Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Sayings of Southern Indiana and Illinois
Nature Bulletin No. 392-A   October 24, 1970
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

In pioneer days, down in southern Indiana where a girl might be "slim as a sapling" and "pretty as a speckled pup" in spite of the fact that her mother was "built like a depot stove" and so ugly that "her face would stop an eight-day clock", they have a "passel" of such sayings. She might have been "behind the door when the brains were passed out", and so dumb "she couldn't boil water without scorching it", but "that didn't cut no ice". The young sprouts would swarm around "like bears after wild honey". Old maids were "scarce as hen's teeth".

Some of those expressions -- many of which were also common in Illinois and have spread to other parts of the country -- originated from the Bible, or the Greek poet, Virgil, or Aesop's fables. In the Compleat Collection of English Proverbs published in 1737 by a great botanist, the Rev. John Ray, we find blind as a bat, slippery as an eel", "proud as a peacock" and several others. Most of them, however, were invented by the pioneers whose boisterous sense of humor helped them endure the hardships of frontier life. They were given to "tall talk" and picturesque comparisons. Some were ribald and unprintable. Some were so humorous they would "turn your tickle-box over" and you would "find a Tee-Hee nest full of Ha-Ha eggs".

A thing was not merely big: it was "big as a whale" or "big as all outdoors". A man didn't just feel fine: he felt "jest as fine as frog hair" or "snake feathers". He bragged that he could take his rifle and "shoot the eyebrows off a gnat". If you pestered him when he was feeling "cross as a snapping turtle" or 'la bear with a sore paw", he'd tell you to "go on about yore rat-killin"', else he'd show you "how the boar et the cabbage". Two of his exclamations were: "Well, I'll be a suck-egg mule ! " and "Well, I hope to kiss a pig!" He might describe the gangling son of one of his "shirt-tail kin" as being "freckled as a turkey egg" and built with "the running gears of a katydid".

Many of those sayings were comparisons with some animal. One collection listed 96 referring to dogs; 88 to horses, mules and ponies; 67 to cow, calf, bull, or ox; 43 to swine; and others to sheep, goats and poultry. We have selected a few of those that referred to some wild animal.

Gray as a badger. Thin as a bat's ear. Have a bear by the tail. Work like a beaver. I'm a gone goslin'. He cooned up a tree. Smart as a fox. A groundhog case (something one must do). Sly as a mink. Squall like a painter (or catamount). Grin like a possum, Play possum. Weasel words.

Smell like a buzzard. Eat crow. Naked as a jaybird. Tough as a biled owl. Scatter like quail. Skinny as a rail. Long-legged as a fly-up-the- creek (or shite poke - the bittern). Talk turkey. Silly as a coot.

Feel as low as a snake's belly. Crooked as a snake. Swelled up like a stuffed toad. Stick like a leech. Pulled in his horns (like a snail). Shut up like a clam. Swallow hook, line and sinker. I've got other fish to fry. Bees in his bonnet. Spry (or peart) as a cricket. Thicker'n fleas on a dog's back. You can't catch flies with vinegar. Mad as a hornet. Knee- high to a grasshopper. Full as a tick. I put a bug in his ear (started him to thinking).

Like a blind dog in a meat-house"; "dark as the inside of a cow, "proud as a dog with two tails"; "squeal like a pig caught under a gate"; hair like a last year's bird nest"; and "like a cow's tail -- always behind", were some of the comical ones. But, of course, "everybody to his own taste", as the old woman said when she kissed her cow.

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