“Bad Cess”

by Henry Farrell on August 17, 2014

Patrick Nielsen Hayden on Twitter today wished bad cess on a Hugo nominee apparently belonging to the richly-deserving-of-the-worst-cess-possible class. ‘Bad cess’ is an Irish expression; I suspect Patrick got it from Flann O’Brien, but I wouldn’t put it past him to have come across it somewhere else. This reminded me that I’ve been meaning for years to record a couple of Irish country expressions, mostly from my father and through him, from Gid, a Westmeath woman who worked at the farm he was born on, and who died when I was ten or so.

Gid was fond of two maledictions. One is a little opaque to me; “May the curse of Scotland be on you.” If I were to guess, I’d say it was a reference to the fact that multitudes Irish farm labourers had to go to Scotland to find seasonal work; many of them stayed and ended up, sooner or later, in the slums of Glasgow or other cities. The other is more transparent; “May the curse of the seven snotty orphans be on you.” ‘Snotty’ here means ‘badly behaved and presumptuous,’ rather than with noses in need of a good wiping. It wasn’t unusual for relatives to have to take orphans in unexpectedly- my own father’s father was brought up by two bachelor uncles after his parents died when he was an infant. And of course, he was very lucky – the history of orphanages in Ireland is a wretched one indeed.

Gid would also say that someone was “that hungry, he’d eat a chap’s arse through a chair,” a chap being country argot for a small child. Stephen King uses the word “chap” in a similar way in one of his novels, suggesting that the slang made its way to Maine (and of course, ‘chappie’ is a somewhat dated English diminutive for a very young boy). And of someone knocking on death’s door for a long while, but never quite managing to expire, “it’s the creaking door that hangs the longest.” This last seems from an Internet search to have had some circulation in nineteenth century England, where likely it originated.

I like these sayings; there’s some flavor to them. Feel encouraged in comments to provide your own, if you have any.



joel hanes 08.17.14 at 10:20 pm

My mother’s family uses “Snickelfritz” as an affectionate diminutive for any small child


Phil 08.17.14 at 10:27 pm

For what it’s worth, “bad cess” has me flashing back not to FO’B but to the Black Velvet Band (“Her eyes, they shone like diamonds…” etc).


Bloix 08.17.14 at 10:42 pm

I remember singing a song (at school? hard to believe. At summer camp?) –

In 18 hundred 41, I put me cord’roy britches on,
I put me cord’roy britches on, to work upon the railway
Fiddle-me-ory, ory-aye (3x),
to work upon the railway.

In 18 hundred 42, I left the Old World for the New,
Bad cess to the luck that brought me through,
To work upon the railway.

It’s a bit unreasonable for an Irishman to damn his luck in coming to Americay in 1842 – when the alternative was probably starvation by 1852.

A little googling tells me that the Weavers and many others recorded this song and it’s known as Paddy on the Railway.

A little more googling tells me that in the early 19th c both “good cess” and “bad cess” were common in England as well as Ireland and that it’s probably not Gaelic at all, but that cess is probably truncated from “success.”


Meredith 08.17.14 at 10:52 pm

Bloix, we sang Paddy on the Railway in elementary school, NJ 1950’s. Though I don’t remember the “bad cess” part.

My Montana father, when truly disgusted, would say, “Oh, sheep dip.” I’ve always liked that one.

A woman raised in Virginian Appalachia who sometimes (like on rainy days) gave me a ride (and her daughter) a ride to school would always say as the car slowed in front of the school yard, “Here ye be.”


LizardBreath 08.17.14 at 10:53 pm

My grandmother (immigrated to the US from County Cavan as a teenager in the 1930s) would in moments of unusual hostility describe authority figures as “no better than the Black and Tans.” (I looked it up as a teenager — they were an auxiliary force working with the Royal Irish Constabulary at the time of the Irish war of independence.)


William Timberman 08.17.14 at 10:57 pm

My father once remarked that the south end of a north-going fat woman in pedal-pushers reminded him of two shoats in a tow sack. Not original with him, I’m sure, as he spent much of his childhood on my hillbilly great-grandmother’s East Tennessee farm. I wonder if the expression could be traced back to Ulster, where that part of the family family originated. I’d guess not, but the flavor is definitely reminiscent of somebody or other’s old country.


LizardBreath 08.17.14 at 10:58 pm

“Good riddance to bad rubbish” came up in moments of more usual hostility, of which she had plenty. But that one’s less individual — I’m sure I’ve heard it from other sources.


PatrickinIowa 08.17.14 at 11:20 pm

So I’ve always thought that “bad cess” used the same “cess” as in “cesspool.” A glance at the OED seems to indicate that the dates work out, but the OED points to “cess” derived from “success,” which I don’t see, and this definition of “cess,” which I find a bit more plausible, “2. Ireland. The obligation to supply the soldiers and the household of the lord deputy with provisions at prices ‘assessed’ or fixed by government; hence loosely used for military exactions generally. Obs. exc. Hist.”

I once speared an extra potato cake at my grandfather’s breakfast table, and my Aunt Frances said, in her lovely Dublin lilt, “Ah, Paddy, anyone would think the wolf was at your door.” Maybe not unique, but memorable.


Henry 08.17.14 at 11:30 pm

LizardBreath @5, cf this from way back on CT,


some guy 08.17.14 at 11:30 pm

The Curse of Scotland could also be union with England, it occurs to me, though ending up in a Glaswegian slum is not much to look forward to.

Least said, soonest mended — on the virtues of keeping your mouth shut.
What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over — on the benefits of not looking too closely/ignorance is bliss


LizardBreath 08.17.14 at 11:31 pm

Oh, another one, from my mother’s aunt on the other side of the family — we were visiting, and my sister, maybe four at the time, was frightened by the geese in the yard outside, and ran into the cottage. She left the door open behind her and the geese followed her in. Maggie glared at her, and as she was shooing the geese back out, said “‘Come in and be welcome,’ said the first to the rest!”


Bernard Yomtov 08.17.14 at 11:40 pm

Among card players the nine of diamonds is called the Curse of Scotland.

Why? Who knows?


Bloix 08.17.14 at 11:57 pm

#8 – The problem with the proposed “assess” origin is that it doesn’t account (1) for English examples, and (2) for “good cess,” which is attested.

#4 – Meredith, I have seen sheep dipping. It’s filthy work. I’ve never done it, but I have dipped onion sets. These have the good grace to stay still when you dip them, but the dip is just as revolting.

I knew a woman from Quebec who would curse by saying, “Tabernac!” This is the vessel in a Catholic church that holds the communion wafers. It seemed quaint that the Quebecois continued to blaspheme while the rest of us had moved on to obscenity.


P.M.Lawrence 08.18.14 at 12:11 am

Here are three expressions from Ireland: “if’ ifs’ and ‘ands’ were pots and pans, there’d be no need for tinkers”; “a gang of tinkers such as you wouldn’t [even] find at a Donegal Horse Fair”; and “near every man’s door there grows a thorn bush”.

