Things My Mother Said

Eleanor May Hastings, my Mom, grew up in south-central Missouri, a hilly backwoods area of the country known as “the Ozarks.”  Although it’s entirely unclear why “Ozarks” is plural (no one having discovered more than the one “Ozark”,) the denizens-of-the-Ozarks’ unique culture and singular ways of speechifying lend themselves to endearing and often preposterous expressions.

Growing up in my mother’s house, my two younger brothers and I were often treated to spontaneous colloquialisms whenever she felt moved to communicate emotions like exasperation or frustration, or just the urge to colorfully articulate an opinion.  Believe me; we three gave her ample occasion to express herself.  Here is my collection, the result of much recollection and soul-searching on the part of my brothers, Scott and Steve, and a nephew or two:

“Damnable damnations!!”  (Keep in mind, Mom is a “devout” Catholic, and thereby prevented from uttering any really profound blasphemies or curses…hence, the double exclamation points…)

“What a revolting development!” put a fine point on her disappointment with us.

“Heavens to Murgatroyd!”  Although I might be conflating this saying with a famous catch phrase of Snagglepuss, a 60s’ cartoon character, Mom surely heard this when it was uttered by Bert Lahr in the 1944 film, “Meet the People.”  It certainly sounds like something she’d say…

An especially chilly day in the middle of winter was usually described as “colder than a well-digger’s heinie.”  I suggest you look it up, if you’re curious.

If it was an especially dark night, or cave (Missouri is riddled with them), or movie theater, it was “darker than the inside of a well-digger’s heinie.”  Pretty dark, huh?  (Editor’s Note:  also not politically correct, but WWI was a long time ago, so you Krauts should just get over it…)

“You are slower than molasses in January” was usually combined with “will you please hurry up and get your socks and shoes on?”

“That smells to High Heaven!”  Supposedly this refers to the Third Heaven where God resides, so that is one lofty odor…

“Where in the world (did you find that; get so filthy; do you think you are going; etc.)”  Matt Lauer and Waldo should be aware of possible copyright infringement…

Where did Mother get her innate talent and deep reservoir of sayings, you may wonder?  Consider this cute expression her father was fond of saying when ticked-off at a neighbor:  “Go fry yer ass…”

…and my favorite regional sentiment regarding the pervasiveness of something in the general area (such as Starbucks coffee shops, or bass fishermen:)  “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a (fill in the blank.)”  Now back to the hilarity…

“Like trying to herd cats” was usually employed when attempting to gather we wee ones for a car trip.  If you’ve tried it, you know.

The definitive retort to a childish “I don’t like you:”  “I’m not trying to win a popularity contest!”

“People in Hell want ice water!”  One her many references to The Place Where Bad Catholics Go, this gem usually followed a complaint by me, and preceded the outburst which generated the slam-dunk “I’m not trying to win a popularity contest!”  Got that?  (See above.)

My Mom’s Dad was a good, bad driver who would careen around rural Missouri’s gravel roads at 60-plus miles per well into his “senior years.”  A car ride with Grandpa was aptly described as “hanging on for dear life!”

Mom would colorfully depict over-lengthy Sunday sermons, boring movies, and visits by long-winded acquaintances equally as “longer than a month of Sundays.”

The moonless, night sky was often termed “darker than the Black Hole of Calcutta.”  Presumably, the Black Hole was a dungeon with no windows; how Mom knows of it is anybody’s guess.  (Cross-reference: Well digger’s heinie, see above.)

Speediness has a rather randy equivalent expression:  “faster than a March hare in heat.”  Something to think about.

“He is blacker than the ace of spades.”  Not politically correct, perhaps, but descriptive.   (Recall that Missouri was a Confederate State…Go Rebs…)

“I swear you would try the patience of Job.”  Of course, this is Job of Bible fame: Job lost his sons, his livestock, and his complexion and still kept his patience with God.  Do you get some idea, now, how much we got on my mother’s nerves?

“When Hell freezes over.”  As in: “I’ll let you buy a motorcycle when…”  Similar to “It’ll be a cold day in Hell…” but, presumably, the latter is more likely given the recent shift in global weather. However, the chance of Hell actually freezing solid is fairly remote; I think we all will agree…

“Good riddance to bad rubbish” was frequently uttered within ear shot of me and my friends upon leaving the house – fondly, of course.

When faced with, for example, a questionable color choice in a friend’s clothing, Mom would opine, “There’s no accounting for taste, like the old woman who kissed the cow.”  The moral:  Taste, like selecting which farm animal to buss, is purely subjective.

“Why on God’s Green Earth…” questioned various motivations in our young lives.

In July and August in the Midwest, Mom would unfailingly state the obvious:  “It’s hotter than the Hinges of Hades.”  Hell hath no fury like an overheated woman.

“It takes all kinds to make a world!” is seemingly a paean to multiculti values, but more likely an expression of frustration at the shortcomings of another…without judgment…of course…

WARNING:  Content may be unsuitable for children and sensitive individuals.  The following naked threat came without warning, whenever I reached across the dinner table in front of her plate to pick up the ketchup (for example:)  “Do you want to draw back a bloody stump?”

