We all use old sayings from our heritage and culture without giving any thought to the truths behind them or their origins. Yet, sometimes I hear something and I think to myself, “I wonder how that old saying got started….” Do you ever wonder about this? Just for fun, let’s take a look into the hourglass of time and discover the true meanings of some of these familiar old sayings.
Old Sayings are a Part of Our Heritage
Growing up in the deep south, I understood my grandparents when they used certain sayings. Papa would say, “I’m gonna hope him do that tomorrow.” We all knew he meant he was going to help the person tomorrow. Granny would say, “I’ve got a pawn of cornbread in the oven.” We knew a small pan of cornbread was cooking.
Some of the old sayings we use or are familiar with go back over 300 years! That’s as far as I could trace their use so I’m sure some of them go back even further.
I’m always interested in the stories of people and customs. I enjoy sharing and learning from the past to enrich the future as I’m sure you know from our Voices of Heritage series. Reflection on the past to make a brighter future is about being positively thoughtful, to me.
Fences should be horse high, bull strong, and pig tight
Having broken down fences or livestock on the loose was a bad reflection on a farmer. Not only did it indicate he was lazy or incapable of maintaining his farm, but also of looking after his livestock.
In some areas of the old country, if your livestock damaged someone’s property, they could claim it as their own.
So the idea was to keep fences high enough a horse couldn’t jump over it, strong enough a bull couldn’t bust it down, and tight enough pigs couldn’t push through it.
It’s interesting to me that this saying originated at a time when waddle fences were widely used for livestock management.
Shake the hand before you plow the field
I guess being shafted on the job has been around for a long time. This old saying indicated it’s best to agree upon a price for the job and get a down payment beforehand if at all possible.
It also went for the person hiring the work too. It was just as important for them to have an agreed-upon price before the work was done so they were protected as well.
Let a sleeping dog lie
Don’t cause trouble for yourself by stirring up someone or a situation that isn’t causing you problems at the moment. If your enemy or a certain circumstance is quiet, let it alone.
This goes along with the Bible verse Proverbs 26:17 “He that passeth by, and meddleth with strife belonging not to him, is like one that taketh a dog by the ears.”
Life is simpler when you plow around the stump
When clearing land by hand, it was difficult to remove large stumps. Often farmers would simply plow around it to get the bigger job of planting crops done. Then as time allowed, they’d come back and work on removing the stump.
This is used in life to recognize there are some things we have to let go of and not waste time and energy on. As you grow in experience and wisdom, you’ll be able to come back to the problem or situation and deal with it effectively.
Don’t do a rain dance if you don’t see clouds
I used to tell my boys something similar when they were growing up, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” Again, I’m reminded of a Bible verse Proverbs 25:14, “Whoso boasteth himself of a false gift is like clouds and wind without rain.”
Others will know you by your actions, don’t promise what you can’t deliver.
A stitch in time saves nine
If something needs repairing, fix it as soon as you see it. Don’t wait until the damage worsens beyond repair.
Some say this old saying originated with ships that used sails. Even the smallest hole was repaired as soon as it was seen to prevent further damage to the sail which could mean saving the lives of the men on board.
It is also said to come from tailor shops in old England. Clothes were repaired as soon as tears were found to prevent the loss of the whole garment. There weren’t clothing stores on every corner nor were funds readily available to just replace the garment at will.
If you’re late with one chore, you’ll be late in a lot more
My Papa said a similar thing when I was growing up. He hated being late for anything. We were often 2 hours early for church.
With the unexpected happening all the time on a homestead, it’s easier to adapt throughout the day if the necessary chores of the morning are done on time. I’ve learned if I let the chickens out late, then I’m late getting to the barn, which means I’m late milking, which means I’m late…
Never look a gift horse in the mouth
I was surprised to learn this meant to not accept a gift without questioning. I always thought it meant to be thankful no matter where it comes from.
Its original use meant to question why someone was giving you something without a reason. This thought was based on the person returning later expecting you to do something for them in return for the gift. There was the possibility it would be something you wouldn’t want to do but would feel obligated to since you received a gift from them.
Another old meaning of this saying came from my husband’s family. If someone gives you something, don’t look too closely at it or question it just receive it with thankfulness.
His great-grandfather said it’s like when a man is buying a horse that looks good on the outside but then he checks his teeth and finds it to not be what it was supposed to be. If you look too closely at the gift horse, you may change your opinions of the gift and the giver.
Above all else, farming is a life of hope
I can wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Crops fail, but we plant again in hope. Animals die, but we breed or purchase again in hope. Fences break down, but we repair in hope. On and on we could go with all that could and often does go wrong on a homestead, yet we go on…in hope.