I’m sure I got the first from my mother, who was Irish, but I’m not so sure about the others. That last is interesting, because it has several layers:-

– Near every man’s door there grows a thorn bush. This has three several meanings.

– Near every man’s door there grows a thorn bush. This is a simple practical-botanical observation that applies in that part of the world.

– Near every man’s door there grows a thorn bush. This means that you will always find the makings of a shillelagh ready to hand, as you can improvise one from the roots of the blackthorn bush (however, Robert Graves noted in The White Goddess that tinkers made their shillelaghs from oak, as they could take the time and trouble to make them in advance). This was certainly relevant in my mother’s family; when my mother returned from the wars in 1945, her father greeted her at the door armed with a shillelagh, since those were troubled times then in France (to which the family had found it convenient to emigrate immediately after the First World War – yes, that means what you think it means).

– Near every man’s door there grows a thorn bush. This is a metaphor for everyone always being close to the realms of the Leprechauns and the Cluricauns and the People of the Shee, which were symbolised by the thorn bush.

From my father, who was a Scot, I heard the saying “we’ll never get rich taking in each other’s washing”.


The Temporary Name 08.18.14 at 12:27 am

#8 – The problem with the proposed “assess” origin is that it doesn’t account (1) for English examples, and (2) for “good cess,” which is attested.

It’s language, so it can be both, and messier still. If “cess” is a word for tax that still sees use, it seems like a simple explanation for “bad sess” cursing. The 1911 Britannica entry pointed to by the Wikipedia says

CESS (a shortened form of ” assess “; the spelling is due to
a mistaken connexion with ” census “), a tax; a term formerly
more particularly applied to local taxation, in which sense it
still is used in Ireland; otherwise it has been superseded by
” rate.” In India it is applied, with the qualifying word prefixed,
to any taxation, such as ” irrigation-cess ” and the like, and in
Scotland to the land-tax.


Adrian 08.18.14 at 12:28 am

My uncle would always say, when asking if someone was still alive that he hadn’t heard from in a while, a common question in rural Ireland, would say “Is s/he still to be had?” Which I always found yo be a very interesting use of tenses.
My father will often say when asking for luck or something to be a success will say “In the name of the three snotty orphans!”


The Temporary Name 08.18.14 at 12:30 am

Yes, I can misspell anything, but bad sess would be bad sensimilla, which might fit.


Lars 08.18.14 at 12:31 am

“Chap” is also used (or was, a couple of generations ago) as a synonym for child in the Appalachians.

@ Bloix 13:
Quebecois’ native profanity was based upon Catholic litany and holy objects; thus “Tabernac”, “calisse” and the like. Even though Quebec society is now strongly secular, this peculiar form of profanity seems to be hanging on.


Bloix 08.18.14 at 12:55 am

A little googling gives us “An Essay on Irish Swearing,” in “Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry,” by William Carleton, publ. Dublin, 1833:

“… that common curse, bad ‘cess to you! That is, bad success to you; we may identify it with “hard fortune to you!”

This might be wrong, but Carleton was Irish, so maybe he knew.

See http://books.google.com/books?id=9sEsAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=bad%20cess&f=false


Bloix 08.18.14 at 1:05 am

PS- if you do an Ngram on good success, bad success, you’ll see that both were common in the 17th & 18th c and that both decline markedly in the 19th c. Bad success disappears almost entirely by 1900. But Milton used it in Paradise Regained, and it seems to have been fairly commonly used to mean ill-fortune.


PJW 08.18.14 at 1:23 am

“You don’t know shit from Shinola.” A friend told me his grandmother used to say this.


Sancho 08.18.14 at 1:26 am

My British father always had it as “eat a Chinaman’s arse through a cane chair”.

Political correctness says we can’t even joke about eating the Chinese. It’s liberal tyranny.


Eoghan 08.18.14 at 1:31 am

I knew it as: “eat a farmer’s arse through an iron gate”

I also liked the customary retort if someone was a little bit previous in taking your seat as you stood up: “would you be into my grave as quick?”


Bloix 08.18.14 at 1:38 am

#21- Shinola was a brand of shoe polish. The idea being that you were so stupid that you’d – well, you get it already.


floopmeister 08.18.14 at 1:59 am

The bizarre thing about ‘the curse of Scotland’ being an Irish expression is that ‘Scotland’ basically means ‘land of the Irish/gaelic’. Not sure how many Scots are aware of that.

Probably as many Russians as are aware that their homeland name means ‘land of the Rus’ – the Rus being Vikings.


floopmeister 08.18.14 at 2:00 am

PS I’ve always liked the insult “I wouldn’t piss in his ear if his brains were on fire”.


Teachable Mo' 08.18.14 at 2:05 am

My great grandmother was fond of declaring about some misbehaving child that she wanted to shake him until his teeth rattled.


Tony Lynch 08.18.14 at 2:29 am

For those with an overbite and projecting teeth: He/She could eat an apple through a tennis racket.


JanieM 08.18.14 at 2:29 am

When I was very young, my dad, when talking with my mom within my hearing, would sometimes refer to someone as “an ess of a bee.” It was clear that my dad didn’t like whoever-it-was, but it wasn’t at all clear what that had to do with bees or their esses (whatever those were).

I could only assume that this was one of those things, the meaning of which would be revealed as I got older.

It was, but not in the way I expected.


JimV 08.18.14 at 2:33 am

“Get out and let the wind blow the stink off ya,” is a family saying to tell kids to go play outside for a while. I think it came from my Irish-American grandmother. (Although usually that activity had the opposite effect.)

“Tabernac”, “sacre bleu”, and “moi je de christ” were common swear words in northern NYS near the border with Quebec, when I grew up there.


Bloix 08.18.14 at 2:35 am

Oh, and a tantalizing hint that “the curse of Scotland” is not a curse at all, but a person – specifically, Adam Cockburn, Lord Ormiston, a Scottish politician and judge, who was hated in the Scottish Highlands for his role in bloodily suppressing the Jacobite Rising after the English deposed James II in 1688.

Alternatively, Sir Walter Scott says that the Curse of Scotland is the Earl of Stair, who authorized the Glencoe Massacre of 1692 (again, part of the suppression of the Jacobites).



Main Street Muse 08.18.14 at 3:00 am

“Many hands make light work,” said my grandfather, who hailed from Clare, as he sat in the chair and watched everyone else work.

“If the wind turns as you make that face, you’ll be frozen like that forever,” said my mother, a Dubliner.

Black cat crossing the road was good luck.

My grandmother would run to bring in the laundry anytime she saw the Tinkers down the road in their horse-drawn cart.

