Tennessee Mountain Stories

Civet Cats

Spotted Skunk.jpg

Sometimes we use words on the mountain that seem so common we just assume everyone everywhere would know them; other sayin's we know for sure aren’t used anywhere else.  Well as a child I heard of Civvy Cats and having never heard that on TV or read it in a book I guess that was one of those things that I assumed was uniquely ours.  So you can imagine my surprise when I saw a whole article about them in the Tennessee Wildlife Magazine.

Okay, the authors didn’t actually call the critters Civvy Cats but I deciphered what they were talking about well enough that I can share it with you here.

First of all, what is definitely uniquely ours is pronunciation.  This species of skunk is spelled Civet.  But given that we add the long “e” sound to the end of lots of words (namely any name ending in “a” as in Gold-y or Marth-y) then it didn’t seem like much of a stretch that this French word would get the “e” in our vernacular. 

Next, what is the thing?  Well according to Brian E. Flock and Roger D. Applegate writing for the magazine of the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, there are two species of skunks that call Tennessee home.  The striped skunk that we are all so familiar with and a spotted variety as well.  That spotted skunk is also known as a Civet.  And since skunks do resemble kitty cats we just call them Civvy Cats – I guess.  You know I’m always trying to figure the origins of these words.

So my mountain education told me that the particularly strong and annoying skunks were maybe Civvy Cats (as oppossed to the Pole Cat variety that was plenty stinky enough).  And according to Mr. Flock and Mr. Applegate, these Civets are very reclusive and even rare.  They prefer woodlands to fields and stay away from buildings.  In fact, I didn’t hear Civvy Cats mentioned very often.  Turns out Mr. Applegate is looking for the little spotted Civvy Cats – if you have pictures of them or know where some are holed up, please email him at: Roger.Applegate@tn.gov.

Isn’t it validating to see some of our language in for-real print?


A Jot and a Tittle

Matthew 518.jpg

A reader’s comment from last week’s article got me to thinking about a term I find myself using an awful lot – and remembering that my mother also says this and it used to really irk the young Beth who thought she knew so much more than her parents.  (Aren’t you glad you never suffered from that delusion?)

Mama was always saying, “Let me jot that down.” And I told her a million times, “you’re writing it down.”  After all, Tennessee’s public education system had told me that the proper verb was surely to write.  Well now I find myself jotting down all kinds of notes and lists and I can’t wait to explain to my children that the vernacular of the mountains is absolutely as acceptable as the Queen’s English they’ll find in their textbooks!

The reader’s comment last week mentioned that jot and tittle actually come from The Bible (Matthew 5:18) and that she was fascinated by the number of words we use that come straight out of God’s Word.  A few months ago I actually wrote on that subject here .  And just like that reader, I’m still just as fascinated by the occurrence of these words in our everyday English.   And it’s a very good exercise when a word we’re always saying drives us into The Bible to see where it came from – and if we’re using it the same way.

In the King James Version of The Bible, Matthew 5:18 says, “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”  The English Standard Version translates jot and tittle as, “an iota…a dot” and the New American Standard Bible says “the smallest letter or stroke”. 

We are certainly still using the same general meaning but we’ve changed it from a noun to a verb.  And the phrase only appears in that one place in the King James translation with jot never appearing alone or as a verb.  Of course, Jesus Christ never actually wrote any of His sermons or commandments – except in the dirt – and the Apostle Paul’s epistles were too long to just jot down, you have to write a long letter. 




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.