Tennessee Mountain Stories

Upper Cumberland “Jargon”


In last week’s story I mentioned a local author, Carl R. Cooper, and his book Upper Cumberland “Jargon”.  Some discussion made me think that I should share more about this book .

I guess to begin at the beginning…

According to the book’s forward by former Fentress County Mayor John B. Mullinix, the author is the 8th generation of his family living in the Upper Cumberland – that’s a lot of generations for a region that was the Wild West during the formative years of our country (I can personally only count 7 generations, and I can’t wait to hear from you readers how many you can count).  Mr. Cooper’s early career was in broadcasting which one would fear would try to work-out the local vernacular.  However, during his mother’s waning years he found himself along with his siblings staying with her and listening a little more closely to the things she had to say.  He realized her command of Upper Cumberland English was something worthy of documentation.

Upper Cumberland “Jargon” lists “900 old words, sayings, phrases, and idioms that the people of the Upper Cumberlands use on a daily basis.”  His self-avowed purpose is to preserve a language that with wider communication and exposure is blending into the larger American language. 

Now you know that I’m really fascinated by regional dialects anyway.  And like Mr. Cooper I long to preserve every aspect of our Plateau heritage.  As I bump into terminology that people off the mountain cannot recognize, I will continue to share them among the stories.  And as you’ve heard me say before, I often have trouble differentiating our dialect from the rest of the world – I guess it’s just so much a part of me that I assume everybody talks this a’way!  

Here’s a sampling from Upper Cumberland ”Jargon”:

Court (To date)

Every jot and tittle (Every small detail)

Fair to middlin (fairly good / average)

Hind Catcher (Baseball catcher)

               Is that not a regulation title?  Who knew!

Libel (a good chance)

Lick and a promise (a hasty job)

Lights (Lungs)

               This was a new one to me.

Light Bread (Loaf bread)

               I think this one must have come about when commercial loaf bread became available.  Before that, homemade bread would have almost always have been whole wheat because you couldn’t create bleached white flour at home.

Old as Methusalah (very old)

On the mend (Feeling better)

Pine Blank (Exactly)

Plunder (Odds and Ends)

Pone (A lump)

Rared up (rose up)

Racket (noise)

Smidgen (Small amount)

Start in on me (To fuss or confront)

Tick (A homemade mattress)

Time about (Take turns)

Under the mountain (And area of Fentress County that is not on the Cumberland Plateau, notably the northern and especially the western valleys of Fentress County)

Yourn (Yours)


My copy of the book had a quiz inserted with a grading scale.  If you missed 6 you were “Country but you spent your summers in Muncie picking maters.”  If you missed 12 you “courted someone from the ‘Country’”.  Miss 14 and you “spent your vacation in this part of the country”.  If you missed 18 “you know someone from the ‘Country’”.

Please leave a comment below and tell me how many of these words you knew – and be sure to say where you’re from!


UPDATE: If you're interested in getting a copy of Upper Cumberland "Jargon", it is available at Country Bargains located on the square in Jamestown, TN.  Or, you can order a copy by emailing:  ccooper@twlakes.net.  The books are priced at $15 + $3 shipping.


How Work Brickle are You?

A Work Brickle Generation:  My Grandfather, Henry Livesay at the center  in the late 1940's.

A Work Brickle Generation:  My Grandfather, Henry Livesay at the center  in the late 1940's.

When we think about other people it’s easy to kind of categorize them – this one is brilliant in math, that one can talk a blue streak while another is kind of quiet but always ready to help a neighbor.  But  have you ever heard tell that they’re “work brickle”?

Now in my on-going education of our mountain vernacular, you know I often ask people if they know this word or that term.  I haven’t found anyone off the mountain that is familiar with the term “work brickle”.  I was about to decide it was just something my own family made up – then I Googled it!

Imagine my surprise when I found several references to the term – albeit all as Southern Appalachian terminology.   The Word Dectective defines it in the opposite of the way we use it – describing what a lazy person isn’t Another blogger hailing from Louisiana and Texas documented the term as a familiar colloquialism – so it ranges far from the Appalachians.  Even the New York Times included the term among a list from Volume V of the Dictionary of American Regional English.  And finally, Jamestown, Tennessee author, Carl R. Cooper documented work brickle  in his Upper Cumberland “Jargon” (Jimtown Publications, 2013) between wore out  and wore to a frazzle.

However, Etymologyonline.com did not include it and that’s my best source for dating terminology so I still don’t know how long it’s been in use.

Lester and Mary Key working in the fields.  It's not hard to find examples of work-brickle among this generation.

Lester and Mary Key working in the fields.  It's not hard to find examples of work-brickle among this generation.

I began to think about this term when I asked my children to help carry in firewood.  I commented that my little boy wasn’t exactly work brickle – and my husband said I just made that word up.  Ha! Someone made it up long before me.


1871 Murder

Isaac Wood 1833 - 1871

Isaac Wood 1833 - 1871

As we look back on history it may seem easy to align yourself with one side or another, with one ideology or political agenda.  However, when I read about the struggles of our people during The American Civil War I recognize that the choices were not so cut and dried.  The Cumberland Plateau lay smack in the middle of two worlds.  Without large plantations, a need for slave labor or money to support it, the question of slavery hardly touched the people of the mountains but a fierce independence and memory of persecution in Ireland no doubt drove many to Confederate sympathies.  On the other hand, a deep spiritual conviction that no man should be owned by another and strong patriotism no doubt caused others to lean toward the Union.

Champ Ferguson and some of his company

Champ Ferguson and some of his company

Much has been written about the splits among families and communities as folks allied themselves with North or South.  But do we ever think about the back side of the war?  What about those who did manage to return from battle?  How did they live among neighbors who chose differently?  How did communities reunite after men went different directions with many husbands and sons never returning at all?