As children, we used to obsessively listen to the Dubliners play “There was an old woman who lived in the woods…” about a wicked old woman who killed a baby in the woods. http://bit.ly/1maf6Mm Lyrics a far cry from today’s Wiggles, etc.


Meredith 08.18.14 at 3:27 am

Thanks to Main Street Muse. I think we’re all holding back for fear of not being colorful enough.

“If looks could kill, we’d all be dead.” Actually, you only need say “If looks could kill….” (I heard that said of me a lot when I was little.)

There are also exclamations. Like “Land o’ Goshen!” which, as a child, I always heard as “Atlantic Ocean!” (For some reason, my father often woke us children up by booming the exclamation as he walked down the hall after his morning bath. We lived near the Atlantic Ocean — why not think of it first thing each morning? Better than sheep dip.) On “mis”-hearing or “mis”-understanding: I suspect Bloix is onto the origins of “bad cess.” (Think of the way we use “luck” today: it implies neutral (chance) or good luck, unless marked with the modifier “bad.”) But of course origins only tell us what earliest speakers of an expression meant by it. Subsequent “mis”-use becomes “standard” if enough people “mis”-understand in more or less the same way — and just as Janie M. got the gist of “ess of bee,” the “gist” usually remains the pretty stable over time. Must be what it’s like to learn a foreign language entirely orally/aurally while living among native speakers.


PatrickinIowa 08.18.14 at 3:42 am

From the National Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings, back in the day: “If looks could maim, the old elf would have left in a basket.”

Still cracks me up.


William Berry 08.18.14 at 4:03 am

Just one from my hill-billy paisanos/ ancestors: “wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which one fills up first”.


David Moz 08.18.14 at 4:33 am

Don’t even know what sense can be made of it, but when faced with something that must be done I am inclined to say “Needs must when the devil drives.” My mother was Irish.


dn 08.18.14 at 4:45 am

“Bad cess to the black velvet band…”


dn 08.18.14 at 5:08 am

My dad has always been fond of the expression “good as new, if your new ain’t too good” – used, for example, when doing an amateur repair job on a house, car, etc.


LFC 08.18.14 at 5:10 am

Wm Berry @34
Along the same lines (though not as earthy): If wishes were horses then beggars would ride.


LFC 08.18.14 at 5:12 am

floopmeister @25
Never heard that – excellent.


Meredith 08.18.14 at 5:20 am

Suddenly it hits me. I love these sayings. Mostly Celtic or English. Where are the Indian sayings, the African-American?


Peter Glavodevedhzhe 08.18.14 at 5:35 am

My grandmother, from rural Tennessee, would snap at us grandchildren when we misbehaved, “I’m going to beat you so hard, you’ll land in the middle of next week!” I realized some years later that it was just a figure of speech.


cpareader 08.18.14 at 5:42 am

The neighbor child, invited for dinner, said after: “Plenty good, such as ’twas,” then thought for a moment and added, “And such as ’twas, there was plenty of it.” A favorite comment to the cook after dinner at our house.


Judy ross 08.18.14 at 5:47 am

My grandmother (born 1889) used to say of children who were bragging about what they were going to do, “oh, you’re going to cut a pig in the pants.” I knew what she meant by that, but never figured why that phrase would describe having bigger ideas than you could ever carry out. She was from Utah…


Bloix 08.18.14 at 6:09 am

Lots of references to tinkers. Presumably everyone knows that tinker is a pejorative name for the Irish Travellers, the Irish indigenous gypsies, who have their own language and a unique form of Catholicism. They are called tinkers because they traditionally mended pots and kettles as a way to make a living (a tinker is a tinsmith), or perhaps as a cover for what most Irish have always viewed as their true calling – thieving. Which is why Main Street Muse’s grandmother would bring the washing in when she saw them. And why there would be a gang of tinkers at a Donegal Horse Fair (where better to sell a stolen pony, or to steal another one?)


Stephen 08.18.14 at 8:22 am

Heard in Ireland, of a man with no understanding at all of how machinery worked:

“The sort of idiot who would play Russian roulette with an automatic pistol”.


maidhc 08.18.14 at 9:13 am

When something got spilled or broken, people would say “‘Twas needed where it went”, which I presume was a reference to the fairies.

Then there are places you step on. One is the “stray sod” or “fód mearbhaill”. This is often associated with a fairy fort. When you step on it you become totally disoriented and cannot find your way even if you are in a place you know well. The cure is to put your jacket on inside out. This happened to me once, but I was so confused I forgot about the inside out jacket thing. But I eventually looked up and saw Croagh Patrick, which made me realize I was going in a direction completely different than what I thought.

A similar idea is the “hungry grass” (féar gortach). That is if you step on a place where someone died of starvation (in Ireland there are a lot of such places) you will immediately be seized with an intense hunger. Traditionally it was thought that if you didn’t eat something right away you would die, so it was a good idea to carry a bit of bread along whenever you went out. Nowadays it’s more of an expression. If someone shows an unusual appetite you say you must have trod on the hungry grass.

“Bad cess” is often used as a translation for Irish curses such as “marbhfháisc ort”. May the deathband be on you. The marbhfháisc is the band that is wrapped around the head of a corpse to keep the mouth closed. Or “tórramh gan coinneal” (funeral without a candle) or “bas gan sagart” (death without a priest). There are lots of those.

JanieM: That reminds me of the story about the foreigner who visited the USA. “Whenever Americans get angry, they try to calm themselves down by thinking about something beautiful, like sun on the beach.”


LizardBreath 08.18.14 at 10:55 am

I can also attest to “blow the stink off you” for getting children outdoors, from my same grandmother. Particularly as a justification for getting even an infant outdoors once a day at least even in the middle of winter.


maidhc 08.18.14 at 11:01 am

The Hungry Grass

A shiver runs up my spine
As stories I recall
Of people dead in times gone by
I was told of when I was small.
Of famine dead who to the workhouse went
Dropped dead as they our gate did pass
And the ground on which they fell
Became known as the hungry grass.
For should one walk upon it
Even though they did just eat
The hunger gnawing would strike them
Till they were quick upon their feet
And nothing would quench the hunger
So the story’s said
Bar milk and bread hand torn
The only sustenance of those now dead.
You could eat meat untill full
At any other time be you would
But this time the hunger only by bread
Hand torn, washed by milk would
Quench the hunger of the dead
Who outside our gate died
Not so terribly long ago
Who to survive tried
But the Lord in mercy took them
Though grain was exported at the time
And people died for want of bread…
Oh the shame for Britain of the crime!

Some people don’t believe the story
When I tell of the Hungry Grass
Should I go there I tell you
On the other side of the road I’ll pass!

