Puttin’ on the grits

Frank CagleFrank Talk

“I’m fixin’ to jerk a knot in your tail, Dick. I told you yerse-dey evenin’ to get yourself lined out and hope me get that hay in the dry ’cause it was comin’ up a cloud.”


If you find the preceding sentences completely understandable then you are likely a native-born Southerner. I was remembering my grandmother the other night, wishing I had spent more time talking to her about her life and our family history. It got me to thinking about the old folks when I was growing up and the idioms and phrases of everyday life that are slowly disappearing. We are a more homogeneous society today, likely because of television. Does a Knoxville teenager speak in a manner that’s distinct from a young person in Ohio or California?

I think there is still a decidedly Southern manner of speaking, but it is not as pronounced as it once was.

Most lists of Southernisms include “fixing’,” as in “I’m fixin’ to do so-and-so.” It means “I’m preparing to do it.” I have no idea where “jerking a knot in your tail” comes from; I just know that when my mother said it you knew you were about to be punished.

When I was a stripling, the old men didn’t bother to learn your name or use it. Any boy not fully grown just answered to “Dick.” At some point they might begin to distinguish which “Dick” you were, though you usually went through other identifiers. I was “E.F.’s boy” or “Alton’s grandson.” The term Dick could have come from elementary school primers. Dick and Jane go back a long way, and maybe Dick just became a slang word for boys. I don’t think it had any anatomical connotation.

Yesterday evening was often squashed into “yerse-day evenin’.”

There is an East Tennessee expression that I don’t remember hearing anyplace else. It’s to “line out,” as in getting organized. “I need to get the hands lined out this morning.” It is the equivalent of the British word “sort” or “sorted,” as in “get this lot sorted.” Or “I’ll be along after I sort this mess.”

You don’t hear hope substituted for help much anymore, as in my grandmother asking me to “hope” her in the garden. I think it’s an old English usage.

Phrases often are used to shorten everyday usage, but the Southern phrase is often longer and more expressive. Instead of saying “shelter” we say “in the dry.” Which explains why you need shelter because an impending storm is described as “coming up a cloud.”

I don’t know how “tight as Dick’s hat band” became a description for drunk. Coxey’s Army means a great number or a mob, a reference to a Jacob Coxey-led march from Ohio to Washington in 1894 to protest a recession. In the era before television and radio, how did that phrase come into common usage?

I’m sure you can recall some words and phrases in your family history, and the internet is full of cute phrases, though I’ve never heard many of them in real life: “Bless her heart.” “I bet she puts sugar in her corn bread.” “Kiss my grits.” I suspect some of these were created for fun.

It’s Your Money: Electrolux, a Swedish company, has received over $188 million in tax incentives and cold, hard cash to operate in Memphis. The incentives have come from Memphis, TVA and the state of Tennessee’s taxpayers. In return the company promised to provide 1,240 jobs. It did have 1,100 at one time but now is at 550. The company announced last week it is closing the plant in 2020.

Will the company give the money back? The agreement with the state that gave them taxpayers’ money specifically says they do not have to pay the money back if they close. The company plans a new plant in Springfield, Tenn. But the new plant will be using robotics and has not announced plans to hire anybody.

ORNL Tech: Guns America Digest has an article lauding a new noise suppressor for guns based on design work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The suppressors are made with 3-D printing technology. The lab is a leader in developing 3-D technology and new uses for the process.

Bet on Gambling: Tunica, Miss., is located in the Memphis metro area, and it has a casino. Due to a recent Supreme Court ruling that states may allow sports betting, Tunica was able to take its first Super Bowl bets this year, some of the $6 billion bet on the game. (Wonder if anybody bet only one touchdown would be scored?) The casino has been drawing Memphis customers for its gambling games because Tennessee does not allow casinos. But AG Herb Slatery has opined that the state could allow sports betting without having to pass a constitutional amendment. There will likely be pressure from Memphis to get into the sports-betting game and keep some of that money on the Tennessee side of the state line.

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