Monday, May 26, 2008

Tighter than Dick's hatband

I have missed many things about my mother since she died in 2006, but maybe nothing as much as the colorful sayings and phrases I used to hear from her.

My mother was the quintessential Southern woman – loving mother and wife, good friend, incredible cook – and she taught me my love of reading, and words, and language. I wish I had written down all of the things she used to say, many of which were funny, and some that were just plain baffling.

She often spoke of things being “tighter than Dick’s hatband.” Example: Nobody was home, and the house was locked up tighter than Dick’s hatband. I don’t know who Dick was, or if his head was too big, or if he bought the wrong size hat.

I never heard this phrase anywhere else until one day when I was reading Rick Bragg’s excellent memoir “All Over but the Shoutin’,” which is mostly about his mother, and he quotes her using that phrase. I met him once at a conference and I told him I was relieved to see that somebody else had said that, because when I had used it a couple of times people looked at me like I was crazy.

“I know,” he said. “It sounds like you’re saying something dirty.”

My mother, of course, never intentionally said anything dirty. She would sort of half-cuss (not curse – a curse is something a witch puts on you), by either abbreviating a word, or spelling it out. For example, she might say “shhhtttt”, eliminating the “i”, and therefore not really saying a dirty word. Or she might say somebody is going to “h-e-double-l”, or threaten to spank my “a-s-s.” I never saw the difference in spelling it or saying it, but she did, and I didn’t question it.

She also use some words that I think she may have made up, like “asslin’ .” Again, not a dirty word, but almost. Asslin’ basically meant horseplay, as in “stop asslin’ around and get in the house.”

Another one is “swonney.” Swonney apparently means the same as declare, or swear. As in, “I swonney, I believe we’re going to be late.”

Something expected to be over soon would last “no longer than Pat stayed in the Army.” I once asked her, “Who is Pat?” She couldn’t remember. I can’t find evidence of anybody else ever using this phrase, so I suspect there really was a Pat somewhere that she knew of, and he didn’t stay in the Army long.

If somebody moved slow, she’d say, “He’ll be late to his own funeral.” If she asked you to do her a favor, she’d say “Do it and I’ll sing at your funeral.” I don’t know what the funeral obsession was about.

If somebody was poor, they “didn’t have a pot to piss in, or a window to pour it out of.” If you did something that might make her mad, she’d threaten to “cloud up and rain all over you.” You didn’t want to be rained on, trust me. Somebody in a bad mood was as "ill as a sore-tailed cat." In times of astonishment, she’d say “I’ll be John Brown,” which really is sort of like cussing, to a Southerner.

I wish I could remember them all. I dream about her all the time, so maybe I should start sleeping with a note pad and pencil by the bed, just in case I hear something.

17 comments:

jessica said...

I have always said "tighter than Dick's hatband!" I love that phrase, and I don't know what it means, either.

I've seen "I swan," in written dialogue, but I'm glad your mother used it. I'd never heard of an actual person using it. That makes the phrase much more legit.

Anonymous said...

My father would use the phrase, "I'll dance at your wedding" when he would ask me to complete some task. Southerners are full of fun sayings. They should all be documented.

Arlene said...

My Grandmother used so many of those "sayings". I never thought much about them when I was younger, but she's gone now and I miss hearing them. I never realized how colorful they could make a conversation. Reading this brought back the memory of a wonderful woman and a wonderful time in my life. It also brought back a longing to hear some of those "sayings", and a desire to remember them all. Maybe I'll get a notepad of my own.
Thank you so much for writing this.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother who was from Kentucky also used many colorful comments like "tighter than Dick's hatband". I find myself using them too. She had many others, for example "wings in his way" meant someone was doing something like driving very fast. We actually have begun writing all of them down, I only wish we had done it while she was still around to explain at least where she thought they come from. I actually did hear John Wayne use "tighter than Dick's hatband" in a movie. God bless the southern bells. I am proud to be a coal miner's granddaughter.

Anonymous said...

My mother just passed away in July of last year. Just last night I was telling my fiance' a story about her and I totally confused him when I got to the part of the story where my mom said " that won't last any longer than Pat stayed in the Army!" I proceeded to tell him about " tighter than Dick's hat band" and " no pot to piss in " He thought I was making this up! LOL So, I "googled" these phrases and to my delight , I found your blog! Like you , I miss my mom using her entertaining words/phrases. One other thing that my mom had the habit of doing was adding "r"' to everything ! For instance, she would say " close the windor" or " I have an idear" . LOL

I always asked her the same questions , " who is Pat?" , etc. There a bunch more that I can't think of at this moment. But, thank you for sharing this and for helping me realize my mom wasn't the only one who talked like this ;)

Anonymous said...

lol, my momma, too. ain't they a hoot an' a haf'

Anonymous said...

