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
SAYINGS OF SOUTHERN INDIANA AND ILLINOIS
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
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
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.
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
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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