Wise Words: Appalachian Sayings and Idioms

As you all know, we at TL&TB all share our Appalachian roots. As such, we’ve grown up hearing sayings and idioms about nearly every single aspect of life. If there’s an issue you have, there’s most certainly some wise words to accompany it. I love hearing these sayings and I thought I’d use this week’s post to share some of them with you. I employed the help of my Dad to think of some of them that I hadn’t thought of. He was able to rattle them off like a champ.  Here’s a short list we’ve compiled. There are many many more.

It’s raining cats and dogs. – This simply means, it’s raining hard!


It’s raining cats and dogs!

Knee high to a grasshopper. – This is used when someone or something is short. “That baby is knee high to a grasshopper.”

A penny saved is a penny earned. – This is to encourage folks to be frugal. Keep the money you have instead of spending it, and then you win.

Ain’t no hill for a climber – This just means it’s not a big deal for someone with experience.

No need to buy the cow when you can get your milk for free. – This one doesn’t need much of an explanation. I’ll let you form your own conclusions.  (Dad said I shouldn’t include this one. I’m doing it anyway.)

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. – Don’t count something as a sure thing until you are certain of it.

There’s a fox in the hen house. – Someone is somewhere they don’t need to be.

Don’t do in the dark what you don’t want brought out in the light. – If you don’t want people to know of the things you do, then you better not do them.

Pretty is as pretty does. – Beauty comes from within.

Slap both eyes into one. – This is a threat one would use when they are seriously angry. “I’m gonna slap both your eyes into one.”

I’ll give you what for. – To give someone “what for” means that you’re going to tell them just what you think.

Why would he want satin when he’s got lace at home. – Again, this one speaks for itself. Why would a man want a cheap woman when he’s got a classy one at home?

Gittin’ too big for your britches. – This means that you’re starting to think too highly of yourself.

I don’t care if it hair lips granny. – I don’t care who it offends.

Rode hard and put up wet. – This simply means you’re as exhausted and uncomfortable as a horse that’s been rode all day and put in the stall wet.

Fit to be tied. – This means you are angry. “She came in past curfew and Mama was fit to be tied.”

A little birdie told me. – This is the phrase one uses when they’ve been told some juicy gossip but don’t want to say who told them.


A little birdie told me….

You can’t help a bird from flying over your head but you can keep it from building a nest in your hair. – This means, you can’t keep problems from happening, but you can help how you react to them.

Ain’t got a pot to pee in. – This is a phrase used when you’re describing how poor someone is. “They’re so poor they ain’t got a pot to pee in.”

The pot calling the kettle black. – Accusing someone of something you’re also guilty of.

Jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. – Someone went from one bad situation right into another.

Thick as fleas on a dog’s back. – This is used when there is a lot of something. “The crowd in the supermarket was thick as fleas on a dog’s back.”

Better laugh to keep from crying. – This means it’s best to find the bright side of a bad situation.

Weak as a kitten. – This is a phrase people sometimes use when they’re sick and have no energy. “The flu has left me weak as a kitten.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. – It’s better to have the certainty of what you do have than the possibility of what you might have.


A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

All is well that ends well. – A good outcome is all that matters.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. – This means it’s easier to keep something from happening in the first place than to fix it after it’s already happened.

As the twig is bent so shall the tree grow. – The direction you point something /someone in is the direction it will go.

Beggars can’t be choosers. – If you’re in need, you must take what you can get.

Charity begins at home. – One must first take care of everything at home before he can help others.

Everything that glitters is not gold. – This means that just because something looks good doesn’t necessarily mean it is.

Every tub must stand on its own bottom. – This means that every person is their own independent being.

Haste makes waste. – Slow down and do it right the first time.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. – You don’t want to make a good woman angry.

Honesty is the best policy. – This one speaks for itself. It simply means it’s always best to tell the truth.

Let your conscious be your guide. – This means to follow your heart and do what you believe is best.

Rob Peter to pay Paul. – This just means you’re taking away from one pot to fill another.

Speech is silver, silence is gold. – It’s better to keep quiet sometimes.

To the victor belongs the spoils. – When you’re on top, you have the responsibility of all that is below you.

I enjoyed walking down memory lane and thinking of these old sayings. I also enjoyed the ones I hadn’t thought of that my Dad reminded me of. There were even some that he shared that I had never heard. I love hearing them and applying them into conversation when possible.   One thing that is for sure, these old sayings still apply today. For all of life’s situations there is sure to be an old saying to accompany it.