My dad always said it was colder than a witches titty in a bras braziarre.
AND SOMETHING WAS GOING TO GET DONE "COME HELL OR HIGH WATER"
iVE HEARD MY PARENTS SAY ALL OF THESE. I CAME ON HERE LOOKING FOR THE TIGHTER THAN DICK HAT BAND BECAUSE MY DAD ALWAYS SAID THAT TOO.

Anonymous said...

When I moved from Minnesota to Middle Georgia I heard the craziest things - I still giggle! My husband is full of them being the good Georgia boy he is.
Needless to say I said "What?" alot! I was forever asking who Dick was and why he didn't take his stupid hat off. My favorite was "He's Grinnin' Like A Jackass Eatin' Briars"!
The first time I heard that my respone was Why Would He Be Grinning? My husband just shook his head, told me to get a mental picture, quit over analyzing and then insulted my Yankee humor.

Anonymous said...

Well I swan! I have heard all of these growin up! Tighter than Dick's hatband,was never sure what that meant. Someone with bright lipstick on looked like " a possum in a poke berry patch". My mom and mammaw always put the r on the end of things like idear and winder. Someone was always "cuttin off their nose to spite their face",and one of my favs "she ain't got the sense the good lord gave a goose"

Deborah in Houston said...

Love these posts! My mother still uses "tighter than a dick's hatband," "Well, I swonney," "ill as a hornet" (for mad), "meaner than a striped snake" ("striped" pronounced with two syllables), "cattywampused" (for crooked), and of course, was always either "fixin to do something" or "done done it!" She is from North Georgia, of Scotch ancestry, and I also enjoy all these sayings! Thanks for the posts--Deborah in Houston

Anonymous said...

all these sayings were used by my mama from Georgia but the one that still gets me is "she stayed about as long as Pat stayed in the army"
I always asked how long was that and my mama said he never got there. I
looked on the internet and the only thing I found was that Pat arrived when the clock was striking one and left before it ended....so not long at all. My mom will be 90 this year and when she is gone who will say these things?

Pamela said...

I found this posted on another site: One theory is that the "Dick" referred to is Richard Cromwell, the 2nd Lord Protector of England, who held this position for only a few months after the death of his father Oliver Cromwell. The theory is that Richard was not fit to wear the crown (the "hat" referred to in the saying), so the phrase "Tighter than Dick's hatband" referred to a position that someone could get into that they were not capable of performing. Richard Cromwell was also referred to, disparagingly, as "Tumbledown Dick" and "Queen Dick". One of my favorite southern sayings is one that my Nana used to say when she saw a woman who was not particularly blessed with good looks was, "well, she cant (pronounced caint)help being ugly but she coulda stayed home" or "Using big words all the time dont make you smart no more than standing in the parking lot makes you a car"

Kristine Kelly-Carnes said...

My Granny used to say " Lord child, you are wide open like a goober sack"! It took me forever to find out what all that was about-
I too found your blog looking for "wound up tighter than dick's hat band" she used to say that too. She said "raise that window down" and "bess we better skeedattle"- Some others were "yonder" and she called onions "onguns" and okra "okree" - I miss her every day! thanks for taking me back down memory lane! God Bless you and keep you and make His face to shine upon you!
Kristi

Kayla H said...

I grew up with my grandparents saying "asslin". My husband's family is mostly from up north and have never heard it before. I always get weird looks when I say it around them. We're from upstate South Carolina and even younger people around here look at me funny when I use it.

Anonymous said...

My grandma always said Swanee, and if you told her about your day or whatever she always said " show-nuff", which is sure enough. My old boss man was from the hills of nc and he had hundreds of them. Like a really steep hill was " steaper than a mules face". Prices were "higher than a cats meow". Or something was poked out "like a young robins chest". Or she was a "butter face", he'd say everything looked good on her but her face. Tougher than a pine knot. If there was a cold wind that blew, he would say" the only thing between that wind and the North Pole was a barbed wire fence and the barbs fell off it". It would take me hours to write down all the ones I heard.

Anonymous said...

My Mother and Father were born in rural Northern Mississippi in 1900 and 1901.

I have enjoyed all the posts and how entertaining and brought laughter to me. My parents and family used many of the sayings.

I had forgotten so many of the sayings my mother used but I read your postings and passed them on to my 90 year old sister. It gave her such pleasure and brought back so many memories.

As were were talking she remembered that mother would say for someone who couldn't make a decision "she/he is like a horses ass going up hill" (going up and down).

Growing up I also didn't know the meaning but I learned what they meant. If I was doing something she didn't think I should,
she would say "I am going to box your jaws". Well, I was a teenager and she said that to me and I had a mental image of her boxing my jaws. It took all I could do not to laugh. That was something we didn't do when be corrected.

Again, thank all of you for your memories. It has been a travel down memory lane....

Anonymous said...

thoroughly enjoyed the memories. Now if you enjoy the origins of words and phrases….
take the time and look up the "origin of giving the bird" (finger). if you get the story of the battle of agrincourt (spelling may be off, haven't been there in a long time), you will laugh like you haven't laughted in a long time. I love words!!!!