A tottering fence without means trouble in the house
The condition of one’s farm and home was considered a reflection of the inward person and condition of the family. If fences were falling down, then others felt sure there was something wrong with the whole home. This old saying was originally used to indicate marital trouble: A man who doesn’t love his wife or home will not take care of things.
Make Hay While the Sun Shines
It’s very akin to the famous John Wayne saying, “You’re burin’ daylight,” which is one of my personal favorites.
This one is unusual in that it was a literal saying from Old England. Those who put up hay know you only cut, rack, stack, and bail hay when it’s sunny and the hay is dry. If rain is in the forecast, farmers rush to get the job done before the hay gets wet and is ruined.
It’s come to mean about the same thing as, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.”
Don’t count your chickens before they hatch
One of Ma Ingalls’ favorite sayings. Isn’t it interesting how we all know who she is? She lived her life without ever considering that people would recognize her name and think of her a hundred years later.
Anyway, this saying is pretty self-explanatory. Don’t count a thing as so until it is done.
Less said, sooner mended
Another of Ma Ingalls’ old sayings. If you find yourself in a messy situation, you can cause yourself more heartache and harm if you keep it stirred up. Let it alone and it will die a natural death.
A month of Sundays
In the old days, there were so many religious rules about what could and could not be done on Sunday. This made the day seem so long, especially to children. So of course, this phrase is used to indicate a long, slow period of time.
By hook or by crook
This old saying is said to come from a Medieval law stating peasants could use branches of any tree for firewood with one condition. They had to be able to reach the branch using a shepherd’s crook or a billhook. Using one or both of these tools, they could get wood for heating and cooking.
In our day, it’s come to mean a thing will be done one way or another.
Nothing falls into the mouth of a sleeping fox
The fox is a sneaky creature and has to work for his food. This goes together with another of the old sayings, “The sleeping fox will catch no chicken.”
These two simply mean a person who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat. A lesson many in our society should learn from. No, I don’t mean those who can’t work to provide, I mean those who can and won’t.
Don’t let the cat out of the bag
There’s an interesting story to this saying. Back in the day, piglets that were sold in open markets were placed in burlap bags to keep them from getting away. Crooked merchants would put large cats in the bad instead of a piglet.
If the buyer didn’t check the bag before he left the merchant, he was stuck holding the bag, another old saying, and was without recourse. He could not prove he didn’t swap them once he left the market.
A shrewd buyer would open the bag to look before he paid the merchant and would “let the cat out of the bag.” Today it means to keep a secret.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
A simple, yet profound meaning in this old saying. Applied to many areas of life, it simply means diversifying yourself, your time, your energy, and your money.
Learn everything you can; take care of your whole being; invest yourself in relationships; don’t’ over-extend your resources, and don’t hyper-focus on any one money-making adventure.
Won’t Hit a Lick at a Snake
A truly Southern saying among old farmer sayings. It means someone is so lazy they wouldn’t try to hit a snake away with a stick.
She’s as Mad as a Cow Having a Calf With Horns
In old farm sayings, this would mean he/she was extremely angry about something and was being very physical in expressing it.
That Dog Won’t Hunt
This would be considered the polite way of saying someone is lying. It stems from the Deep South where coon hunting dogs were, and in some areas still are, prized. If a dog trailed a rabbit instead of a coon, it was said to be “a lyin’ dog”. If it was a pattern, it was considered no good for hunting or good for nothin’ liar.
You look like you’ve been rode hard and put up wet
Any horseman knows if you ride a horse too hard it can damage it. A horse that’s been allowed to run so hard it becomes lathered must be cooled down slowly, brushed, and dried before being put in a stall to rest. Not doing so could result in the death of the horse and in the least could cause pneumonia.
So a person who looks run down, exhausted, or even sick may be said to look like this kind of horse.
Well, how’d you do? Did you know the origins or meanings of these old farmers sayings? Do you have another old saying you can share the meaning of with us? Share in the comments below.
Big Al says
I used to hear this when I was small when it was time to straighten up my room. That is a bigger mess than chickens during Pokeberry season.
That’s a funny one and one I totally get. Thanks for sharing with us.
Calvin Brown says
The one I’ve heard many times, especially in business today is, “Let’s not get the cart before the horse”. Meaning lets not do things backwards or in the wrong order.
Absolutely, a good one. Thanks for reminding us.
Steve Barrett says
The one about a stump reminded me of a couple things. I remember my Dad saying you could take care of a stump by drilling holes in it and soaking it with a mixture of (I think) kerosene and saltpeter. He said once it was saturated, a match would pretty much take care of it.
I’m also minded of another saying of my Dad’s, “Go run up a stump”, by which I took to mean he wanted me somewhere else.
