“Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle” … “Something is fishy about that deal” … “There is a fly in the ointment somewhere” … These sayings are what I like to call “back to nature expressions.” These are only some that were often heard as a group of us old-timers sat around the table discussing the day’s news.
These odd expressions got me thinking of how the older generation, especially those who grew up in rural areas, rely on things of nature when expressing themselves. I began to wonder what words children of the “electronic generation,” those who probably never saw a live chicken, pig or guinea pig, will use to express themselves. Perhaps they will say something like, “You old hashtag” or “I will just ‘Google’ you” or “Tweet me and call me a twitter.”
Most of the expressions we use today were passed down from earlier generations and were based on subjects the originator was familiar with. For example, those who grew up in rural settings often said things like “he bled like a stuck pig” about one who cut himself or “he made a pig of himself” when describing one who ate too much. Sharing a bed with his little brother, someone might say, “Quit hogging the covers.” Some people were described as “sheepish” or “meek as a lamb,” while others “got my goat” (irritated me).
Other expressions involving farm animals were “pony up” (do your share), “horsing around,” “horse play,” “he is stubborn as a mule” and even “he made an ass of himself.”
Cows, too, were popular subjects. We would say things like “holy cow” or he is “like a bull in a china closet.” One could become “cowed” or “hollered calf rope” (surrendered), because he had a “cowlick” in his hair.
Dogs and cats are favorite targets for old “nature expressions.” We hear “it was a dog and pony show,” he had a “hang-dog expression,” “I am dog tired,” “it is a dog-eat-dog world,” “it is raining cats and dogs,” “I dog-eared a page in a book” and “hole number seven on the golf course is a dog-leg left.”
With cats, we hear things like “she is catty,” “I am weak as a kitten,” “his home is catty-corner from the filling station,” “it is the cat’s meow” and “cat got your tongue?”
Old-timers often expressed themselves by using names of insects. They said people who hung out together were “thick as fleas.” Some were said to be “slow as a snail,” “full as a tick,” “busy as a bee” or “snug as a bug in a rug.” Then, there were some who seemed to have “ants in their pants” or were “antsy” (impatient), while socially-active girls were called “social butterflies.” Small children were “only knee-high to a grasshopper,” but grandchildren were often described as being “cute as a bug.”
Even snakes slithered their way into conversations with “he is crooked as a barrel of snakes” or “just a snake in the grass.” Those too lazy to work were so worthless “they would not hit a lick at a snake.” In fact, they were probably “from a nest of vipers” and “did not have a pit to hiss in.”
Words related to farms and gardens frequently made their way into our conversations. One who was especially likeable may have been referred to as being “a good egg,” while someone in trouble was said to be “in a jam” or “in a pickle.” Those who resembled each other were “alike as two peas in a pod.” Others were described as “cool as a cucumber,” while one who had trouble finding something would say “it is like looking for a needle in a haystack,” “It is driving me haywire” or “I am just going to hit the hay.”
Not all folksy sayings are nature related, but many are, upon closer inspection, worthy of mention. We are said to be “under the weather” and “pale around the gills” when we feel poorly. “Time flies” and we sometimes we make it just “in the nick of time,” but “a stitch in time always saves nine.” Things happen “in the blink of an eye” when you are “looking at your hole card,” even if “it is as plain as the nose on your face.”
Back in my courting days, the 1930s and 1940s, a popular little ditty said, “I love you a bushel and a peck … a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck” (a peck is a measure equal to two gallons). Some of us teenagers got “in a peck of trouble” while “spooning” in the car when we took both hands off the steering wheel to hug our sweetie. Then, someone came to our rescue by inventing something we called a “necker knob,” which was a little knob attached to the steering wheel. That helped you drive with one hand on the wheel while, with your free arm, hugging the girl “you set your cap for.”
In those days, teenagers did not automatically get a car when they reached the age of sixteen, like some expect today. On a personal note, my family did not have a car when I was growing up. I bought my first car when I was nineteen. I paid $60 for a used 1933 Plymouth. Before that, I “bummed a ride” with whatever buddy was lucky enough to get his family’s car so we could “drag Main Street.” We liked to brag that our cars were fast and would “turn on a dime.” Street races were forbidden, but if we had one, it probably started with the words “one for the money, two for the show, three to make ready and four to go.” Some of our races, no doubt, finished “in a dead heat” (a tie).
By the way, that all happened in the days when cars did not have power steering. They did, however, have things like fender skirts, curb feelers, rumble seats, running boards and tires with white sidewalls. Some of the cars of that day had spare tires mounted in fender wells on the front fenders, while most had the spare mounted on the rear of the car. Those rear-mounted spares, often clad with a tire cover, invited all kinds of messages, both good and bad, to be painted on the cover, and believe me, there were some “doozies.”
Perhaps my story will bring to your mind “a passel” of additional back-to-nature expressions, so I will leave it with you. It is about time for me to “hit the hay,” but before I “turn in,” I want to bid you farewell properly. I could do it the British way, by saying, “tootleoo,” or the American expressions of “ta-ta” or “so long,” but I would rather leave you with an old saying we teenagers used when parting ways. We would say “see you later, alligator!” You would always hear “after while, crocodile” in response because that is the way it was in the good old days.