Cowlicks and other phrases

Published 3:09 pm Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Grandboys spent the night last Friday, and woke up Saturday morning ready for juice and scones in bed whilst they educated their Grunk (short for Granddaddy Uncle Bob) on the pleasures of watching a cartoon character called Scooby Doo.

This is an aside, but I never did that as a kid. We didn’t watch much TV, although some Mule Gypsies came through one summer putting up TV antennas, the which offer Big Robert took them up on, though it was three years later before we got a TV. But folks would drive by the house and remark in admiration, “Well, the Neills have got TV!” Because there was an antenna on our house, see?

Sean sat up at one point to reach for another scone, and I noticed a lock of hair standing up on the back of his head. “You’ve got a cowlick,” I declared.

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He had no idea what I was talking about.

When I was a shirttail boy, there were times when I was sent out to milk the cow, whenever Coney, our yardman, might be off visiting somewhere else. I learned early on to wear a cap turned backwards (before it became fashionable) to keep the cow from turning to lick the back of my head, making my hair stand up.

When’s the last time you saw a milk cow?

We still live in the country, but haven’t had a milk cow since I was in high school, I guess. I do remember that the first time I ever drank pasteurized milk from a carton was when they built a new junior-high cafeteria after the old school burnt down. Our milk came straight from the cow, set up whilst the cream riz to the top, which was then skimmed off for Momma to churn our butter from.

Times have changed, which I reckon ain’t all bad. However, kids of today will never be fully able to visualize “he’s runnin’ around like a chicken with his head cut off,” or “mad as a wet hen,” or “scarce as hen’s teeth.” Modern kids’ idea of chickens is that they’re fist-sized pieces of meat covered with brown crunchy crust that come in red-and-white buckets. Try telling them that chickens used to be covered in feathers, pecked bugs out of the garden, and laid eggs!

A reader recently actually wrote to thank me for using the “country vernacular” expression “wanted to get shut of” something.

The language must change, to mean anything. “He’s grinnin’ like a mule eatin’ briars” doesn’t convey any image to someone who has never seen a mule nor a sawbriar patch. Troy and I once actually peeled and tasted a length of sawbriar, to see why a mule would draw his lips back to avoid the thorns. Still don’t know.

In the old days country folks had chickens, cows, mules, pigs, and poultry around the house and yard — and we lived off of them! Eggs and milk were daily products that entailed taking care of the animals and birds involved, but for bacon, ham, steaks, roasts, and Southern Fried Chicken, termination was required before table fare, even though the family often had gotten attached to the (gulp!) pet.

Yet “clumsy as a hog on ice” brought to mind the winter the stock pond froze over and the pigs, desperate for water, ventured onto the ice. A pig was raised to be fattened before conversion to bacon and ham, therefore it had a permanent smile, so “happy as a dead pig in the sunshine” meant something!

“Slicker than goose grease” had real meaning for kids who not only helped dress the poultry for Sunday dinner, but plucked and saved the soft breast feathers for down pillows and quilts. Not a decade ago, Betsy sent me, Adam, and John out with orders for beaucoup wild geese, which she then converted into not only the finest goose gumbo anywhere, but saved up half a dozen garbage bags full of goose down to make her own down comforters!

Country vernacular may be passing from the scene, yet that may not entirely be a cause for mourning. After all, who amongst us modern Americans can really miss the image conveyed by the country expression, “built like a brick outhouse”?

Flush toilets, electric lights, microwave ovens, computers, surround sound CDs, eggs in foam cartons, fried chicken in red-and-white buckets: better times?