Local Expressions from Bygone Times
in the Piedmont and Lower Shenandoah Valley
by Eugene Scheel
A Waterford historian and mapmaker.
Having spoken to hundreds of people native to the Virginia Piedmont
and Tidewater regions, certain local expressions and words, not found
in most slang dictionaries, have come up again and again. As several
of these sayings and words are fast vanishing, I thought it wise to put
a few in print with their meanings and usage.
African American sayings
"Lay-by time" --
This expression initially referred to Christmas
and the following few days, when slaves didn't have to work. The number
of lay-by days was often determined by a burning gum log in a slave quarters'
fireplace. The log took a long time to burn. Some masters afforded their
slaves lay-by time until the New Year. After slavery, lay-by time came
to mean a prolonged period of rest taken by black farm hands.
"The truth is the light if it's told in the dark."
also the title of M.T.W. Cruise's 2007 history of her forebears in slavery
and post-Civil War Culpeper County, echoes similar sayings I've heard
through the years from older African Americans. Life in bondage was often
so torturous that it could be spoken of only in secret.
"You ain't really dead 'till old Mr. Groundhog comes knocking
on your door."
Blacks and poor whites were usually interred in a thin pine box. When it disintegrated,
the resulting earthly cavity became a perfect burrow for groundhogs.
Angus cattle, which are black and usually sell for higher prices than other breeds.
A heavy soil, full of clay. In wet weather you'll sink in it up to your
ankles. In dry weather it will be hard and cracked.
The outbuilding where cows were kept and milked —
literally, "cow pen."
Fishing for straws
In the years before machines harvested
grains, youngsters generally earning 15 cents an hour removed the remaining
stems and stalks from the edible grain. Thus, today's usage: trying to
find a missing object in a large area or searching for an answer or explanation.
"In the dirt"
A crop that has been harvested but not cleaned.
The refuse dump on a farm. There were no area landfills before the 1950s.
Millet or sorghum are examples; they
can survive well on annual rainfall of less than 35 inches. (The Virginia
Piedmont's average is about 42 inches.)
Thick bacon, similar to Canadian bacon. In the 19th
and early 20th centuries, it was thought to be fit only for tenant farmers
and the poor.
Dutch Belted Galloway cattle, which have a white stripe around their middle.
"Putting one's nose to the grindstone" and "grinding
to a halt"
To check the coarseness of grain being ground
between two millstones, the miller had to bend down and look closely
at the space between the stones -- the smaller the interval, the finer
the flour or meal. A close look also determined when the grinding needed
A slipshod agricultural operation that nets
"The days in May are never long enough."
This saying, or variants of it, refers to the time-consuming harvest of hay,
which has to be cut, raked and left in the field to dry before stacking or
baling, and the cultivation of corn by hand.
An unabridged dictionary will note that thrashing
is a 10th-century English spelling of "threshing" -- the separating
of wheat, other grains and seed crops from chaff and straw. Yet the old
pronunciation remains almost universal -- unlike the thrasher, which
was gradually superseded by combines in the 1920s through the 1950s.
In polite language, "a house of entertainment"; in reality,
a bawdy house, announced by a fiddler playing outside the entrance.
The wife of a Confederate officer away from the plantation for a long
time. In later years, it was applied to a farm wife whose husband was
"The burning" or "Sheridanizing": These
refer to the late November to early December 1864 raids carried out in
response to Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan's "Burning Order," which
sent Union troops into upper Fauquier and western Loudoun counties. The
soldiers burned barns, outbuildings and mills, destroyed crops and forage
and captured or drove off livestock and horses. After the war, Sheridanizing
meant destruction of an area.
When used in a historical vein and without reference to a specific war, "the
war" means the Civil War. The once-popular term "The War Between
the States" had largely gone out of use by the Civil War centennial
of the early 1960s.
The hand or giving the hand
A gesture of raising one hand from the steering wheel as an approaching
vehicle nears on a country road. It signifies a greeting, and if your
vehicle is not usually seen on that road, it means that you have a
purpose for driving there. It's especially important to use the hand
if you have an out-of-state license plate, and it's mandatory if you
have a D.C. license plate.
Stepping on bear paws
Driving too close to the side of a country road.
Recitation used to be an important part of learning
English, and the teacher would be a careful judge of a student's ability
to provide the proper inflections, or stops, for periods, colons, semicolons
A school of one or several rooms that
refers to itself by an aggrandized name to attract students but whose
status is belied by the metal stovepipe sticking out from the roof. The
early public schools at Aldie and Middleburg were called stovepipe academies.
A pond that becomes miry during periods
of little or no rain. On a farm, an unreliable source of water. "Buffalo" does
not refer to the beast (extinct in Virginia by the 1750s) but to any
large animal that might want to cool off.
