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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Texas Speak

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

It 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."

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" November 28, 2018

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