It was just about a year ago that I wrote about our mountain dialect in “What do y’uns say?” and I certainly don’t want to sound like a broken record here.  However, this week I happened upon a great website hosted by the Tennessee State Library at www.tn4me and it made me laugh at myself.  I believe if you can’t laugh at yourself then you aren’t going to have much fun so I wanted to share this with you.

In an article entitled “How They Lived”, the site explores the changing way of life during the period from 1875 to 1930.  That was an incredible time in history and it is always fascinating to study.  At the end, there’s a little game with sayings from the 1870’s.  What made me smile was that I not only understood and recognized most of the terms, but in fact I regularly use them! 

When I’m writing period pieces, I spend a lot of time researching the etymology of words in an effort to keep the dialog and the characters as realistic as possible.  Sometimes I’m shocked when I read the origins of some of our common terms; this time, I was shocked by the age of some of them.

With my strong opinions, I often mention things I don’t “cotton to” and never bothered to wonder how long people have been saying that.  According to the “Online Etymology Dictionary”, using cotton as an agreement verb originated in the 1560’s and is probably from a Welsh word.   

Having been raised on a strong work ethic, to be called ‘no-account’ is among the worst of insults.  After all, no one wants to feel they are worthless.  It’s a label that’s been used since 1845 but comes from the French “of non acompte” that dates to the fourteenth century. 

Power has always been greatly desired, but “powerful” is an adjective we often use for unusual nouns – like a powerful hot day or powerful bad odor.  This use of the word is from the 1820’s. 

The TN4me website noted “vamoose” as an 1870’s word, and the etymology dictionary dates it only back to 1834.  Silly me, I always thought that was a foreign word that we’d just borrowed.  And in fact, we’ve used it since about 1834 and it is from the Spanish vamos although I think we use it with a little more force for the Spanish version means “let’s go”.  I think I first learned that word from my junior high science teacher and I’m pretty sure she was saying something more like “be off with you”.

So, we set a great store by our words and we use a right smart of them.  But I suppose we don’t check the expiration date when we turn a phrase and I think I’m glad we don’t.  Perhaps these old terms connect us by the nigh way to our history.

Wintertime Inconveniences

One of our readers commented last week that she agreed with me that she wouldn’t trade modern medical care for the good ‘ole days, and she really liked indoor plumbing too.  Diana, I completely agree, and your thought along with this week’s weather got me to thinking…

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

We got a little snow and ice this week and as the beautiful winter-scape developed, I kept one eye out the window and the other on a light bulb.  Tree limbs weighted by ice, slick roads and unskilled drivers all spell power outages for us.  We think we are prepared with bottled water, a stack of wood and extra food in the house.  Still, when things actually go dark, I can’t help but feel a little lost; it seems like everything that I need or want to do requires electricity. 

So at a time when we might be temporarily without some of our modern conveniences, let’s ask ourselves which one do you value most?  If you could only have one modern convenience, which one would it be?

There are a bunch of teenagers as well as several simply-agers that are running around these days with a cell phone permanently attached to their palm. Those folks might say they simply couldn’t live without that connection to the digital world.  Now, those of us who never heard of a cell phone for a good portion of our lives probably wouldn’t choose that first.  However, I must confess, I do feel a little safer on the road knowing I can call for help, I enjoy being able to reach out to friends and family whenever I think of something rather than waiting till I’m near a landline, and I won’t even tell you all the junk I have stored digitally that I truly enjoy carrying with me from to-do lists to photos.

Most of my generation would probably say they really need their television.  To those, I’d like to gently remind you of the day not too long ago when you only got three channels and maybe one of those was pretty fuzzy.  Pretty soon you’d seen all the shows so only the news was really new and most of that was bad.  Given those factors, do you really think the TV would be the one thing you would choose?  Not me.

I’m really spoiled by my car and frankly it would be hard to give up that level of freedom.  We are used to running out for a gallon of milk or to pop in on a friend; we can be at church or any appointment in just a few minutes and can make a trip to town and back and have plenty of day left to do something else.  But do you know that there are lots of places, even in the US, that don’t have two cars per household and they manage just fine?  Of course, it’s harder in the country because we can’t catch a bus to go to the mall or walk to the corner for a few groceries.  Back in the day, no one ever expected to go to town every week and buy their groceries.  However, everyone had a cow so there was always fresh milk and they prepared all summer to have food through the cold winter months.