Tomás Ó Cárthaigh


Emma in Sydney 08.18.14 at 11:59 am

A friend of mine says, when hungry, “I could eat the crotch out of a low flying duck”, but my family’s saying was always “I could eat a horse, and chase the rider”. There are lots of saying I consider to be Australian, but of course they probably have shared histories. Of someone needlessly showy in their dress or accoutrements: “He’s as flash as a rat with a gold tooth”. Of someone stupid, “He’s as thick as pigshit and that’s too thick to stir”. Of someone parsimonious, “Mean as cat’s meat, too mean to smell”.


Toby 08.18.14 at 12:47 pm

My mother (also a Westmeath woman) used to say ‘Bad cess to him!”, also “Bad scramp to him!”.
Other ones I remember
“[If your father heard that], he’d foal a fiddle!”
“There will be wigs on the green” [a big fight]
“I wouldn’t cross the street to see him!”
“Dear, oh dear, and Darcy’s porter!’ (From my father, a Connemara man).


Layman 08.18.14 at 1:44 pm

My wife (a South African) uses “since Pa fell off the bus,” which seems to mean a long time ago. Also “looks like he/she walked through a bush backwards” for someone untidy, especially untidy hair.


Eoghan 08.18.14 at 1:58 pm

Of someone who wasn’t too choosy in their love life: “he’d get up on a slow dog”.


John Garrett 08.18.14 at 2:09 pm

Re shinola: In Steve Martin’s THE JERK, Martin is raised by a black farm family but doesn’t know he’s white. Before leaving home, his father tells him he has one more lesson to teach hi. He leads Martin into a field, looks down, and says, “This is shit.” Then he takes a can of shoe polish from his pocket and says, “and this is shinola.”

When my Dad hit his thumb with a hammer, to avoid cursing he’d holler, “Got down and couldn’t get up!” JG


dn 08.18.14 at 2:38 pm

Another one from my dad: “Finer than frog’s hair (and that’s mighty fine)”, a good all-purpose way to describe items of good quality.


dn 08.18.14 at 2:39 pm

Or to describe one’s own state of being.


Bloix 08.18.14 at 3:12 pm

maidhc – “sun on the beach”
My father would use “son-of-a-bitch” as a general curse-word. Hit his thumb with a hammer, or drop a screw into a dark corner, and – “son-of-a-bitch!” He did all the repairs in the house, and he was not handy and also short-tempered, so we heard it a fair amount. I think that’s almost completely gone. We say “fuck!” now. My father would never, ever say that.

“Hungry grass” is heartbreaking and yet fascinating to see how a traumatic experience is assimilated and tamed into daily life.


PatrickinIowa 08.18.14 at 3:38 pm

My father, who is Irish-Canadian, would avoid cursing with “God bless my soul.” My mother who is a Scotch-Canadian would just say, “Bullshit.”

As for African Americanisms, one of my favorites came when I was working construction, and the foreman yelled at me and another college kid, who was black, for something or other. As Bruno was walking away, Kevin muttered, “I don’t play that shit.”


William Berry 08.18.14 at 3:57 pm

David Mozart @36:

I don’t know which came first, the version you give, or Marlowe, but “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus” has Faustus saying: “He needs must go that the Devil drives”.

One of my favorite plays, full of great poetry:

The iterating of these lines brings gold; The framing of this circle on the ground
brings whirlwinds, tempests, thunder and lightning.


William Berry 08.18.14 at 3:59 pm

Sorry, but I-Pad auto-correct takes you for a descendant of the Baroque master, I guess.


Layman 08.18.14 at 4:03 pm

My wife C reminds me of two other favorites:

“Don’t stop with your brookies half down”, which C says she got from her mother.

“For Africa”, used to denote a quantity of stuff which is much more than you need. This comes up most often when the waiter delivers a gross, American-sized portion of food: “Sweetie, you have food there for Africa.”


carol 08.18.14 at 4:17 pm

Mom’s Texas sayings: in response to naughtiness: “Stop that or I’m going to snatch you bald headed!”
or “…I’m going to get your good eye!”
Laziness: “don’t just sit there like a bump on a pickle”
From my Illinois father, strongly encouraging us: “Now you’re cooking with gas!”
My Croatian grandmother called us a name I’d really like to know the origin of when we tried to carry too much at one time, which I remember being told was from a story where a man with this name got in trouble for this behavior. It sounded like “chotzo”.


Ronan(rf) 08.18.14 at 5:26 pm

Although perhaps not a saying per se, I always liked the quiet understatement of ‘is fond of the drink’ (or, see also, ‘has an enthusiasm and/or mind for ..’ )
eg. “did you hear X has liquidated his assets and moved to Andalusia ?” ; “ah yeah, sure he always had a fondness for the drink”

The Idjit/eejit situation also is interesting



In the sky 08.18.14 at 5:47 pm

“Who’s taking the horse to France?” which, I do believe, was in reference to the forced exile of a large and vociferous woman of Huguenot origin.


Nick 08.18.14 at 5:51 pm

In my family, which is two different strains of Pennsylvania Dutch, the asshole of the chicken and the fat around it is known as the Pope’s nose — I don’t even know what the correct term for this bit is.


Jasmine O 08.18.14 at 5:59 pm

Here in France, if someone is indiscreet, they say “he’d talk about rope in the house of the hanged man” (“il parle de la corde dans la maison du pendu”.)

A friend of mine from the US used to say “if ifs and buts were candied nuts we’d all have a hell of a Christmas”.


The Temporary Name 08.18.14 at 6:10 pm

Very much like William Berry’s at 35. Wish I was right about cess, (and it can be also true!) but I have a stinky hand that says otherwise.


phenomenal cat 08.18.14 at 6:18 pm

“He was out with the dry cows” — as in he stayed out late/all night
“Ratchet-jawing” — as in talking or carrying on a conversation, but with a slight pejorative overtone
“Rat-killing” -as in doing chores/running errands
“Jump the broomstick” — as in get married
“Caddywhompus” (sp?)–as in something askew, uneven or off-kilter

“Commode”– as in toilet. Growing up in my deep south Scots-Irish (and English) family we mostly used the word commode. It wasn’t until I was quite a bit older and no longer in the south that I realized that no one else anywhere seemed to use that term. Then a few years ago I learned (don’t remember where) that it is commonly used in Ireland.


Mary B 08.18.14 at 7:09 pm

One of my favorites from my childhood in Ohio is “don’t pay him/her no never mind”


LizardBreath 08.18.14 at 7:54 pm

I would spell that word ‘catawhompas’, but not with any great degree of certainty. It’s useful, though. Many, many things in my life are catawhompas on a regular basis.

I don’t know where my parents picked this up — it sounds modern urban American — but ‘crazy as a rat in a coffee can’ is a nicely evocative way of describing someone who’s behaving erratically.


DaveMB 08.18.14 at 7:55 pm

64: The Pope’s nose is normally called the “tail” of the chicken. In one of the later Anne of Green Gables books (early 20th c. Prince Edward Island) a child refers to the Pope’s nose.


