Old Saws

By Steve Harrison

Saw: n [Middle English sawe, from Old English sagu; akin to Old High German and Old Norse saga, a tale] : MAXIM, PROVERB.

Those who were fortunate enough this past year to have at their Christmas table those who remember the Great Depression, Hoover days, the old plank road, and some personally witnessed events from times even before those, will surely have caught some ‘old saws' slipping off the tongue as though they were current jargon. Some old saws, or even single word expressions, reveal a purely American tendency to soften or even trivialize the blows of hard times. But most are the timely expressions of lives which were lived in a simpler, gentler, slower and more satisfied era.

As we pride ourselves in our modernizations, there is a tendency to put the older ways and lingo on a shelf, preserved as only a curiosity, a memento of times before we all became educated and infinitely more sophisticated. But some wisdom is timeless and capable of serving to our advantage in any circumstance.

I'll never forget the expression on the face of one young urbanite I met in a big city, his turf, when I responded to his insinuation that I was a rube from a little country town who couldn't possibly know as much on the subject at hand as he did.

"Horsefeathers!" I could see his expression change from haughty superiority, to confusion, to cautiously defensive. Where in the world WAS this rube from, anyway? He knew as well as any other uptown dude that eggs come from styrofoam cartons and milk comes from plastic jugs, but he was just a little shy of leaning on his formal education on the subject of horses. He just wasn't ready to challenge me on what sort of plumage is possible among the rural equines.

I recognized his dilemma by my own experiences of decades past in dealing with an older generation. His confusion was probably a lot like my own when, as a mere pup, I was chastised (I think) by an elderly neighbor and was called a "Whipper snapper." Well now, there was something for an 8-year-old's fertile imagination to work on for several days. I have to confess, even as I enter middle age, I don't have a clue as to what a whipper snapper is, or does, and every time I ponder what it might be I come up with something a little different. I'm left to conclude that, whatever they were, snappers of whippers could have been a common nuisance in these parts -- back then.

It seems that women were mostly the ones who would threaten to "swan." My Mom would regard news of the unusual with, "Well, I'll swan." But unless swanning was a very subtle act, I can't ever recall Mom following through on her threat. A pity, too; I had quite an animated scene conjured up in my mind as to what a spectacle it might be if she threw a really frenzied swan. I was chased away from a pond once by a pair of black swans, and armed with that memory I was all the more keen to see Mom jump and squawk and carry on like that.

College professors are not particularly fond of old saws. As a wet-behind-the-ears biology student I learned that they are also pretty intolerant of the colloquial names I had learned for the animals and plants I had been raised up with down on the river. For instance, most entomology professors will probably not accept "gallynipper" as a proper identification for, "any large bug that circles a Coleman lantern at night after you have baited up your trot lines and bank sets." (You'd think they would try to hire more worldly entomology professors). Same deal with sheitpokes, ground hogs (those have to be called "woodchucks" nowadays), grennels, bull nettle, and corn. (Naw, just kidding. Most biology professors can spot the difference between corn and beans right off the bat).

My uncle Clarence, who was fetched up in Kentucky and spent his latter years just outside Flatrock, Illinois, swore an awful lot. "By Grab..." he'll do this; or "By Grab..." he'll tell you that. When I was younger I figured it might be a polite and respectable way of cussing without taking the Lord's name in vain. But then again, he was a veteran of WWII, the Pacific Campaign. Maybe he had encountered some exotic thing on Leyte Island, "...this h'yar Grab," and found it worthy of swearing to -- or at. Whatever the case, my fifth grade teacher declared that I should leave the mystery of The Grab to my elders and that she wasn't at all inclined to entertain my questions as to what in tarnation a Grab was -- or for that matter, what or where a tarnation is. Perhaps an older teacher would have stood a better chance.

But the best old saws are the ‘pearls of wisdom' phrases, couched in cryptic form so that they can mean about anything the speaker wants them to mean. From my own experience, "a stitch in time saves nine," usually spoken with a stern squint and serious nodding of the head, meant I had screwed-up -- either by doing something too fast or too slow. Didn't matter. I screwed-up so regularly as a half clothed, barefoot, usually wet youngster that an elder could have squinted, nodded seriously, and uttered the words from the back of a "Bicker-Bonnet" soda box and I would have interpreted it as: 1) I had screwed-up yet again; and, 2) I should try to not do that so very often.

Some old saws have born the test of time and have even come into acceptance by modern science. The old saw "Ring around the moon - rain soon" is good meteorology; and "Leftie loosie - Rightie tightie" has served me well as a shadetree mechanic. And, "If I find one more snake in your pants pockets I'll skin you alive." (I'm not sure how universal that last one might be, but Mom used it a lot).

Likewise, I remember "getting the cart before the horse" and "throwing babies out with their bath water." Of course, I never did any of those things, but it's tough to make a good defense against a charge you don't understand. Maybe that was the purpose of those old saws. Maybe it was part of my punishment to try to figure out what in thunder they were talking about, and out of confusion confess to some real mischief.

"You're robbing Peter to pay Paul again." "Am not!" "That's Dave Hardesty's frog under your pillow and I didn't steal it, I was just borrowing it and besides it was his idea to get into all those sweet pickles you canned last year, and...I mean...(gulp)." It was right about then I could see a squint coming on and the head start to nod as solemn judgement was passed. I would brace myself for the inevitable. "You danged little honyocks flub yer dub one more time and you'll both be up the crik without a paddle." I would mumble an earnest, "yes ma'am," and then hustle off to my busy career duties as a fledgling honyock, not really comprehending a word of it.

I hope all you readers were fortunate enough to have had the opportunity once again to gather around a well-spread Christmas dinner table. Not so much for the bounty of food that helps make those scenes so memorable, but for the coming together again of our spread-out family trees. The plump old aunts, the brat kids running through the house and getting underfoot, old uncle so-and-so with his disgusting gastric problem, perky young women chuckling in a steamy kitchen with the older set as they all swirl from one cooking chore to another, like they were engaged in a elaborate square dance. Sullen teenagers who have been scrubbed and dragged to the stuffy event, veterans of various conflicts agreeing after the telling of each wartime escapade that war is hell, the newlyweds enduring the winks and nudges with red ears and sheepish giggles, the clatter, the "full-as-a-tick" bellies, and the warm, thick air of coffee and cigars afterward.

Hardly anyone would describe all that as peaceful bliss, or even something that should happen more often than once or twice a year, but I hope all of you have some such memories of your goofy but precious family to warm you this winter. Sometimes an old saw will flash a memory picture in our minds and bring a smile when times get lonesome and too danged quiet.

Tonight when you turn-in, remember the one who would sometimes tuck you in with, "Night-night, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite."

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© since 1993 by Steve Harrison. All rights reserved.