Growing Up Appalachian

“Well I was born a coal miner’s daughter, in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler.” Okay, so only part of that is true. I WAS born a coal miner’s daughter and I DID grow up in a holler. Loretta and I share quite a few things in common concerning our Eastern Kentucky upbringings even though she grew up 60 years earlier than I did. This is my story of growing up Appalachian as I remember it.

There are some smells from childhood that you will just never forget. For me, that’s the smell of coal dust. I remember the way my Daddy smelled every day when he came home from work. It was a scent that I can best describe as musk and dirt. It was my Daddy’s scent. If you’ve never buried your face into the arm of a man  who has spent a day in a cold damp mine and came up with a coal black covered nose, then you’ll probably have no idea what I’m referring to. But even to this day that smell is burned into my memory.

To a coal miner’s child, there is a magical place we all loved to go. Daddy’s dinner bucket. Each day, when Daddy came crawling home exhausted, my siblings and I would race to be the first to Dad’s bucket to see what kind of goodies we could “mine” up ourselves.  Packing a lunch for a coal miner is unlike packing a lunch for an office associate. Mining is hard work. It is exhausting and it requires one to be very well fed with bologna sandwiches, Little Debbie’s, Reese’s cups and Pepsi. Each day, Dad would leave at least one of his treats for us to find.  As a child, I imagined that the boss man said, “Lunch is over. Put your food away and get back to work!” and Dad would hang his head and reluctantly put his chocolate bar back in the box.  Now, as an adult and a parent myself, I’m certain that each day, Daddy was thrilled to save one of his goodies for his babies to enjoy as he watched with tired pride in his eyes.

There is much more to growing up Appalachian than coal, however. There’s also church. If you grew up in the Bible belt as I did, then church wasn’t a maybe. It was a guarantee. I’d be lying if I told you I looked forward to having to sit through what seemed like hours on end of preaching. The difference between how I grew up and how many others grew up, is that it didn’t matter that I didn’t enjoy it. I had to do it anyway.  I wasn’t just forced to go to church on Sundays. We went on Friday nights, Saturdays, and Sundays! If you think that’s a lot of church, then you are right. It is! But we went, and we were good when we did it, too. We knew how to behave and if we didn’t, we knew that Mom would take us to the bathroom. Let me tell you, you DO NOT want to be taken to the bathroom. The bathroom of a church is not a ‘restroom’ for a young Baptist child. It is a whipping post and the place where dreams of playing later on that day are shattered.  Some of my favorite childhood memories are the times when we would have a service so large that the house was packed and people were standing along the back wall. Those were the only times that we children were ever allowed to go outside during church, and that was in the name of respect for the adults who were standing. On those very rare occasions, my siblings and cousins and I would take advantage of the crowd and play outside in the church yard.  I am thankful for my Christian upbringing. It goes with me daily.

Another staple of Appalachia is Sunday supper. This isn’t to say that we didn’t have dinner every other day of the week. We did. But none were as grand as those Sunday’s with your family around the table together. Family in Appalachia is not confined to the people who live under your roof. It is your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, cousins; first through third, and even a neighbor or two. Those are the faces that you can expect to see around the table at Sunday supper. You’ll likely eat fried chicken or soup beans and all of the fixens’. Don’t expect to sit down to dinner in an Appalachian home and have a cholesterol friendly feast. You can’t. Appalachian food is comfort food, which also happens to be quite shiny with grease.  After supper, we would all move to the front porch. The adults would line the porch in the rocking chairs and porch swings, while we kids played hide and go seek in the dark or caught lightening bugs. There’s no place that soothes my soul as well as my Papaw and Mamaw Thacker’s front porch. And one summer in particular, we all sat on the porch of my Grandma and Grandpa Jacobs’ house and spat watermelon seeds from the porch to the yard. A little while later, we discovered that our seed spitting had produced new watermelons! That was such a joy for my young mind.  “If the world had a front porch like we did back then, we’d still have our problems, but we’d all be friends.”

Growing up Appalachian means playing in the creek and catching crawdads. It’s shooting milk jugs with the BB gun you got on Christmas morning. It’s helping can beans, corn and peas. It’s the smell of coffee and hearing your neighbor, Grayson, play his banjo.  Growing up Appalachian is feeling the security of the mountains and thinking they can forever protect you from the rest of the world.  There have been many times in my life where I have been made to feel like I was second class as an Appalachian American. There are so many stereotypes of toothless hillbillies dating their cousins without shoes.  Well, my mother took us to the dentist every 6 months. I have always had more shoes than I could wear. And I don’t have a single cousin who I am romantically interested in. People who believe these things do not know my Appalachia. My Appalachia is about family. It’s about good people. It’s about hard work. It’s about pride.  It’s about home.