“I don’t give a tinker’s damn!”  (Insert meaning here.)

Then there’s the self-explanatory, “There’s enough dirt in your ears to grow corn!”…

…and the entirely incomprehensible, “Heavenly days and catnip tea!”

And, finally:  “Life’s too short” to sweat the small stuff.

We love you, Mom.

The Write Stuff

I’m sure Gutenberg is spinning in his grave.  Johannes, that is, not unfunny comedic actor Steve with two ts.  Old JG, inventor of the moveable type printing press, is probably rotating faster than PSR J1748-2446ad, the fastest-spinning pulsar known, with a period of 0.00139595482(6) seconds, or about 24 percent of the speed of light at 161,040,000 miles per hour.

My point in writing this droll bit of esoteric trivia is simply to illustrate that a rather involved statement can be translated into the written word sans typos given a modicum of attention to detail and care.  Johannes G. is polishing the inside of his coffin because the art of accurate spelling which once was second nature to the average literate person has been largely abandoned in just the last couple of years.

I’m not just talking about text-speak.  This screen caption appeared on the local TV news the other day accompanying a story on budget cuts:  “BUS ROUTES SLAHSED.”  Just this morning, CNN Newsroom’s headline crawl at the bottom of the TV screen noted, “…employers plan to higher the fewer workers this holiday season…”  Here’s a recent Facebook post, verbatim:

This sitch isn’t just NYS by any stretch of the truth. Staes ovebler employ so they can keep the votes goingthier way. And by all means someone must get killed before evan a stop sign will be erected. I can not understand how you could think for even a second that NY has a monopoly doing something smart only after all the stupid things have run their course. Voting the dum barstards in or out of office can’t happen. For every time one senceble vote is cast; there is two forced into place to nullify that one right vote. Sorry didn’t mean to carry on.”

Talk about dum barstards.

We don’t even have to get into grammar, continuity and punctuation, as the three go hand-in-glove with correct spelling.  You either care enough to send the very best, or you’re a dum barstard.

I take small pride in being a stickler as defined in the wonderful, typo-free book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss (Gotham, 2004) about punctuation and ways simple errors can change meaning.  (Her 2005 work, Talk to the Hand vents her spleen at rudeness, incivility and boorish behavior prevalent in society today.)  As a stickler I appreciate when someone  puts two words together in an interesting and literate way, but also abhor lazy writing.  Misspelled words, truncated phrases, bad grammar, gibberish, poor punctuation and nonsense are hallmarks of the modern written word.  I blame the internet.

Like everybody else, I also bang out the words when typing into a search engine without a second thought to spelling:  “whatt is sped oflight?” yields “Showing results for what is speed of light?”  All the incorrectly spelled words are magically corrected by the search engine because they don’t want you to be frustrated in your search by your own ignorance.  Frustrated consumers don’t have time to scan ads and superfluous content if they are attempting to find the speed of light at less than light speed due to dead-end search results.

Why don’t “smart” phones, social media sites, email, advertising, and other forms of written communication have this miraculous feature and save everyone a lot of unrealized embarrassment?  Problem is, because the problem is ubiquitous, nobody calls anybody else out when they make egregious errors in writing.  It’s the elephant in the room that just keeps smashing into the furniture and crapping all over everything.

Another great read is The Great Typo Hunt by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson (Crown Publishing Group, 2010) chronicling a cross-country crusade to write the wrongs of modern word usage.  Equipped with writing utensils of every stripe and medium, these two latter-day linguists hunt down and (with permission) correct myriad malapropisms and misprints at every turn of their journey on a circuit of the United States (or “Staes” as noted earlier…)  Men after my own heart, I’m afraid we are just voices crying in the wilderness.

I’m guessing if every one who emails or posts (and who doesn’t?) would only take a moment or two to click on “review,” “spell check” and “proofread writing” periodically during composition or when completing a missive, 90 percent of offending verbiage would evaporate into a black hole in cyberspace.  As I write this, misspellings are consistently called out by a red squiggly line underlining each one.  I mean, it’s obvious.  No one, not even we sticklers, is mistake-free.  What we need is a bit more self-awareness and concern for the decline of our language to take responsibility to clean up our own act when it comes to good writing and writing well.

Read the dictionary for fun.  Buy a thesaurus (no, it’s not a kind of dinosaur…)  Use spell checker.  Reread your writing to spot obvious flaws easily corrected.  Pride yourself in your written communication skills.  You might not see the difference, but everyone else does.

By the way, don’t rely 100 percent on your spell checker to get it right vis-a-vis correcting spelling errors.  As you know, “vis-a-vis” is spelled thusly.  Here’s what my spell checker suggested as the correct spelling(s):  bis-a-vis, via-a-vis, vi-a-vis, vs-a-vis and, of course, is-a-vis.

Happy hunting and pecking.