Down the country
The term by which western Loudoun County and Leesburg area people would refer
to eastern Loudoun and western Fairfax County before the 1960s. These areas
had few people and only one town, Herndon.
An abbreviated term for freshet — the flash flooding of a small stream,
usually fordable with ease.
An imaginary line between two types of country restaurants specializing
in breakfast of eggs and bacon or sausage. In one you automatically
get fried potatoes with your fare; in the other you get grits. In the
1960s, the grits line was north of the Potomac River, between Baltimore
and Washington. Today it has moved more than 70 miles south, somewhere
south of the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, between Fredericksburg
A term for a back road that is impassable or
nearly so, or a little-known route.
An unnamed wooded islet in the Potomac River, too small to farm.
When prefacing a place name, punkin means remote. Bluemont was called
Punkintown in the early 1800s, and Paris was called Punkinville. There's
a Punkin Corner in Prince William County. Country-and-western buffs
may recall the song "Aaron Slick From Punkin Crick." Punkin
can also mean small: "He's just a little punkin."
One-room stone jails with pyramid roofs were common in towns where rock abounded.
Local magistrates would dole out sentences for misdemeanors, and if a miscreant
couldn't pay, he was incarcerated at night. He was let out during the day so
he could work and make restitution. Some might recall seeing stony lonesomes
in Middleburg and Purcellville; they stood through the 1950s, well past the
era of fine-imposing magistrates. The jail
in Waterford is a survivor of the genre.
"There are more Joneses (or substitute any surname) than white
This expression, not derogatory, was prevalent in backwoods and mountain
hollow areas where one family was dominant. I first heard the phrase
in the panhandle of Frederick County, after I commented about seeing
the name Orndorff on many mailboxes and businesses.
"The right side of the Rappahannock"
That meant either
Culpeper County or Fauquier County, depending on which of the two places
the speaker hailed from. One also heard people speak of "the wrong
side of the Rappahannock," referring to the other county.
"Upper county" or "lower county"
Before the invasion of newcomers in recent years, natives and old-timers in the
Piedmont counties did not want to refer to "north" because of its
Civil War connotations. So they used the terms "upper" and "lower." The
name Lower Loudoun Little League is an example. "Lower" and "upper" were
particularly common terms in elongated counties such as Loudoun, Fauquier,
Prince William, Rappahannock and Madison.
If the Lord is willing and the creek don't rise
A sentence that follows either somebody's saying goodbye to you or was
prefaced by "I'll see you if…" The first phrase refers
to one's being alive at a future date; the second is an allusion to
the few area bridges in the 19th century.
We-sort or We Sort of People
Descendants of the Conoy and Piscataway Indians in the Point of Rocks
area of Loudoun and Maryland.
A salesman from the city who usually peddled
dry goods and hardware in the country. Drummers would get off at railroad
stops, rent a horse or horse-and-wagon and hawk their wares, contained
in suitcases, at promising farms. They stopped coming during the Great
Depression. A drummer should not be confused with a huckster, a buyer
of farm produce for resale in urban areas. Hucksters had vehicles, termed
huckster wagons (even if they were autos). Huckstering lasted through
A showman who sold patent medicines (usually laced with alcohol and sometimes
termed "snake oil") along with legitimate pharmaceuticals. His pitch
was often introduced by entertainment provided by family members. Incorporated
towns often taxed medicine shows heavily to discourage their presence.
"You're fishing in the wrong stream."
A way of explaining
to a political candidate who approaches you that you don't vote in his
Another day, another dollar: Before the 1930s, the average
daily salary for a Piedmont laborer was a dollar. Agriculture experts
figured it took the equivalent of a day for a bushel of corn or wheat,
the two major crops, to be planted, tended to, harvested and marketed.
And if one averaged together the per-bushel price of corn and wheat through
the years, it would be about a dollar.
"Annie off the pickle boat"
A disheveled or frowzy female.
"Before I could say 'My goose . . . ' "
The speaker is recalling
how someone cut them off quickly. The expression is a holdover from the
Renaissance marketplaces of the British Isles and Europe, where the seller
of a corn- and grain-fed goose would start his pitch with the words "My
goose" and proceed to extol its virtues.
He's his mother's boy
This phrase does not mean "a mama's
boy," but refers to traits and looks and, ultimately, back to the
Latin "partus sequitur ventrem" (you are what your mother was)
of Roman law, because of many liaisons of slave women with their masters.
The Roman rule was reconfirmed by English law in the mid-17th century
for the same reason. These laws changed the biblical concept of heritage
through the male line.
"I'm either hittin' or missin'. "
A man-to-man answer to someone
asking: "How are you?" -- meaning, "Sometimes I feel good,
and sometimes I feel bad."
Katy, bar the door
Often said in a jocular manner when people
saw someone approaching their home whom they would rather not see at
Used in place of "only," as in, "There's
onliest one person there."
