach the Roundtable. My brother and I understood. Oddly, the first time my brother heard this, he thought it was a true story and was horrified by the treatment of the poor washer woman. Don’t let that cause you to question my brother’s portfolio. He has portfolio. Dad said so.
HORSE FACE CUMPTON: It would help if you had known my maternal grandparents, which is unlikely. They were the finest of people but almost like a comedian team. Papaw had a penchant for long, detailed stories which Mammaw constantly interrupted with irrelevant comments and questions. Here is where Horse Face arose:
Papaw: “When I worked in the mines at Benham, I worked with this fellow…”
Mammaw: “Ireland (pronounced “Arlen”), who was he?”
Papaw: “Muriel (pronounced “Merle”), you didn’t know him. Anyway…”
Mammaw: “What was his name, Ireland?”
Papaw: “You didn’t know him, Muriel. Back to my story. This fellow…”
Mammaw: “I knew everyone at Benham, Ireland.”
Papaw: “MURIEL, HE WAS A MAN NAMED HORSE FACE CUMPTON!! THERE!!”
Mammaw: “Horse Face Cumpton? Hmmm. That name rings a bell.”
Maybe that’s not funny to you, but you didn’t know Mammaw, did you? She was the same person who once asked a lady with the last name of Pigg if she was related to the Hogg family in Letcher County.
Anytime that I’m interrupted trying to tell a story, I feel the urge to yell “HORSE FACE CUMPTON!” Sometimes, I do, and no one understands.
UNEMPLOYABLE: We all know this word, but few of us use it as a noun. Dad did, as in “He is an unemployable.” Dad put great stock in people having jobs and, more importantly, being willing and able to have a job. Likewise, he considered helping get someone a job to be the greatest kindness one can offer. He referred to some folks as “unemployables.” I have adopted this as part of my vocabulary. One word of caution, be careful about when you use it. People don’t like being called that.
One night I called Dad and asked what he’d been doing. He said “I just returned from speaking to a group of unemployables.” I still hope that he didn’t really call them that during his talk.
LOWEST OF TRASH: I’ve written before about my mother’s use of this term. It’s bad enough to compare a human to refuse but adding to that the “lowest” of such human garbage is harsh indeed. Unfortunately, sometimes that’s all that applies.
BANK SHOES: No, these aren’t worn by bankers. These are shoes fit only for wearing on a river bank.
STREAK OF THE CREEK: Dad’s way of saying that you might be too backward to make it in the modern world. “It’s hard to wash off a streak of the creek.”
SIMPLETON: Again, not an original but so frequently used that it became part of my vocabulary. It’s similar to “wastrel,” a word no one uses anymore. Dad used it. So do I.
KNUCKLEHEAD: No doubt, this came from our family love for the Three Stooges. Can be used interchangeably with “loggerhead” or “numbskull.”
DAFT: Like wastrel, this fell out of favor a couple of hundred years ago, but we liked it.
THUMBS: A pejorative term used for a clumsy person, as in “Be careful there, Thumbs!” “Ox” or “Oxy” can also be used.
HORSEY: A rather unattractive woman, usually large. “She’s a big horsey woman.” I try to avoid this one. It just doesn’t go over well.
THIS ISN’T A HIGH SCHOOL DEBATE: Another one of Dad’s which he adopted late in his life. Translation: Regardless of how inane or plain wrong what I am saying may be, do not take exception to anything I say, boy. Ever.
HUMMAQUEER: My brothers and I and our cousin were riding in a car with Mom on a drive in Utah. We were discussing someone and Mom wanted to ask this question: Is he a homosexual? Now, bear in mind that this was several decades ago before “gay” was in common usage in our part of the world. Also, I doubt Mom had ever said the word “homosexual.” In fact, it’s unlikely that she had ever said “sexual” in mixed company. To her credit, she wanted to prove she was “with it.” Here is how the question was actually asked:
Do you think he’s one of those, uh, you know, uh…humma…humma…uh…hummaqueers?
You may be offended by this. If so, my mother has been dead for many years now and likely wouldn’t have cared about your opinion anyway. Of course, if that does offend you, then you certainly will be offended by the question my cousin asked her: “Is that anything like a fagsexual?”
Political correctness and common decency prevent the use of hummaqueer these days. That’s a good thing, but I still think it sometimes.
THAT CAT LOVES IT UP THERE: Another cousin of mine was a rambunctious child. After a long car ride, he leapt from the car, grabbed my Mammaw’s cat and threw it up on the roof of my grandparents’ house. As he was being scolded, he shouted: “THAT CAT LOVES IT UP THERE!” This always comes to mind whenever I do something inexplicable and don’t have a good excuse. For example, I once kicked in my son’s bedroom door and immediately thought, well, you get the picture.
This is just a partial list. There were, too, the requisite cautionary tales and the tales of woe (walking to school, no new clothes, no Christmas presents, eating mush, etc.) all parents tell. I’m sure your family has its own distinct vocabulary. Think for a moment about the names you gave your grandparents–Grandpa, Pappy, MeeMaw, Moo Moo, Granny, etc.. Consider, too, the various humorous family terms for bodily functions and genitalia. You can easily make your own Family Thesaurus and Dictionary. If you’re foreign, you can even do a bi-lingual version. Try it. You’ll have fun.
Now, back to the Roundtable.
Whenever I hear someone use Papaw, Mamaw, or Memaw, my first question is, where are you from? Odds are very good they’re from Appalachia!
At the very beginning of this story, I thought wonder if he was talking about Richard Stagnoli (my uncle)? Then I read a little farther and you talk about your Grandpa…the name sounds familiar. I continue on, and you say that one would have to have known your maternal grandparents (not likely). Well guess what? I recognised these tales from Michigan, our grandma’s were sisters lmao! Great stories 😉