And then there is electricity.  Okay, lights are good.  I like my computer – after all, that’s where I write my little stories and I guess I can’t really imagine doing it all on paper.  Heat is fine and it’s nice not to have to mind the fire sometimes.  The fridge is the kicker for me with electricity, think about summertime and frozen meat.  Do any of you remember salt-cured pork?  I know some folks consider it a delicacy but I never did acquire a taste for that stuff.

When I turned on my faucet this morning to prepare my morning coffee, I found it dry and right then and there I realized indoor plumbing would be the single modern convenience that I would choose if I could have only one.  Now, I’ve visited an outdoor privy just a few times in my life and that would have convinced me in one degree temps this morning even before the dry faucet.  I would love indoor plumbing in the summertime when the creek would be surrounded by flying bugs hounding efforts to do laundry.  From bathing to canning, opening that faucet with a plentiful, ready supply of fresh clean water is a blessing I can hardly even count.  Thankfully, the hiccup in my plumbing this morning was a simply mechanical issue at the pump and lasted only till my husband could drag himself down to the well house and then I was once again praising The Lord for running water.

It may be hard to think objectively about these conveniences, especially if you are without any one of them right now.  But I would love to hear from ya’ll which one convenience you would choose if you could only have one.

photo courtesy of

photo courtesy of

A Toothache - Today and Yesterday

I had a toothache a couple of weeks ago - it was my first one ever and I dearly hope it will be the last.  I was miserable.  Yes, I am a total baby and I do not believe in pain.  But the whole experience got me to thinking...


I write historical fiction and I'm always researching and listening to stories about yesteryear and it's really easy to think those were the "good 'ole days".  In lots of ways they were, but probably not when you had a toothache.

It took me a few days to realize that it was a tooth ache - I first went to my doctor and said, "I think I have an ear infection".  So she pulled the little otoscope off the wall and peered into my ears and declared them clear.  Now, that’s probably a step even a doctor one hundred years ago would have taken since that instrument is very old indeed (about six hundred fifty years old). 

The doctor found no ear infection but she prescribed an antibiotic thinking perhaps it was a sinus issue.  This is probably the first benefit of our modern medicine I enjoyed in this bout – antibiotics.  While scientists were aware of infections and the effects of antibiotics on them by the early 1800’s, the drugs were not commercially available until the late 1930’s.  Remember that during the Civil War, more men died from disease and infections than from actual war injuries; one article I read estimated eighty-three percent of the deaths were from disease and infection.  Even wounds that soldiers survived sometimes plagued them for years after the war because of deep infections left behind by unwitting doctors performing emergency surgery in field hospitals. 

Eventually, when I could no longer bear to bite down, I began to wonder, "Should I go to the dentist?"  My husband was convinced he would pull the tooth while I was sure that modern dentistry extracts a tooth only as a last resort.  However, that was not always the case.  Barbers originally served a dual role and historically, that would have been my destination with my aching tooth and he would almost certainly have pulled the tooth.  Of course, while the local barber (or blacksmith in some instances) was the accepted expert of teeth, he probably had no formal training.  The first school of dentistry opened in 1828 and great leaps were made in dental science in the last half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.  Still I wonder how much of that applied to rural communities. 

Even as late as the 1930’s and 1940’s, folks on the mountain lacked both dental care and education.  Look around and ask yourself how many people you know from the World War II generation who died with their own teeth – not many!  Not only were children never reminded to brush their teeth, many of them didn’t even own a toothbrush.  Dental checkups were unheard of and even when water began to be fluoridated in the late 1940’s, rural farms with well water would never benefit from the movement.  Living miles from town and walking wherever they went, it would be hard enough to see a dentist.   But even if you made the trip, money was so scarce that food was often limited to what could be produced on your own farm – that leaves little for a luxury like dental care.  These facts make me feel pretty bad about complaining over my one toothache!  I’ve had a lifetime of routine dental care – I can’t imagine the toothaches many of those families endured. 