Strangers from outside a neighborhood. Often they would appear at
galas, causing invited guests to say, "Now, who are they?" The
Piedmont couple who showed up at a White House dinner without an invitation
in November would have been termed outlanders.
At an auction, a person hired by the auctioneer or
auction house to bid on an item so as to raise the final bid.
When selling seeds or produce, placing the finer produce — the salt
of the earth — atop poorer grades. The term also referred to planting
or spraying gold or silver dust on the walls of a mine that's for sale.
There were many on the market during the Piedmont's mining booms and
busts of the late 19th century.
"There's a little fire between them."
Two people who know each other and are not on good terms.
"There you go."
You agree with what the other person has just said and have nothing to
Country people almost always use this construction
rather than the accepted "waiting for" -- a holdover from medieval
Britain, when people "waited on" royalty, in the sense of "I'm
waiting for the king to make a move."
A person or family recently moved to an area. "They were come-here's" also
implies people who have lived in the area for a short period. Through
the 1960s, a person or family that moved into the Piedmont after the
Civil War -- even the 1870s -- were often called come-here's.
Fair to middlin'
An expression of how one feels, first applied
to the quality of grains, the middling being the coarsest grain, which
is unsuitable for making bread.
He's been to Winchester and Alexandria
Knowing something of the world beyond the Virginia Piedmont -- urbane, knowledgeable.
In the late 18th and 19th centuries, Winchester and Alexandria were among Virginia's
largest cities and centers of culture and learning.
U.S. government officials and high-ranking military officers began to
move to the area in the early 20th century, and some had liaisons in
Washington with women (generally younger) who were not their wives.
People would say the men had caught "Potomac Fever."
A person plagued with hard luck. Something always seems to go wrong when
this person tries to accomplish a task.
Up with the chickens
Roosters often crow at the first glimpse of
light on the eastern horizon, and so the term was applied to someone who rises
A person who voted for Democratic Congressman Howard Worth Smith but
then voted for Republicans on the national level. Smith represented
the 8th District, which at one time included all of Northern Virginia
and the Virginia Piedmont, from 1931-66. He was chairman of the powerful
House Rules Committee from 1955 to 1966.
Vote early and often
Several men who owned land in different
counties voted in more than one jurisdiction, because 19th-century voter
lists were based on tax records. Richard Henry Dulany of Welbourne, a
large farm in western Loudoun, practiced the art to the hilt until his
death in 1906. First, he voted at the Welbourne post office in Loudoun
and then rode on horseback to Rectortown in Fauquier and voted there.
Then he rode to Rappahannock County to vote before calling it a day.
Any religious gathering that met in the woods. A brush arbor usually
sheltered the preacher and elders. Bush meetings were common during
the 19th century.
Hard shell or hard shell Baptists
Most Bibles before the mid-20th century had hard covers, and these Primitive
Baptists based their faith on the tenets of this book.
Religion of the mild kind
A term dating from the early 1800s and used by Baptists and Methodists
to denote the Episcopal faith, which did not have as much loud singing
as other denominations.
A small frame, one-story house of worship, sometimes not much more than
a lean-to, usually of a Pentecostal denomination. The term became prevalent
as Pentecostal churches grew in number during the early 20th century.
A precipitously steep road going down to a streambed,
then up again, all within a few hundred yards. A Bunker Hill in Fauquier
and one in Frederick have become names of close-by villages.
Corduroy road or washboard
Have you ever driven on a dirt road, and suddenly, for a stretch of a
few to several hundred feet, your vehicle bounces about? Underground
movement generated by heavy vehicles create the surface undulations,
usually about a foot apart. In the 1800s this word referred to a travelway
with logs across it, perpendicular to the road. The logs helped prevent
the road from sinking in wet weather.
A name reserved for the roughest roads in a county. Loudoun has three
Featherbed Lanes, one an official road name north of Waterford, one
now called Quaker Lane, south of Unison, and one a former public road
east of Middleburg.
The local pronunciation of swamp puddle, meaning a low-lying area of
a road where water tends to pool in wet weather. A village by this
name straddles old Route 7 a mile east of Hamilton.
Old field school
A school built in a scrub-filled field with the landowner's permission
and tended to by a teacher paid by the students' parents. Old field
schools were common before public schools opened in Virginia in 1870.
A synonym for any student in a public or private school in the 19th and
early 20th centuries. As school was not compulsory, one's being there
assumed one wanted to learn.
Great house or big house
The slaves' name for their master's home.
The common abbreviation for slave quarters on a farm.
Squandering the daytime hours, laying around when you could be doing
something useful. As many areas of the Piedmont lacked electricity
until the late 1930s through the early 1950s, daytime was work time.
I heard the term a few days ago at the CountrySide Surgery Center.
An elderly patient recovering from an operation was asked by the nurse, "How
are you doing?" He replied, "Just burning daylight."
Copyright © Eugene Scheel