JanieM 08.18.14 at 8:18 pm

My paternal grandmother, who was born in Italy, grew up in Brooklyn, and lived the rest of her long adult life in northeastern Ohio, called that part of the bird the Pope’s nose. Go figure.

Wikipedia says, among other things:

“Pygostyle” is of Ancient Greek origin, literally meaning “rump pillar”.

The phrase “parson’s nose” comes from the notion that an English parson may ‘have his nose up in the air’, upturned like the chicken’s rear end. The term must have been known as early as around 1400 AD, when a carpenter had been contracted to provide new choir stalls for St Mary’s Church, Nantwich.[verification needed] The vicar was either slow to pay the artisan, or did not pay at all. In retaliation, on the last misericord in the stalls, the carpenter carved a bird with an image of that Vicar’s face with protuberant nose as rump. The carving is still visible today.[5]

A similar derivation applies to the phrase “Pope’s nose”, which may have originated as a derogatory term meant to demean Catholics in England during the late 17th century.[citation needed]

“Sultan’s nose” probably was coined some time during the Early Modern era wars against the Ottoman Empire.[citation needed]


JanieM 08.18.14 at 8:20 pm

Everything after “among other things” is from Wikipedia. I should have put the html tags around each paragraph. Sigh.


Main Street Muse 08.18.14 at 9:03 pm

Some more sayings that memory is dredging up:

You’re running around like a chicken with her head cut off, said my mother, who would see chickens get their head cut off when visiting her grandmother on the farm in Tullamore.

If you’ve got a black spot on your tongue, you’ve been lying.

“Do ye like tea?!” A fact which could be proved if the squeeze of your knee made you squirm from the tickle.

My grandfather had a great horror of any spots on his spuds, which I think was a reflexive memory of the famine – his family survived in an area that was quite devastated by it. I had never heard of ‘hungry grass” though.

Cat crossed your grave – if you shivered for no reason.

And of course, the cry of the banshee meant death was near.


PJW 08.18.14 at 10:11 pm

When pigs fly. (An impossibility, aka “when hell freezes over”)

Cut a fat cat in the ass. (Make a lot of money)

An alternate version of the shit/Shinola saying is “You don’t know shit from apple butter.”

Worthless as tits on a boar (I misheard this when I first heard it many moons ago, hearing “boar” as “board.”

Heard my dad use the first two sayings in the 1960s.


Cosma Shalizi 08.18.14 at 10:13 pm

74: I learned “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” from my grandmother, from India. (I’ve never thought to ask her where it came from.)

“Not the sharpest tool in the shed” was one I learned in Wisconsin; “sharp as a sack of wet mice”, to the same effect, from a class-mate from New England.

Two of my mother’s which have served me well are “why think, when you can do the experiment?” and “to be shot after a fair trial”, said of something or someone dubious who cannot be dismissed out of hand (yet). Again, I don’t know where she got them.


Conor O'Brien 08.18.14 at 11:26 pm

We were walking yesterday on the Galtees and Áine reminded us of an old phrase.
“All the world is queer, ‘cept mine and thee, and even thee I think a little strange. ”
I have heard it off and on over the past 50 years, and had almost forgotten it until she spoke it to remind me of some foolishness I had said.


Bill 08.18.14 at 11:49 pm

I was very interested to see that use of the word “chap.” Growing up in rural Southern Virginia, children were called “chaps.” In fact, I don’t recall hearing them called kids until I moved away. No one says chaps for children anymore (well, except for my mother), but it was a very common expression here 40 years ago.

Here’s a couple I like that my father used to use, both in response to questions that he deemed irrelevant:
“Don’t worry about the mule going blind, just keep on loading the wagon.”
“If you’re writing a book, just leave that chapter out.”


floopmeister 08.18.14 at 11:58 pm

‘Couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery’

‘Flat out like a lizard drinking’ (extremely busy)

‘A stubby short of a six-pack’ (not the smartest)


Main Street Muse 08.18.14 at 11:59 pm

To Cosma @ 76, I have a feeling that is a universal phrase where there are chickens with chopped heads. So fun to learn that something my mother brought to her America from her Irish grandparents, you learned from YOUR grandmother in India!


ChrisB 08.19.14 at 12:33 am

Australian, as of dress, “Flash as a pox doctor’s clerk”
And (prob. apoc., Barry Humphries) “I hope all your chooks turn to emus and kick your dunny down!”


PatrickinIowa 08.19.14 at 1:13 am

“Commode” is still used for, well, commodes in hospitals and long term care facilities, the mobile ones that can be wheeled to the beds. The alabaster thrones of the British (that’s James Joyce) remain “toilets.”

One from Iowa: “dumb as a sack of hammers.”

Indiana or Michigan, I forget which, “If your aunt had balls she’d be your uncle,” which sounds pretty Hibernian to me.


In the sky 08.19.14 at 1:59 am

Mother of sweet incarnations. That Henry chap is some cute whore.


mattski 08.19.14 at 2:40 am

From an Irish college roommate I heard, “I have to piss like a race horse.”

From a roommate from Arkansas I heard, “Now that just makes my ass chew gum.”


William Berry 08.19.14 at 3:02 am

Following from Cosma @76:

“A few bricks shy of a load”.

“His/ her elevator don’t go all the way to the top”.

“Not the brightest porch light on the block”.

“Queer as a football bat”.

“Queer as a three-dollar bill”.

Drunk and/ or hungover:
“Woke up wishing it had snowed”. Yeah? “So I could track down the bear that shat in my mouth”.

“My eyes looked like two pee holes in the snow”.



protoplasm 08.19.14 at 4:06 am

My grandfather—a Washington D.C. native of some Irish ancestry—would say of someone who was full of hot air, “He talks like a man with a paper asshole.”

“All hat and no cattle” is a less crude expression of the same sentiment, I gather.


Meredith 08.19.14 at 4:20 am

My grandfather (b. 1890’s Brooklyn) used to say, when someone complained about being cold (or, by extension, about anything), “Whatcha gonna do when winter comes?” (This question can be asked in the depth of winter, btw. Point still taken. Seasons of want.)

After all, it can get “as cold as a witch’s tits.” More vivid than merely freezing your ass off.

Running around like a chicken with its head cut off: an example of something people say all the time without any idea of what it means. When my NYC mother briefly lived in Iowa in the late 1940’s early 1950’s (where I was born, in fact), she was mostly miserable, but she did appreciate some of the fine local foodstuffs (e.g., exquisite dairy products, though they didn’t make sour cream — how can a New Yorker, even a WASP New Yorker, live without sour cream? river fish, fowl — some wonderful things to eat; no lamb to be found, however — compensated for by their sweetbreads and liver and kidneys and such being cheap). One time she ordered “fresh chicken” from a local and was appalled to have him deliver her a live chicken. What was she supposed to do with it? He accommodated her by wringing the chicken’s neck for her — and yes, it ran around headless for some minutes. She also got instructions about boiling and plucking. She never ordered “fresh” again.

