Monday, June 07, 2010

Decorating your conversation

I love a good euphemism, as well as metaphors, idioms, and other handy expressions. I do get them confused, as I do with most grammatical rules of our language. However, if they are particularly good ones, I will try to file them in some dusty corner of my memory to use again. They can be organized by the time period they came from, geographical region, nation, culture, and by varying degrees of vulgarity. If indeed you could call it an art, I have known a few artists who have mastered this particular medium.

One thing to consider when using these expressions is you have to have the right audience. If I tell someone who grew up in the 1940s, “that game was for the money, marbles and chalk”, they would know it was for everything I had. If I said it to a high school student, I would get a blank stare. Some of these expression are rural, some of them are urban, and many of them are downright hilarious.

Growing up in the country, I did not have close contact with our extended family, but I do remember Uncle Vern. He wasn’t really my uncle, but he was close family friend and loved to tell stories. His stories were filled to overflowing with colorful expressions, metaphors, puns, hyperbole, and some not-so-appropriate language sprinkled through it all. I would listen for hours.

My most memorable Uncle Vern expression described a person who was very nervous. He would say, “That guy is fidgeting around like a three-legged cat trying to bury his (poop) on a frozen pond.” Thinking of that phrase days later, I would be laughing to myself at the dinner table with my parents looking at me as if I had lost what little mind I had left. “Dumb as a sack full of hammers” was another one, along with, “ugly as a mud fence.” Gosh, I do miss Vern. That man could decorate a conversation.

As descriptive as these phrases can be, they sometimes raise more questions than they answer. For example, just how long is a coon’s age? How much is a butt-load? Why would you try to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear? Have you ever seen a blind squirrel, let alone one with a nut? Why is the grass always greener on the other side if the fence, did you forget to water the lawn?

My friend and I once weighed a butt-load of hay; just for your information, a butt-load is 6 and half tons.

It seems that today, the way to decorate your vocabulary is to curse. I haven’t watched MTV since I was in high school, (yes, they had MTV back then and they used to actually play music videos) but I hear that the MTV Music Awards show was laced with over 100 four-letter words and the sensors only caught 70 of them. I guess that is what passes for entertainment, but it makes me a little sad.

Don't get me wrong, I have spent years in the construction industry with people who held a black belt in profanity. While I try my best not to curse, I do let a few slip out when I do something really stupid, which is often. Heck, some of my favorite expressions cannot be repeated in polite company. However, using the f-word three times in a sentence is no substitute for being witty or clever. Crack open a dictionary, there are thousands of verbs out there; use them.

I am still on the lookout for more of these. I find that most of them come from older friends who heard them growing up. Do you have any? I would love to hear them, especially if there is a story attached.


Laurie said...

My family has a fine collection of such phrases...My grandpa loved "grinning like a skunk that just ate sh** off a shingle" My dad would say "you could use her sweat for tire patch". Then there is the whole collection of "brick short of a load, not playing with a full deck, elevator doesn't go to the top, lights are on but nobody's home, doesn't have both oars in the water"
My husband remembers being puzzled by the phrase "not quite cricket" that we use to mean "not fair, right, just"

Jim said...

My grandma says "he's as independent as a pig on ice." I'm not really sure what she means...

By favorite word is cattywampus or kattywampus. Sadly, I don't use it very often.