Welcome back to part 3 of our look at the Appalachian Language. In part 1 we looked at the history of the Appalachian language, along with a theory as to how it was a time capsule of sorts. In part 2 we looked at some colorful words and phrases found in the mountains. So, without wasting any more time, let’s continue our journey of exploration. Here’s a look at some more interesting ways the people of Appalachia could creatively turn a phrase.
It wasn’t unusual for someone to “lay out” all night, and it often involved doing something that you weren’t always proud of in polite (and parental) company. Sometimes it was innocent enough, but it usually had the same effect – you were less than optimal by the time morning rolled around. “Laying out” caused you to miss responsibilities you had on the following day.
In time, the phrase came to explain why you missed those things. In the Appalachians, people didn’t go to places they otherwise should have because they had “laid out” the night before.
How this word came in to use has a couple of theories. One theory is simple enough – the word meant laying out under the stars all night. Of course, the claim that the only thing going on was stargazing is a little hard to swallow.
Another popular theory has a more somber origin. When someone died in the mountains, their body was scrubbed with soap and water and then dressed in their Sunday finest. The body was then put on display – “laid out” – in the home for viewing.
Now, when people don’t show up where they are supposed to be, an excuse is usually not far behind. In fact, when the story was told later, many times the poor soul was practically on their death bed. Undoubtedly this was a good reason why they couldn’t show up, right?
From there, it only takes a small exaggeration or two to paint the picture of being mere breaths away from being ready to be “laid out” for viewing by the family.
Of course, if the story wasn’t the complete truth, and it usually wasn’t, then somebody was “fixin'” to get “put out.”
When people were “put out” in the mountains, chances are you didn’t want to be on the receiving end of their emotions. Being “put out” meant that you were mad, angry, or otherwise unhappy, and more than likely you were ready to do something about it.
There is also a milder version of being “put out,” which meant that you were inconvenienced or had to go out of your way. This meaning was in broader use throughout the country, but in the mountains, it had the more fiery connotation.
Some people tended to be “put out” quicker than others, and parents were probably the easiest to get in that agitated state. They were quick to anger no doubt because their threshold was continually being tested and exceeded.
But if someone was “ate up” with a rash, then no doubt they could be “put out” much quicker than even the most tired parent.
Suppose you fell into a batch of poison ivy or poison oak, and the next day you are covered with itchy spots all over your body. Old-timers in the Appalachians would take one look at you and proclaim that you were “ate up” with something.
From personal experience, I can tell you that being “ate up” with something felt like it was indeed eating you alive. At times the itching was best described as pain. “Ate up” is one phrase that I always thought had an adequate description of the symptoms as well as the look – something was indeed eating you up.
Speaking of being “ate up” with poison ivy, have you ever taken a shower while suffering from it? The hot shower is like a thousand little fingers, scratching your itch. Of course, the hot water also spreads the urushiol, the oil in poison plants that causes the reaction.
But that hot shower does provide relief for a few moments, at least until it starts “actin’ up” again.
When a person had something bothering them, like a rash or muscle ache, they had something “actin’ up.” Now, given that we’re talking about physical pain, I’m not sure how much acting was going on, but it was certainly real enough.
Just like kids “actin’ up” and misbehaving, a lot of older people had an ongoing problem that would do the same. Sometimes it would be a bad back or a problem knee, but you knew when you heard the moans and groans – someone close by had something “actin’ up” again.
The wisest of the old timers could use this to their advantage. Many times, a prediction of changing weather was brought on by an old knee joint “actin’ up.”
Of course, it wasn’t always something predictable. Sometimes a “crick” in the neck would suddenly “act up.”
For a variety of reasons, people will get stiffness in their neck, shoulder, or back. Sometimes it can be from a wrong sleeping position, such as falling asleep in a chair. Other times badly overworked muscles can cause a “crick”. Sometimes you can even play too hard and stretch muscles to the point where they ache the following morning.
This stiffness was called a “crick”, and it usually manifested as a “crick” in the neck. You know the pain, where it hurts when you turn your head too far one way or the other. You can always tell when someone is suffering from a “crick in the neck because they will make a great Frankenstein impression when they turn their upper body to talk to you. It’s painful just to watch.
The word “crick” is part of the heritage that makes up a large part of the Appalachian Language. The word has its roots in the Old English word “cryk,” which meant pretty much the same as the more modern spelling.
Don’t confuse this word with the way visiting Northerners pronounced the name of a small local waterway. While they called it a “crick,” Appalachians almost always said “creek.”
One potential cause for a painful “crick” in the neck was too much straining and climbing when you went out “sangin’.”
The word “sangin'” comes from the word ginseng. There are many medical uses for this mysterious plant of the mountains. Industrious Appalachian folks would hunt it for profit as well as personal use. In time, the search for ginseng became known as “ginsenging,” or just “sangin’.”
In my youth I never actually took part in any “sangin’,” but I had school friends that did. They would hunt the elusive plant all summer, then trade in their bounty for cold hard cash. Many times, these intrepid ginseng hunters would discover their own special spots for finding the herb. These locations the hunters treated as a “take it to my grave” secret. No one shared their secret “sangin'” spots. And no doubt, more than a few passed from human knowledge due to unfortunate circumstances of the hunter.
One friend was so successful in his “sangin'” that he bought a second-hand car with the proceeds. The vehicle was a giant, older Ford, purchased for the kingly sum of $500. I remember that it had a push-button transmission, the first I had ever seen at the time.
The car was not long for this world, and even on the best of days, it was a crapshoot as to whether it would start or not. Perhaps his “sangin'” skills were better than his financial ones.
But it proved to me that “sangin'” could have its financial rewards. Which was a change from other hunters that I knew of, who would invariably spend their earnings on cigarettes and beer.
To each their own, I guess, but I always thought that spending perfectly good money on something that you were going to burn was “plumb” crazy.
If something was “plumb” crazy, then it was completely, totally, and absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, an example of something crazy. The word plumb removed any doubt as to the degree of whatever you were talking about and verified that it was as stated. It was plumb (fill in the blank.)
I had always heard that the word “plumb” (or “plum”) had its roots in construction techniques. When building a homestead, barn, or any other thing that is to be reasonably straight, builders employed a plumb bob (also known as a plummet.) The plumb bob was basically a weight on the end of a string. The fancy ones even tapered to a point on the end opposite from the string hole.
To use a plumb bob, you merely dangled it from a point in the air. Gravity pulls on the weight, and after it settles the plumb bob and string form a perfectly straight line. If you used it to set a post or a wall, you could bet that you had everything perfectly straight. The wall or post was “plumb,” no arguments.
Soon the word spread to more than just walls and posts. In time, the word became a validator of being authentic. Before you knew it, everyone was “plumb” tuckered out after a long day of work.
With that, we finish with part 3 of our look at the Appalachian Language. Next time we’ll dive deeper into the pool of colorful phrases that lurk beneath the surface of the mountains. Look for part 4 to be out soon. We promise not to “lay out” and miss getting it out there for your linguistic pleasure.