Couldn’t find his way out of a paper bag. You hit the nail on the head. These expressions are everywhere with us.

To update to the era of cars. My mother would say, when frustrated with children at her skirts, “Why don’t you go out and play in traffic?” (We understood she didn’t mean this literally. After all, she also used to quote R. L. Stevenson, “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,/And what can be the use of it is more than I can see.” I really do remember being like 3 years old and following my mother around and her saying that, and I feel very warm inside.)

Where is Belle? We need more southern voices here — especially deep south.


Lee A. Arnold 08.19.14 at 4:25 am

“Do we need a brick shit-house to fall on your head?” (i.e., when are you going to behave properly) — My good ol’ Grandmom.


Peter T 08.19.14 at 4:31 am

I treasure my grandmother’s sayings (five generations from Ireland and still hated Cromwell):

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride

If we had a coach, we’d have a coach and horses, if we had some horses.

Plus little snatches of rhyme:

Higgledy-piggledy, hey seliggledy, pompt-a-lairy-jig
Every man that has no hair ought to wear a wig.


Lee A. Arnold 08.19.14 at 4:42 am

Bad cess?

A friend of mine once referred to a loathsome, obstreperous person as a “rectal abscess”.

(I immediately replied, “Does abscess make the farts grow louder?”)


js. 08.19.14 at 4:44 am

“Commode”– as in toilet.

Common in India, at least when I was growing up. Used specifically to refer to what were also known as “Western-style toilets”, as opposed to glorified (= plumbed) holes in the ground.

(It occurs to me that I don’t know if “plumbed” is in fact a word, or if it indeed has the sense I’m giving it here. But I imagine one gathers the meaning.)


Meredith 08.19.14 at 4:53 am

Peter T, much as I am ashamed to say, probably some of my ancestors were there with Cromwell, but they also said, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” and they shared snatches of rhyme, “higgledy-piggeldy” — also, fi-fi-fo-fum. Added to in my generation: I smell smoke in the auditorium.


bad Jim 08.19.14 at 5:08 am

My Swedish grandfather built houses, and according to my father he’d exclaim at someone’s fiddling over a detail, “We’re not building a church!” See also, “Good enough for government work.”

Also from my (vaguely Irish) father: “Each to his own taste, said Katy as she kissed the cow.”


Meredith 08.19.14 at 5:35 am

Thinking of songs we used to sing in the car on trips to visit relatives (that’s what vacations were all about). One of the many, Love, oh love oh careless love. “Now I wear my apron high… and he never ever passes by.” At a pretty young age, I took in what that meant. Then there was, “Wearing bell-bottom trousers and coat of navy blue, he can climb the riggin’ like his daddy use to do.” Somehow I feel like these songs (of which I am sure I only heard a snatch of the huge array that must be out there) are vitally related to this post.


Henry 08.19.14 at 7:24 am

Have been away from this thread for a while, but people should please steer clear of aphorisms likely to be be offensive to gay people, travellers and others, thank you very much.


ZM 08.19.14 at 12:45 pm

It’s not really a saying, but I was just talking with a friend today about the phrase ‘hoo-roo’ as a way of saying goodbye. It was more commonly used when I was a child than it is today, and is more of a country saying in Australia than a city saying, and more of a man’s saying than a woman’s saying. I am quite fond of it because it rhymes and I was always quite jealous of ‘how now?’ as a way of saying hello that rhymes.

Stone the [flaming]crows, and she’ll be apples are also common(ish) sayings. When I was little I had books of contemporary vernacular Australian children’s sayings and rhymes by June Factor who went around collecting them: Far Out, Brussel Sprout!; Alright, Vegemite!; and Unreal, Banana Peel! She wrote others too.

I always wished we had more sayings than we do, because in books country people always have lots more dialect or vernacular sayings – like in The Secret Garden wick means the plants are coming back to life, or in Playing Beattie Bow the children were called bairns, and in Cloudstreet which is not a children’s book the children playing were ‘skylarking’.


Dave Heasman 08.19.14 at 2:48 pm

My mother, born Bow 1912, calling me in from the mud – “You’re black as Newgate’s knocker”. Newgate prison closed, I think, 1901.

Very common in 50s London “San Ferry Ann” (Ca ne fait rien)

And an 8-year-old boy in 1955 or so tried to get the word “clout” popularised as an insult. Some years before the Jamaican “blood-claat” or “raas-claat” became common.


ajay 08.19.14 at 3:13 pm

The Northern Italian rural phrase for being incredibly hungry – where we would say “he could eat a horse” – apparently translates as “he could eat a bishop”. Which either says something about the reverence of the average Italian peasant for the clergy (only a starving man could think of committing such a terrible act) or something about the average size of an Italian bishop.

“For Africa”, used to denote a quantity of stuff which is much more than you need. This comes up most often when the waiter delivers a gross, American-sized portion of food: “Sweetie, you have food there for Africa.”

“Eat up! There are children starving in China!” my grandmother used to tell my mother. Simultaneously, according to “Wild Swans”, the young Jung Chang was being told by her mother “Eat up! Don’t you know there are children starving in the capitalist world?”

The Curse of Scotland: the Dalrymple arms is azure on a saltire or nine lozenges of the first. In other words, nine diamonds. Which explains the playing card, maybe. Though my first association of The Curse of Scotland (a phrase dating back at least to 1700) is something like the Archbishop of Glasgow’s response to the reivers.

I denounce, proclamis, and declaris all and sindry the committaris of the said saikles murthris, slauchteris, brinying, heirchippes, reiffis, thiftis and spulezeis, oppinly apon day licht and under silence ofnicht, alswele within temporale landis as kirklandis; togither with thair partakeris, assitaris, supplearis, wittandlie resettaris (knowing receivers) of thair personis, the gudes reft and stollen be thaim, art or part thereof, and their counsalouris and defendouris, of thair evil dedis generalie CURSIT, waryit, aggregeite, and reaggregeite, with the GREIT CURSING.
I curse their heid and all the haris of thair heid; I curse thair face, thair ene, thair mouth, thair neise, thair tongue, thair teeth, thair crag, thair shoulderis, thair breist, thair hert, thair stomok, thair bak, thair wame*, thair armes, thais leggis, thair handis, thair feit, and everilk part of thair body, frae the top of their heid to the soill of thair feet, befoir and behind, within and without.. [and so on at great and comprehensive length]


Glen Tomkins 08.19.14 at 3:37 pm

In New Orleans it’s bad juju. In our tradition, we do more than just wishing bad juju on someone, we take active steps. One burns cornbread on the intended recipient of bad juju, but of course only after casting roots to determine the proper details necessary to insure the efficacy of the entire process.