Tinker Dave Beaty

Tinker Dave Beaty

Two rather famous guerillas from our region were Tinker Dave Beaty and Champ Ferguson.   Beaty was from Fentress County, Tennessee and Ferguson hailed from Clinton County, Kentucky – less than 30 miles north.  It’s not hard to imagine the men of their companies overlapped in origin significantly.  While Beaty may not have been the hero that Grant or Hayes was he had chosen the winning side of the war while Ferguson was hanged as a war criminal – one of only two men who would be tried and executed following the war. 

I happened upon a story about Isaac Woods who rode with Tinker Dave Beaty and returned to Jamestown, Tennessee following the war.  In 1871 he was gunned down in the street in Jamestown and the family legend says the murderer was one of Ferguson’s men.  A September 1871 article in The Nashville Union and American cites a proclamation by then-Governor Senter offering $250 reward for the capture of Stephen Bannon in connection with the crime. I wasn’t able to ascertain whether Bannon was ever tried, but I understand that some of Mr. Woods’ descendants have done extensive research on this story and when that work is publicly available, I’ll certainly pass the information along to you.

As with any story, much is known and reported about the officers and leaders of Civil War units.  However, the common man’s story is often lost and I find those to be the most fascinating.  While letters and journals have been collected that give hints into the everyday life and thoughts of soldiers, little is written about their struggles in the post-war era.



Historic Media

I ran upon a copy of The Chattanooga Daily Rebel when a reader recently introduced me to www.newspapers.com.  Published between 1862 and 1865, this was the longest running Confederate periodical.  Originally containing four pages, it quickly shrank to a single sheet yet circulation seemed to be restricted only by availability of paper stock.  As the Union Army moved southward – eventually occupying Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1863 – the paper operated nomadically until it was finally captured in Selma, Alabama and printed its last copy on a hand press on April 27, 1865.

Chattanooga Daily Rebel.jpg

Now anyone who studied journalism at any level was taught to report the news without bias.  Despite our opinions of this agency or that one, newspaper-men have always needed to sell papers and therefore there is a certain pressure to write what their customers want to read.  So you can imagine this wartime publication was filled with news of the war with a slant toward its Confederate readership. 

The copy I’ve clipped from April 22, 1864 shares a story of a sergeant escaping the Union Army disguised as a female slave.  Presented anecdotally, he secured weapons and transportation from the enemy and high-tailed it back to his company.  Certainly the terminology used in this article would never be accepted today, but it’s funny to imagine this man dressed in drag and smeared with soot as he races across the countryside.  During those terrifying times I imagine the people needed a little humor as much as they did information.

There is an update from various forts and areas of the front.  The nearby city of Dalton, Georgia shows a 2 day old report that includes weather and road conditions.  And then there is the startling count of losses over the past year – 93,770 men lost.

A short article reminds readers of the necessity of eating salt.  During intense economic depression, it seems folks were wont to spend precious pennies on this natural flavoring.  So the article “throw[s] out these hints for the benefit of those of our people who are deterred from buying the essential supply of salt on account of the high prices” that not only will salt preserve foods, “but it is now well known why the animal loves salt and why it ultimately falls into disease if muriate of soda is for a time withheld.”

The Chattanooga Daily Rebel also introduced an up and coming publication, Smith & Barrow’s Monthly Magazine whose scope would be “Tales, Poetry, Sketches of life and manners, Official Army and Navy Intelligence, Instructive Miscellany, and Articles on Political Economy.”

We are so bombarded with news and entertainment these days that you hardly know what to believe and sometimes I just feel like I want to escape it.  Yet looking at the things that were written or sung in years past, it’s clear there is much to be learned from it. 


Christmas Fruit Bag

Christmas Goody Bag.jpg

One of my Christmas memories is the goody bag the church always gave out after their Christmas program.  Handed to each guest, it was an unexpected and exciting little brown paper bag.  We’ve stopped handing these out at my church and while fruit is readily available to me and I eat way too much candy, I found that I missed the little bag this Sunday.  And it got me to thinking about where that tradition may have originated.

Fruit at Christmas time is a deep tradition for our family, and I think for most folks on the mountain.  My Grandpa, who had little input to the regular grocery shopping, would always make a point as the holiday season approached to go buy a big box of apples and another of oranges.  There would be peppermint candy and chocolate drops in the house at this time as well.  Now, it’s not hard to theorize that this man, whose childhood held few treats and for whom poverty had been a constant companion, reveled in the relative wealth of having a whole box of fruit both to enjoy and to share. 

I imagine the church’s bags had very similar origins.  Since our picturesque mountain home won’t grow anything citrus and even apples have to be harvested and safely stored pretty early in the fall, fruit at Christmastime has to come from far away and would be rather a luxury in horse-drawn days.

Transportation has changed so much in the past seventy-five years, and now trucks arrive at grocery stores all over the country filled with fresh fruits and vegetables from all over the world.  We can have anything from bananas or mangos to strawberries and apples anytime we want.  And we know that transportation greatly affects the cost of everything.  So imagine how valuable an exotic fruit like pineapple would have been a few years ago.

Of course the church’s goody bag was generally filled with good ole American goodies but even that wouldn’t be easy to come by in the remote mountain communities.  How hard is it to get a load of oranges to a store that is served only by mule team?  How often would poor children in those areas see foods that were harvested hundreds of miles away when they might live their whole lives and never travel more than fifty miles from home?

Top off those juicy fruits with a few pieces of peppermint and maybe even a bit of chocolate and you’ve got a treat that makes a lasting memory.  I don’t know who made the decision not to hand out goody bags at church anymore, and maybe they won’t be missed by many – but I may have to make one for myself, or better yet revive the tradition by handing out my own bags next year.