takes a while, but sooner or later you begin to notice that some
of the familiar turns of phrase you grew up hearing are no longer
in the popular vernacular.
Partly raised by my maternal grandparents, a Texas couple born in
the last decade of the 19th century who lived well into the 20th
century, growing up I was exposed to quite a bit of Texas speak.
Texas speak relies heavily on colorful similes and metaphors, but
it also includes non-comparative expressions or word usages that
seem peculiar today.
"I'd like a glass of sweet milk," for example, is non-comparative
Texas speak for, "I'd like a glass of milk." That's because when
my grandparents were growing up, buttermilk was a common alternative
to "sweet milk." Now, buttermilk has essentially been relegated
to an ingredient in a type of particularly sugar-rich pie.
Of course, if we were eating at a restaurant, before having his
glass of sweet milk Granddad would have asked the waitress where
the "wash room" was. "Wash room" had nothing to do with laundry.
It was polite Texas speak for "bathroom."
When I was a teenager, newly licensed to drive, Granddad warned
me against "jack rabbit starts." That, I learned, meant the rapid
acceleration of a vehicle with the intent to burn rubber. Since
my first car was a 1952 Plymouth that my grandmother used to drive
before her vision got bad, a "jack rabbit start" was pretty much
just a concept to me.
Speaking of jack rabbits, Granddad often would say that a rapidly
departing animal, say a jack rabbit or dove that I had shot at and
missed, had been "really carrying the mail." Of course, that was
back when people sent handwritten or typed letters and the Postal
Service moved them expeditiously for only pennies per envelop. Now,
I guess you'd have to say, "That rabbit's really carrying the Priority
Mail." Or, "That dove's really carrying FedEx next day delivery."
Dove, fried chicken or "chops" (Texas speak catchword for just about
any cut of meat), Texas speak was very specific in regard to meal
times. My grandparents seldom referred to the noon meal as "lunch."
In Texas speak, that mid-day sit down was "dinner," as in, "We'd
love to have you over for Sunday dinner." The evening meal, now
known almost universally as "dinner," was "supper" in Texas speak.
Some of the expressions I heard growing up clearly predated my family's
arrival in the Lone Star State.
"I'll be Johnny Brown!" Grandmother would exclaim if surprised.
I wasn't smart enough to ask where she got that from, but her family
came to Texas from Mississippi after the Civil War. "Johnny Brown"
referred to the fiery abolitionist John Brown, who raided the federal
arsenal at Harper's Ferry and hoped to start a rebellion. He got
his rebellion, but a hangman's noose in 1859 prevented him from
seeing its horrible consequences. I'm sure that expression came
from my great-grandmother, whose family plantation was destroyed
during the war.
Grandmother declared a lot, as in, "Well, I declare." Again, I interpreted
that expression as a declaration of surprise.
"For crying out loud" was another expression both grandparents used
to convey surprise or frustration. That, I've since learned, was
a more delicate way of exclaiming, "For Christ's sake!" Or using
harsher language yet.
When someone needed to be told "how the cow eats the cabbage" (you
know, set straight about something) my granddad would announce he
intended to "read them the riot act." That expression refers to
a British law, the Riot Act of 1714, which required the reading
of a proclamation ordering the dispersal of an unruly crowd. Those
who did not leave after being read the Riot Act were subject to
felony arrest. Granddad was of German heritage, but he's the only
person I ever knew who used the expression. And when I was a teenager,
he was pretty good at reading me the riot act.
Fortunately, I never did anything causing Granddad to declare he
was "off of me like a dirty shirt." That was his way of saying he
intended to have nothing further to do with an offensive person.
Granddad also had an interesting way of using the word "directly."
You would think that someone saying they would get to something
"directly" meant "right away." But not in Texas speak, at least
not as Granddad spoke Texan. "Directly" for him meant "after a while"
or even "eventually."
If pressed as to when exactly "directly" would be, Granddad was
wont to say, "One of these times after it gets cooler," as in when
fall or winter arrives. If I asked about something when it was cool,
Granddad would assure me that he'd get to it "One of these times
after it gets warmer." I tried that on my daughter, but being smarter
than her father, she always remembered to follow up with me when
it warmed up or got cool.
Granddad's standard response if I grew too impatient about something
was, "Hold your horses, sonny boy."
While perfectly capable of reading someone the riot act or being
off of them like a dirty shirt, Granddad was a gracious man. The
way I learned what the word "obliged" means was hearing him always
tell people who helped him, from gas station attendants to bank
tellers, "Much obliged." In Texas speak, that meant "thank you."
Sometimes, Texas speak was just a clever way of saying something.
Once, when Grandmother was driving me somewhere in her aforementioned
1952 Plymouth, she got lost. "I don't know where we are," she laughed,
"but we're making good time."