Theophylact 08.19.14 at 3:57 pm

Here’s a whole gallery of fine Yiddish curses. I especially like “May all your teeth fall out, except one to give you a toothache.”


cezanne 08.19.14 at 4:24 pm

That makes the cheese more binding . . .said of something that confirms what you thought.

If the camels don’t get you, the fatimas will. . . a somewhat pessimistic view of the situation.


PJW 08.19.14 at 5:00 pm

With the commode/jakes/outhouse theme in mind:

“Never had a pot to piss in.”


Ronan(rf) 08.19.14 at 5:11 pm

“Finish your dinner, there are children starving in Africa” was also my mothers admonition. I wonder if that has some equivalent everywhere ?
Also ‘she’s the cats mother’, if we referred to her in the third person.


Ronan(rf) 08.19.14 at 5:12 pm

..not *always* if we reffered to her in the third person. Mainly for the laughs.


Bloix 08.19.14 at 6:44 pm

#95 – in the days of sailing ships, skylarking meant daredevil acrobatics or racing in the rigging (after the lark’s fancy flight displays), often by the teenaged midshipmen, who were subject to less stringent discipline than the sailors.

From that origin, the word developed two different meanings: (1) children racing around, or (2) goofing off or playing hooky.


JanieM 08.19.14 at 7:11 pm

From ZM: When I was little I had books of contemporary vernacular Australian children’s sayings and rhymes by June Factor who went around collecting them: Far Out, Brussel Sprout!; Alright, Vegemite!; and Unreal, Banana Peel! She wrote others too.

This reminds me of a saying of my other grandma’s, the one who lived in Pittsburgh for maybe a year of her life and otherwise in rural Ohio, a couple of hours from that city: “That’s it, Fort Pitt!”

A website of alleged Pittsburghese (and maybe this example is!) says:

That’s right or it’s all over. This comes from an old advertising slogan for Fort Pitt beer. (Submitted by Jeff Tuckfelt , Falls Church, VA)


JanieM 08.19.14 at 7:12 pm

Pittsburghese site. It’s a fun list.


JanieM 08.19.14 at 7:14 pm

Thinking of driving around rural Ohio as a child brings up memories of Burma Shave signs, which maybe kinda sorta fit this topic.

The only one I truly, literally remember — along with the curve in the country road where it was planted — was:

Cattle crossing
Please go slow
That old bull
Is some cow’s beau.


Shatterface 08.19.14 at 7:32 pm

I was surprised to find ‘tosspot’ in Tolkien’s The Hobbit: I’d always assumed it had something to do with masturbation – tossing off – but only later learned it referred to alcoholism.


William Berry 08.19.14 at 8:46 pm

PJW @102: . . . nor a window to throw it out of.


Turkle 08.19.14 at 9:13 pm

A favorite from Baltimore: “And if Grandma had wheels, she’d be a bus.” Used to accuse others of wishful thinking. Quite good.


PJW 08.19.14 at 9:54 pm

William Berry@110…I’ve never heard that second part. Thanks!


Bloix 08.19.14 at 10:16 pm

#111- “And if Grandma had wheels, she’d be a bus.”

This is a bowdlerized version of the original Yiddish:
Az di bubbe volt gehat betsim volt zi geven mayn zeyda.
If my grandma had balls she’d be my grandpa.

“You know what property goes for in Brooklyn now? If we hadn’t sold that house in Flatbush we’d be rich.”
“Az di bubbe, etc.”


Layman 08.19.14 at 10:44 pm

Don’t teach your grandma to suck eggs.

The first time I read this one, I thought ‘why not?. Then I thought ‘why?!’.


Tom Slee 08.20.14 at 12:19 am

My dad used to tell us not to “stand there like cheese at fourpence”, meaning “doing nothing”. Why would cheese would not sell at fourpence? (Too cheap? Too expensive?) And why cheese anyway rather than bread or pork or potatoes? I guess I could google, but the answers would not really add anything.


William Berry 08.20.14 at 12:30 am

Henry @95:

Sorry, I really meant nothing by my 85. Forty years in heavy industry has exposed me to a lot of hard-core good-old-boy “wisdom”. One of my USW brothers, in particular, could fill a book with his down-home expressions.

Some few of them might even be suitable for polite company!


floopmeister 08.20.14 at 12:37 am

Maybe a touch OT but for anyone who’s travelled in the Indian mountains these signs are a real highlight:



ZM 08.20.14 at 12:51 am


I think that grandma saying is like ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’.

Heard ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ re: economics policy making recently.

Often felt guilty as a child stepping on cracks in the footpath or quadrangle ‘step on a crack, break your mother’s back’


js. 08.20.14 at 12:55 am

Don’t teach your grandma to suck eggs.

I don’t get it.


js. 08.20.14 at 1:00 am

Oh, wait. I missed ZM’s explanation. Not at all obvious, tho.


Ronan(rf) 08.20.14 at 1:02 am

You shouldnt be so presumptuous as to teach your grandmother something she already knows (know your place and the limitations of your experience,young one ! that kind of thing)


js. 08.20.14 at 1:06 am

Ah! That makes more sense. Thanks!


Joshua Holmes 08.20.14 at 3:52 am

Two of my favorites from southern New Jersey:

“My back teeth are floating.” – really need to urinate
“Couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.” – bad singer


William Berry 08.20.14 at 4:01 am

“My eyeballs are floating”; need to urinate even worse.

“That guy is so full of crap it’s running out of his mouth/ ears, etc.”

First person: “Damn’, man, I have been so busy I haven’t had time to go”. Second person: “Why don’t you just break off a piece and throw it in?”

FP: “What the hell is that thing?” SP: “Looks like a piece off an airplane”. FP: “Really? How ya figure that?” SP: “Ain’t on one, is it?”


William Berry 08.20.14 at 4:22 am

OT, just this once, and then I’m gone (before I get shown the door!).

Science joke (it is original, I am almost ashamed to say; and why aren’t science jokes a thing?):

FP: “What causes gravity?” SP: “Hell if I know.” FP: “you really don’t know? Duh, mass”.


PatrickinIowa 08.20.14 at 4:26 am

@113 Thanks, I’ve always wondered where that came from.


clew 08.20.14 at 4:42 am

ronan(rf), I know that one as “Who is `she‘? The cat’s mother?”, reminding the speaker not to use the third person when referring to persons present.

Redd up, pure quill, ahmed gowa ahmed chai (I love coffee, I love tea).


MikeN 08.20.14 at 4:48 am

My (working-class Lancashire) grandparents always used the term “It’s a fair cop, guv” about someone being caught doing something wrong. It was generally used ironically- the phrase often came up in police testimony as a confession from the criminal, and my grandparents always assumed the coppers were lying to frame someone.

My grandfather couldn’t see a police car on the street without saying “If you want to know the time ask a policeman”, referring to the 19th Century song about the habits of police stealing watches from drunks.


