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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.
"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."
This sentiment, 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 to stop.
A slipshod agricultural operation that nets poor yields.
"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 often absent.
"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 and commas.
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 and Richmond.
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 people."
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 the 1950s.
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 district.
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 the moment.
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 add.
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 very early.
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