In the first part of this series, we looked at the history of Appalachian language and discovered a few colorful phrases along the way. In part 2 we pick up where we left off and explore a few more of the choice phrases from the Appalachian language that you can find spoken in the mountains. We’ll start off easy with one that just about everyone reading this has probably heard.
When someone in Appalachia said that they were fixin’ to do something, that meant that they were preparing to perform a given task. Often it was used to express a future intent instead of a specific time frame or current action.
Despite how it may sound to others, the word does make sense. After all, if someone was fixing dinner, they were getting ready to eat. So, they were fixin’ to eat soon, you could say.
But that wasn’t the only “fixin'” found in the Appalachian Language.
When used without the preposition (the “to”), a fixin’ takes on a new meaning or two. A fixin’ can be a heaping serving of a dish, as in, “Give me a fixin’ of those dumplings.” This word makes sense because if you have a serving of food, you will probably be fixin’ to eat them soon.
You will also find that fixin’s can be all the side dishes for a meal. For example, you can have a main dish with all the fixin’s. You will sometimes find this use outside of Appalachia as well.
But a fixin’ can also be an event, such as a party or a social event at the local church. There is a definite path as to how this word evolved since most “fixin’s” will have food served as well. That means that there will be plenty of fixin’s that you will be fixin’ to eat if you go. With all of that said, calling it a fixin’ is nothing but a convenient time saver.
In many parts of Appalachia, toys are called “pretties.” Often the word was pronounced as “purties” or a “purty.” My paternal grandmother used this word, and I can remember the first time I heard her say it.
At first, I didn’t quite understand what she meant by the word, but then I got it. Kid’s toys were all pretties. And for the record, most of the toys were pretty, which probably explains the origin of the word.
Well, they were pretty at first, but after a few hand-me-downs had taken place, the only pretty thing about them was the name. But the kids never seemed to mind.
This word had multiple uses in the mountains, but they were related. You could apologize, and say you were sorry, but you didn’t want to be a sorry person.
A sorry person was one that was lazy and of little use. I have myself heard this conversation play out:
“I know you are. Now apologize.”
That was an Appalachian burn, and it hurt.
Also, to note, once a person was called sorry, the expression “good for nuthin'” was usually not far behind. Parents were fond of using this expression, and it was for your own good. Or so they said.
One reason kids said they were sorry is because they were caught telling a story.
Telling a story in Appalachia could get you in all kinds of trouble, no matter how entertaining it was. In fact, some of the more fantastic ones could get you in even deeper water.
That was because a story was another word for a lie. You never wanted to tell a story to your parents or grandparents, because they would find out. They always found out.
How they found out was a mystery, one that I often contemplated, even if it wasn’t me in trouble for telling the story. But after many years, I think I finally have the answer. They knew when you tried to tell a story because they spun a few in their youth as well.
You never forget that feeling when you tell someone a lie. That pain in the pit of your stomach, the inability to look at anyone (except for any co-conspirators), it all becomes part of you at the moment of telling. Even the tiniest of lies can give you those horrible feelings.
So, the parents and grandparents knew the signs. And they never missed them. Just give up and come clean, save the stories for the campfire. That heat doesn’t hurt so bad.
But a poke can hurt, except in Appalachian Language, which has a different kind of poke.
Poke (the Bag)
If someone in the Appalachians asks you for a poke, they are not asking for you to hit them. Instead, they want a small bag to hold a thing or two. When you went to the store, a poke was a brown paper bag that carried the groceries.
I discovered in my youth that not everyone shared my use of this word. We were at a small store outside of the Appalachians, and I had purchased a couple of snacks while on a trip. (I loved road trips even back then, which probably explains a lot.)
When the cashier rung up the purchase, I asked for a poke. She looked at me as if I was speaking a foreign language, which in all honesty was the case for her. I asked again, louder, but the response was only a blank stare.
Being full of youthful obstinance, I assumed the lady was hard of hearing. I reached over to the side and picked up a small brown bag myself and put my purchase in it. The lady had an “Oh, okay” moment of understanding, but I just nodded and went on out.
Looking back, I know that she wasn’t hard of hearing. But I probably did give her a story to tell her friends later. You’re welcome.
Poke (the Edible)
Not only can poke be a bag to put something in, but it can also be something to put in your mouth. To be more specific, poke is the leaves of the pokeweed, which can be harvested and eaten. When prepared, usually by boiling, folks call it “poke sallet.” Most people seem to agree that “sallet” in this case is a play on the word “salad.”
There are other unique edibles in the Appalachian Language as well, including one of my favorites, soup beans.
If there is one phrase that my wife and I have had many discussions about, this is it. In my family, we had soup beans and cornbread. This meal was what resulted when you prepared pinto beans and boiled them down to a thick soupy mixture. By the time you added your cornbread, you could eat the whole thing with a fork.
According to my wife, the correct name is a mere “pinto beans and cornbread.” Now, I have tried to explain to her the difference, and I will do the same here. You see, pinto beans are an ingredient that goes into the recipe. That recipe is “soup beans,” and if you follow it to the letter, this is what you get – soup beans.
Trying to call the finished dish “pinto beans” is like trying to call bouillabaisse nothing but “fish, clams, and lobster” or maybe “pizza” as “dough and sauce.” It takes all the romance out of it, or at least as romantic as soup beans usually get.
But for someone like myself that enjoys a good hearty bowl of soup beans and cornbread, well, they say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. That sounds romantic to me.
Yes, you can get to a man’s heart through his head or his stomach, one t’other.
This phrase, “one t’other” is an excellent example of a contraction that found its use in the mountains. The phrase means “one or the other,” and in time it was shortened to “one t’other.” You can say, “I’m fixin’ to have some beans or poke sallet, one t’other.”
Now, not being outdone with just a simple contraction, the word “one” by itself sometimes means “one t’other.” Consider this, “I’m fixin’ to go to church or hunting one.”
It’s the very model of efficiency. Well, it would be if it weren’t for the argument that the phrase adds no meaning to the sentence. But that wouldn’t be as fun, would it?
No, extraneous colorful phrasing is the greatest thing since, well, sliced light bread.
When you get light bread at the local store in the Appalachians, chances are you weren’t looking for the reduced calorie variety. Instead, you were trying to buy some store-bought bread to stick in your poke and take home.
Why call it light bread? Well, typical white bread is very light in color, especially when compared to the homegrown and baked variety. Calling it “store bought” really doesn’t describe it (especially today, with so many healthy types available), so they kept it simple and called it how it looked. Light bread was born.
This wraps up this part of the look at the Appalachian Language, but we’ll be back with part 3 before you know it. In the meanwhile, don’t worry, because we’re fixin’ to get back directly with more colorful phrases from the linguistic treasure trove of the Appalachian Language.