Alan White 08.20.14 at 4:59 am

Hyperbolic admiration from northern California 60s:

“I’d crawl a mile through briars to throw rocks at her shit.”

My Depression-era Southern mom called anything repulsive “kyarn”, as in “That’s just pure kyarn”. Took me till adulthood to realize that meant “carrion”.


Meredith 08.20.14 at 5:07 am

In the 1690’s, when the status of Rye (of Connecticut? of New York?) was in hot dispute, and most of Rye would want to be part of CT though the royal authorities were insisting NY, the Westchester County Court of Sessions Minutes tell us: “Ebin Jones was summoned [by NY authorities] to serve Upon the Grand Jury by the Sherrif’s Warr[an]tt Directed to the Marchal of ye county who did deny to Serve: and told the Marshall the Sheriffe might Kiss his ** he would not Serve ye King in two places —-….” This is one of the more colorful examples of resistance in 1692 to New York’s claim to Rye. It also connects us to the spirit of resistance (and cautious accommodation) that so many of these saying display to power, and negotiate with it.


Meredith 08.20.14 at 6:57 am

Btw, for them that wouldn’t know: Rye is today in NY. Go figure.


bad Jim 08.20.14 at 8:29 am

My grandmother was a Burma Shave author!

Within this vale
Of toil and sin
Your head grows bald
But not your chin.


Jasmine O 08.20.14 at 12:03 pm

I’m loving this post. Many of these I’ve heard, and many are new (and delightful). Re “close enough for government work”: I had an architect friend who had a rubber stamp made–CEFGW–that he would use to stamp (subpar) drawings, to his colleagues’ mystification.

Heard in New Orleans, in the wake of a girlfriend of mine: “If I had a wiggle like that I’d paint it red and hang it on the front porch”.


Matt Regan 08.20.14 at 1:26 pm

Our family, Galway on my mother’s side and Cork on the father’s has always used “billy-be-damned” as an multipurpose expression.


mrearl 08.20.14 at 2:08 pm

Of a disagreeable or unpleasant woman: “She’s a witch with a capital B.”


Layman 08.20.14 at 2:16 pm

@ Ronan, @ ZM

I understood the point of the expression, old dog new tricks, but couldn’t understand why anyone’s grandma would know how to suck eggs, or even want to.

Along the lines of CEFGW, a guy I know used to say ‘a man in an airplane will never see that’ when approving of poor craftsmanship.


Layman 08.20.14 at 2:19 pm

Another South Africanism(?) from C: “He looks like he popped out of cheese”, of someone with a startled or dazed expression.


Bloix 08.20.14 at 4:40 pm

Sucking eggs means to poke a small hole in each end and to remove the contents without breaking the shell – done for decorating Easter eggs. The idea is that your grandma’s been doing it since before you were born. See mansplaining.


Bloix 08.20.14 at 5:20 pm

#134- Billy in Billy be damned is likely William of Orange, who became King of England after James II was deposed (see above at Curse of Scotland!). James fled to Ireland and raised an army, which was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690- guaranteeing English Protestant domination of Ireland for the next 230 years.

Bonus: Monarch butterflies are called that because they’re orange and black – the colors of William of Orange. In the Appalachians and in parts of Canada they’re known as King Billies. The people there are descendants of the Scotch-Irish, which puts them on the other side of the divide from Matt Regan’s family.


Pat 08.20.14 at 8:57 pm

from childhood not far from the New York/Quebec border –
“don’t give a tinker’s damn” was the couldn’t care less of the day.
If someone took a tumble the were described as going “ass over teacup”


clew 08.20.14 at 10:45 pm

I thought grandmothers sucked eggs because they’d lost their teeth, also that it slightly suggests foraging or even poaching. Aren’t Smeagol and his friends sucking eggs as well as tickling fish, when he finds the ring?

I’ve heard the front-porch one as `damn, you could put that swing on the front porch’, and for poor work, `nothing a blind man would notice from a trotting horse’.


matt regan 08.21.14 at 2:03 am

#139-That’s what I’ve always thought. The butterflies are nice though. Do the Catholics of Ulster still paint FKB (F**k King Billy) on walls while the black Protestants paint FTP (F**k the Pope) on walls of disputed/shared areas, as I’d heard in the ’70’s? And on Billy, but nothing else, my mother always told me that her uncle kept a strange smelly covered pot of fermenting cheese/milk/cottage cheese on the home table to be spread on toast, or bread, or anything, I guess. He called it “Stinkin” Billy”. (Oh the “Black Prostetants” thing above comes from an Kerryman pastor, who one told me there are several Irish words for “black” one for the ordinary color, and one only used in modifying the “devil” and the “Protestants”. )–You are right about me fam’lies inclinations.


matt regan 08.21.14 at 2:18 am

(Though those inclinations were generally Free State (Collins) and not IRA (deValera). Me father’s family–famine and lace curtain–couldn’t overcome me mother’s–fenian and pigs__t.)


matt regan 08.21.14 at 2:30 am

And apropos of nothing in the last two. As I always heard the expression, in Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana, it was always as a challenge to someone who was telling you to do something that they very well ought to have known you knew how to do better than they: “Go teach your grandmother to suck eggs!” I still use it.


Toby 08.21.14 at 1:49 pm

Another colourful expression of my mother’s was “You’re as slow as molasses!’

I never quite understood it until I spent a while in Mauritius (a sugar-producing island). A friend told me a whole tankerload of molasses had crashed, but it had dripped out so slowly that most of it was saved.

On the political joshing of an older generation: My aunt ran a small book-newspaper-and-sweet shop (every small town used to have one), and one say she thrilled to my father: “Oh, you know, I have a paperback on sale, and it’s called “The Bastard!””

My dad cocked his eyebrow, and said “It’s not about De Valera, is it?”


JanieM 08.21.14 at 7:36 pm

Where I grew up (northeastern Ohio), it was “Slow as molasses in January.”

Molasses isn’t always slow, though.

Here’s a song about it. (Not a great rendition, or at least not well-recorded.)


Meredith 08.21.14 at 10:08 pm

Toby, I think your mother had left off a phrase that she took for granted would be heard, “As slow as molasses in January.”


Cool Bev 08.21.14 at 10:58 pm

OK, I can’t resist – the male side of my family collects colorful sayings. My brother is fond of cattywumpus, which he defines as “slantendicular”. Also, “absquatulate” for taking off.

One of my father’s prize specimens is “went through that like green corn through the new maid”


Mo 08.22.14 at 12:56 am

My Wisconsin Belgian grandfather’s favorite comment when we had below-zero weather:

“It’s colder than a witch’s tit!”


J Thomas 08.23.14 at 10:55 pm

There was an Iranian expression that went “colder than a well-digger’s ass”. They had a lot of qanats, a combination tunnel-well system that let them collect irrigation water. The use of the things for a very long time had put so much salt into the ground that it was hard to grow anything where they were.

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