My father had his own peculiar way of speaking.
It wasn’t just his Kentucky accent, which can actually be found throughout most of southern Ohio where we lived, and even up into Michigan.(1)
Because we lived in Ohio since I was three, my dad was concerned that I might start “talking like a Yankee.” When we would go back to Kentucky (which we did frequently) he called it “getting elocution lessons.”(2) I ended up able to speak what was known as “Network Standard,” and also to lapse back into a Kentucky accent when it would annoy my sorority sisters.(3)
So my father was not alone in his manner of speech, but he did have his own peculiar vocabulary. I suppose that somewhere amid the hills and hollers there are people who still speak like this, but in suburban Ohio, he was near-incomprehensible.(4)
Here are some of my father’s favorite expressions and what a normal person would say in the same circumstances.
“Finer’n frog hair split four ways” = “I’m great, thanks, and you?”
“Hangin’ in like Gunga Din”= “I’m great, thanks, and you?”(5)
“Like an old cow pissing on a flat rock” = “My, it’s raining hard.”(6)
“A real frog strangler” = “My, it’s raining hard.”
“Give me a box of Band-aids and a bottle of Mercurochrome and I’ll have this cow back up on her feet and giving milk in ten minutes” = “Gosh, this steak is too rare.”
“If he had another nickel, he’d have bought a red car.” = “My goodness, that car is certainly bright red.”(7)
Most of my father’s odd expressions came from his upbringing in rural Kentucky, but some of them he borrowed from the Old West. This habit only increased when he retired from civil service on a disability and went back to his roots. He started wearing flannel shirts, cowboy hat and boots, or sometimes sneakers. He abandoned the Vitalis and Aqua Velva for chewing tobacco and small, disgusting cans of pemmican he ordered through the mail.
Young children were fascinated by his cowboy persona. Once while in a restaurant wearing his Wild West get-up, and crutches owing to his disability, a young lad asked whether he had been shot by an Indian, much to the embarrassment of his mother. My dad loved it. On another occasion, he addressed a young boy as “little pard,” (short for “partner,”) only to have the child respond indignantly, “I am NOT a little fart.”
My mother was tolerant of his idiosyncrasies.(8) She had to be. His pet name for her was “Old Squaw,” which these days, of course, would be politically incorrect for oh-so-many reasons.(9)
All in all, my father’s language was in some way reassuring. It was a family thing. It didn’t matter if the rest of the world understood him. We did.
(1) This is a result of the southern migration up I-75, also known as the “Hillbilly Highway.” Thousands left the southern states for industrial jobs in Ohio and Michigan car plants.
(2) My high school speech and debate teachers disagreed with him on the necessity of this, or at least his definition of same.
(3) My college membership in Delta Phi Epsilon is one of my darkest secrets and I hesitated to reveal it. In fact, just pretend you never read this footnote.
(4) Once at a party he fell into conversation with a shy, soft-spoken young lady. The next day we learned that each had thought the other must be from a foreign country.
(5) Very few people know where this expression comes from. You may recognize “Gunga Din” as the title of a poem by Rudyard Kipling, but that’s not where my father got it. Early rock and roller and country superstar Jerry Lee (“The Killer”) Lewis used to use the phrase in some of his songs. No one knew what he meant by it then, and no one knew what my father meant by it either.
(6) People often ask, but there is no real reason that it has to be an old cow. It just is.
(7) I occasionally use this one myself, once totally confusing a friend’s Puerto Rican boyfriend.
(8) Though once in a while even she didn’t get what he was talking about. Once, when getting ready for a trip, he told her, “Pack and tie,” which had something to do with loading a covered wagon (I think). She thought he said, “Pack a tie,” and she did, though she had no idea why he wanted one.
(9) Some say girls marry their fathers. I don’t know about that, but I did marry a man whose term of endearment for me is “Old Boot.” Not usually in public, though.