You all know that I long for the day when family was the center of everything, when a slower pace of life allowed us to know and enjoy each other.  I relish the memories retold through local legends of neighbors and friends.  But one thing I would not want to trade with the past is modern medical care, a well-trained dentist and pain management!  What do you think?

Facts about Hobos

Isn’t it always amazing how once a term or subject is on your mind, how many times you hear or see it referenced?  Well, that’s what happened to me over the last week in regards to Hobos.  After writing last week’s short story, it seemed as though I couldn’t get away from hobo, therefore, we’ll talk about them again today.

Did it ever occur to you that hobos are unique to the railroads?  After all, there were no hobos on stagecoaches and we don’t see them on airplanes, buses or long-haul trucks.  Therefore, this character of American History could not exist until maybe the late nineteenth century.  In fact, Wikipedia cites the etymology of the very word as originating around 1890 in California.

I suppose if someone introduced himself today me as a hobo, with Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” echoing in the back of my mind, I might take a step back and tuck my purse a little tighter under my arm.  After all, that ballad of the hobo identified him as knowing “every lock that ain’t locked when no one’s around” and the four-bit room he bought himself doesn’t mention a bath, does it?  But the popular image of a vagabond or tramp is distinctly different that the real meaning of a hobo for hobos are traveling to find work.  And that is one of the things that came to my attention after writing last week’s short story.   The Hobo Minstrel, writing on, explains:

                              A Hobo is a person that travels to work. 
                              A Tramp is a person that travels and won’t work.
                              A Bum is a person that will neither travel [n]or work.

While it was unknown during most of his life, in his last days one of my great-uncles told of hoboing in his youth for the sole purpose of finding work. Growing up on the mountain, when he came of age there was simply no work to be found and coming from a family with very little means he struck out in search of gainful employment.  Born in 1911, Uncle T (as we always knew him) would have been looking for work in the very early days of The Depression. Unfortunately, there seems to be no record of where he traveled or how long he spent on the rails.  But he came home to the mountain and there married and started his family so apparently he found nothing to keep him elsewhere.

The lack of stories passed on seems to be a common thread.  Ruby Casteel, whose hobo days inspired last week’s story, never talked about his past and what little history they know was passed to his children from their mother.  However, the values he sought to instill in them were surely formed in those early years of neglect and I can’t help but wonder if he found a sense of brotherhood among men he met in his travels.  Uncle T said there were lots of men hopping trains to get to whatever town was rumored to have work available.  Another great uncle, Coy Key, told of trying to head out on the train.  However, he and the cousin he traveled with (he had scads of cousins and I’m afraid I’ve forgotten which one tagged along on this adventure) were quickly put off the train in Harriman by the bull.

Migrant workers still don’t get a good reputation among the rooted members of society – that prejudice no doubt has little more merit than any other prejudice.  I knew a lady who was raised in Wilder in the 1920’s and never knew her father; she lived with the rumors that he was a hobo, even one of a minority race.  Unfortunately that rather sounds like the kind of taunting that unkind school children come up with without a shred of evidence.  Yet the story survived and with no father to put up against such rumors, they seemed to take root in her heart, after all I heard about them fifty or sixty years later.  I guess we could have a huge discussion or even debate on the political ramifications of migrants and it’s always hard to look through antique lenses when we study history.  But I think it’s important to remember the situation that many honest and hard-working men faced in the 1930’s.  Remember that cities had men lined up for soup, American people were actually starving – that’s very different than not being able to afford dinner out on the town which is the extent of poverty many of us have faced.  Moreover, Americans in general were much, much less mobile than we are today.  There is a story of an entire family that passed through the area after walking all the way from Ohio.  They were headed to Florida where they had family and their situation was so dire up north that they were headed south by the only means available to them.  I don’t suppose a whole family can very successfully hobo from Ohio to Florida.

handwritten note on this photo dates it 1933

handwritten note on this photo dates it 1933

It is both sad and a little fascinating to think of these men resorting to this lonesome and dangerous mode of transport and I guess I am impressed by those who opt to be hobos rather than tramps or bums, as The Hobo Minstrel defines them.