On a different note, I recently stumbled across a meaning for the saying “Put a sock in it”. I always thought it meant to be quiet but, apparently, it originally referenced my Grandmother’s phonograph with the large speaker horn. There was no volume control, hence this saying.
Thank you for sharing these olde sayings. They are much enjoyed.
Steve, Thank you for taking the time to share your sayings and stories with us. It’s always great to hear from TFL Community and thank you for being a part of it.
Cynthia Wilson says
My mom used to say, ‘I feel like I was sent for and couldn’t come’ or ‘I look like I was dragged through a hedge backwards’.
Cynthia, Thanks for sharing your mom’s sayings with us, those are good ones.
My mom used to say “If wishes were horses then beggars would ride!”
That’s funny, Noreen, thanks for sharing.
Libby Smith says
“Don’t buy a pig in a poke.” I wonder if this saying has its origins with letting the cat out of the bag. It made me think if you don’t examine the bag first you may not be buying what you think you’re buying.
“You couldn’t stir them with a stick.” A crowd was very large and difficult to walk through.
“talking out of school” means you’re discussing something that you’re not supposed to talk about.
“like an ole settin’ hen” means someone is acting cross and touchy.
Great saysing Libby! Thanks for sharing with us.
Christina kinsey says
l am from.the zUk and I recognise several.of these sayings .A probably. ore modern one l.like is describing an impossible task as being like herding cats
Anyone who is owned by a cat will understand
Thanks, Christina, for sharing with us!
use your head to save your feet
Brenda, that’s a new one on me. Thanks for sharing!
Would have liked to have a number of them in a book form so as to visit the book any time. Nowadays we are having a such on computers not on physical book.
Phyllis Adams says
If the creek don’t rise
Phyllis, That’s a good one. Thanks for sharing.
I’ve heard this one as, “If the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise.”
I always thought of the creek not rising as the water not getting out of the creek bed. Recently a man told me it meant the Creek Indians.
Wanda, I’ve also heard it that way. I’ve learned there is often more than one meaning to old sayings. Often it depends on the time, the locale, and/or the people. Thanks for sharing with us.
My favorite Aunt Roxie I ain’t seen you in a coons age of course referring to how long a raccoon lives Too long for most southern farmers
Diane, Since I’m from the Deep South of Mississippi, I cannot believe I missed that one! Great job reminding us. Thanks for sharing and being a part of TFL Community.
Melinda Stowers says
He/she could blow up an onion sack and not say a single thing. Someone who talks a bunch of nonsense.
He/she could talk the ears off a jack rabbit.
He/she could worry the horns off a billygoat.
Melinda, Thank you so much for sharing these old sayings. Good ones all!
another one he/she could talk the hine leg aff a donkey
in other words doesn’t shut up
LOL! That’s a good one. I’ve also heard it “talk the horns off a billy goat.”
One of my favorites: We make plans and G-d laughs.
Tom Horton says
If you were a sailor and you did something wrong you were punished by the cat’o’ nine tails, a whip that was stored in a bag. It was said by those around him “you let the cat out of the bag”
What you were describing was don’t by a pig in a poke
Tom, I have discovered there are many stories and histories behind these sayings. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this one.
I like the old saying, “don’t teach your grandmother how to suck eggs”
Thanks for sharing with us. I’m not familiar with that one. Can you tell me what it means?
Nic Denham says
Means , she / someone , already knows and does this so don’t tell them how to do it .
Thanks for sharing it with me.
Charles Chandler says
One of my grandma’s was…” Well I ain’t seen hide nor hair of him”
Charles C. says
One of my grandma’s sayings I remember as kid was…” Well I ain’t seen hide nor hair of him.
Yes, that’s a good one! Thanks for sharing.
anne kimberley says
my dad used to say after I had asked a question ‘ I MAY BE TALKING WITHOUT MY BOOK BUT……… ‘
Anne, I love it! I’m going to remember that one and use it with our grandchildren. Thanks for sharing!
When corn is in season, when sitting down at table mom used to say, when she was a kid grandpa would say it’s time for spring cleaning referring to it coming out the other end.
Peggy, That’s one I’ve certainly never heard before but it does make sense! Thank you for sharing it with us and for being a part of TFL Community.
loved the origins of the above, one we use in the UK is flown the coup! (often when someone has run off, usually from the law!!)
Oh Jackie, That’s a good one! We say that over here to mean the same thing. I’m sure we learned it from the UK. Thanks for sharing!
I’ve used ‘I don’t want to talk out of church”. It’s helped me get out of a conversation or two
That’s a good one!
don stanley says
What is an “Elderberry Flush”? An old saying from my Grandmother.
Lady Locust says
I’ve not heard that but having dealt with elderberries, I would guess it is referring to the effect on the stomach of consuming too much “rich fruit” – trying to be polite.