To quote that great American philosopher, Steve Martin, “Some people have a way with words, and other people…oh, uh, do not have way.” Well, I am of the belief that Westerners definitely have a way with words. And, in honor of that, it’s time for everyone’s favorite word origin game, Western Lingo! Okay, so maybe it’s just my favorite word origin game. I’d still love it if you’d play along with me!
“. . .Neck of the Woods”
Since 1555, the geographical term, “neck” was used in England to refer to a narrow strip of land, which is usually surrounded by water. By that definition, there’s no way the woods could have a neck! Early American settlers changed that meaning to suit their own needs. So, apparently, “neck of the woods” became a uniquely American expression.
Though it didn’t originate in the West, that’s where it’s probably used most often, today. I have been able to find that the phrase was used as early as 1780 to mean “a narrow stretch of woods”. By 1839, it was used to refer to a settlement in a wooded region. Today, it simply means where you live. It is generally taken to mean “in my neighborhood”. For example: In my neck of the woods, you had best keep your dog in at night unless you want a coyote to get it!
This is one of those expressions that you’ve either never heard before or you can’t believe that other people have never heard it. Obscure? I guess that all depends on your neck of the woods!
The phrase “Ringtailed Tooter” first appeared in a dime novel, Beadle’s Half-Dime Library: Deadwood Dick, The Prince of the Road, or The Black Rider of the Black Hills, in the 1880s. Unfortunately, there were racial undertones in the original usage. Over the years, the meaning has evolved into something that is decidedly not racist.
In my family, this phrase was generally used to describe spunky or mischievous children. There was always a hint of admiration associated with it—like you had to admire a child that was bright enough to come up with so many ways to keep adults on their toes! If Huckleberry Finn had lived next door to my grandfather, he would have been described as a ring-tailed tooter.
Although I could not find any confirmation for this anywhere, just the “ring tailed” part of this expression seems to suggest that a raccoon somehow got into the woodpile. . .a mischievous and pretty darned cute little critter!
FYI: Project Gutenberg has made Deadwood Dick, The Prince of the Road available as a free EBook. If you’re interested, you can find it online, through the Project Gutenberg site, http://www.gutenberg.org/ .
“Shake a Stick At”
The exact origin of the expression “to shake a stick at” is fuzzy. But, we do know that the phrase has been around for a long time! The first time it seems to appear in print was in an 1818 edition of The Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Journal. It said, “We Lancasters have as many taverns as you can shake a stick at.” Remove the town name and substitute “taverns” for “Starbucks” and that sentence could easily describe most U.S urban. towns, today!
The meaning doesn’t seem to have changed since 1818! The phrase is still used to mean, “a lot” or, as I prefer to say, “a slew of”! As with other phrases, it might not have originated in the West, but Westerners have kept it alive. If you don’t believe me, drop by my place, in the summer. There are more mosquitoes than you can shake a stick at!
The term, “nervous Nellie” is used to describe a particularly nervous person. I’ve read a couple of ideas of how this came into being. One suggestion is that horses were often referred to as Nell or Nellie. You’re probably familiar with the phrase, “Whoa, Nellie!” A skittish horse might have been called a nervous Nellie. The phrase can be traced back to 1926. By 1926, automobiles were becoming less of a novelty and more of a fact of life. The horses didn’t necessarily like those backfiring carriages that were taking over the landscape!
Of course, I told you there were a couple of ideas. Another suggestion is that it was first used as an insult to then, Secretary of State, Frank Kellogg. Kellogg was frequently criticized for his non-aggressive policies. It’s possible someone was trying to get him riled into action. Eh, I still like the horse theory!
“As Nervous as a (Long-tailed) Cat in a Room Full of Rocking Chairs”
Speaking of nerves… “As nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs” is one of my favorite, colorful “Westernisms”. Yep, as far as similes go, this one is a doozy! It’s a phrase that really doesn’t require an explanation. If you were a cat, long-tailed or otherwise, and found yourself maneuvering a room full of active rocking chairs, you’d probably be a bit nervous.
The only problem I have with this phrase is that I cannot locate its origin. Everyone is agreed that it’s fairly old. No one seems to remember a time when it came into being. But, doggone it! I really like to give credit where credit is due! Somewhere in time, there was a true wordsmith who went unrecognized! It’s astounding to me to think that some clever so-and-so thought up this phrase and, without the aid of the internet, it took off like wildfire! So, I would like to say, “Thank you, whoever you were! You painted a purty word picture!”
“Game Over” (for Now!)
And, this concludes installment number three of “Western Lingo!” Thank you for playing along. Please exit the theatre to the rear. And don’t forget; if there’s a Western expression you would like to know more about, please leave a comment below!
Happy Trails, y’all!