Recently, I set out to see how many words the average English-speaking person knows. That seems about as difficult to answer as the classic question, “How many licks of a Tootise Roll Pop does it take to get to the center?” The world may never know. And really, when you get right down to it, I don’t suppose it’s terribly important to know the answer. It’s not how many words you know; it’s how you string them together that matters.
One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes is, “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” Today, we’re going to look at some of my favorite fifty-cent words and phrases, which have always sounded Western to me. All y’all seemed to enjoy my two previous blog posts on the same subject, Western Lingo and Western Lingo Rides Again! So let’s have one more round . . . sit back and enjoy some more word history with me!
Two Shakes of a Lamb’s Tail
What could possibly be more Western than a phrase that contains a reference to a ranch animal? If you’ve ever seen a lamb shake its tail, you know it’s not what you’d call a drawn out process. So, if the man behind the counter at the general store tells you he’ll be with you in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, you can expect that you won’t be waiting long.
The phrase originated in the UK, sometime before 1840, first appearing in print in Richard Harris Barnham’s book, Ingoldsby Legends, in 1840. Twitchy little lambs’ tails had made it into the American vernacular by the early 20th century, if not earlier. “Two shakes of a lamb’s tail,” was used in an advertisement for a Pittsburg men’s clothing store in May 1920. Prospective consumers were informed that they could replenish a wardrobe in less than two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
It was such a catchy phrase that a British veterinarian even calculated the speed of lamb tail shaking to be approximately 300 shakes per minute, while the lamb is nursing! And FYI, a “shake” is actually a recognized unit of time! While working on the Manhattan Project during WWII, nuclear scientists were searching for a term to equal ten nanoseconds. They looked no further than the fluffy lamb’s tail!
Class, what have we learned? We’ve learned that, while the phrase “two shakes of a lamb’s tale” isn’t Western, it is ding-danged fascinating!
Skedaddle sure sounds Western to me. Meaning to run away hurriedly, I can practically hear some John Wayne type spitting on the ground and saying something like, “I don’t want any trouble out of the likes of you. You’d best take your things and skedaddle on out o’ here!” Yep. That sounds Western all right. But is it?
Skedaddle is believed to date back to the American Civil War and it seems to have originated on the Yankee side. The first written source appears to have been in the August 10, 1861 edition of the New York Tribune. New York? Yep. The paper reported, “No sooner did the traitors discover their approach than they ‘skidaddled’, (a phrase the Union boys up here apply to the good use the *seceshers make of their legs in time of danger).”
Likely, the word “skedaddle” was derived from the Irish word, “sgedadol,” which means, “scattered.” The Scottish also have the word, “skiddle,” which means, “to spill or scatter.” It has been surmised that the usage of “skedaddle” in regards to the battlefield, related to the image of blood being spilled and scattered before the other soldiers hightailed it out there.
At any rate, the word isn’t Western, no matter how great John Wayne would have sounded saying it. And, since the word was often used in military circles to refer to cowards running away with their tails between their legs, it twern’t no compliment!
*Note: “Seceshers” was a nickname for the Confederate soldiers.
Ride Shank’s Mare (or Pony)
If you ever find yourself needing to skedaddle in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, I hope you don’t have to ride shank’s mare! Riding shank’s mare (or pony, if you prefer) means that you are going to be trudging along on your own two feet. Now, that one just had to have originated West of the Mason-Dixon Line! Right? Wrong.
The expression about riding shank’s mare hoofed it to the U.S. by way of Scotland. The shank refers to the lower part of the human leg, more commonly known as the “shin.” The only thing American’s might have done was upgrade “shank’s nag” to a mare. Perhaps the earliest written instance of “shanks-naig” dates back to 1724, making it a very old form of transportation, indeed! It is believed the phrase first appeared in The Tea-Table Miscellaney, by Scottish poet Allan Ramsay.
During WWII, the British Ministry of War Transport distributed a poster created by artists, Jan Le Witt and George Helm, which encouraged citizens to, “Go by shanks’ pony,” thus saving fuel for those with longer journeys.
Bonus: Didn’t Just Fall Off the Turnip Truck
Yes, I am aware that, so far, none of the words and phrases we have discussed actually originated in the Old West. But I’m not out of the game yet. I may have overestimated the Old West’s influence on some my favorite old sayings, but I have one last chance to get it right. I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, you know! And, surely, the phrase, “didn’t just fall off the turnip truck,” is as Western as Roy Rogers riding off into the sunset!
The way I had it figured, the phrase was originally, “I didn’t just fall off the turnip wagon,” and it was automated somewhere along the way. Of course, the phrase is commonly used to indicate that the speaker is not a country bumpkin who rode into town perched on the top of a truckload of turnips. And that, even if the speaker is a country bumpkin who rode into town perched on the top of a truckload of turnips, he had the good sense to not fall off!
The phrase is one that has evolved over the years, and is a sort of amalgam of several different sayings. Reportedly, the current phrase was not found in writing, in its entirety until 1988! But, fans of the “Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson” have memories of Johnny using that phrase for many years prior to that. While it is doubtful that Mr. Carson was the first one to make the claim that he “didn’t just off the turnip truck,” he is credited with being the first person to have documented proof that he said it. So, that’s good enough for me.
And, hey! Johnny Carson lived in California, which is as far West as you can go without falling into the Pacific Ocean. I’m giving myself bonus points for this one!
So, how about you . . . what are some of your favorite “Western” expressions?