Rick Perry's running for president. But Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett of Austin says the Republican Perry is "all hat and no cattle." Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the Democratic National Chair, said the same thing. Who knows if it's right--what does it mean? Author Mim Harrison talks about the expression on her blog, and about her new book on American regional language, Wicked Good Words, with us here.
What were Doggett and Schultz talking about when they said "all hat and no cattle"? And by the way, why do Louisiana kids mock "shoo-shoo"s on the Fourth of July? Hey, do you have a long butt? (Hint, if you do, you're a logger, not a candidate for plastic surgery.)
Wicked Good Words, look playfully at the wealth of American English. Wicked Good delves deep into those wonderful regionalisms that still pepper American speech. As Doggett and Schultz's expressions show, we're not all homogenized just yet when it comes to how we talk.
I asked Mim about what she found when she was checking out expressions like "Kennywood's open," "rush the growler," and, of course, "all hat and no cattle."
("Kennywood's open" refers to an unzipped pants condition, and it's local to Pittsburgh; Kennywood is a popular amusement park nearby. "Rush the growler" is an Applachian expression for filling a lunch pail with beer. "All hat and no cattle" means more bluster and talk than substance and action.)
ES: Diction and vocabulary give so much flavor to language. Did you find that certain categories of words tended to show the most variation, such as words for food, or clothing, or working?
MH: I found the “foodie” words to be among the most varied. Many of them did, indeed, describe the same food, but in addition, others used a food to describe a quality. In Hawaii, for instance, they will talk of a “calabash cousin”—someone not technically related but whom you’re so close to, you’ll “eat from the same calabash,” or gourd. In California, there’s an artery-choking omelet called the “Hangtown fry” that’s named after a town that the Gold Rush put on the map (since renamed Placerville). So there’s a whole history contained in the name of this dish. New England’s “cold roast Boston” is not a food at all. It’s another name for the area’s founding families—ever the frugal ones, so they eat their leftover Sunday roast cold the next day.
And then there are the foodie words for foods themselves. Look at the many variations for milkshake—a frappe, a cabinet, a velvet. Or pancakes—slapjacks, flapjacks, hotcakes, buckwheats. And, of course, that big sandwich: Is it a hoagie, a sub, a po’ boy, a hero, a Dagwood, a Bumstead, a grinder, a wedge, or a spuckie? It’s all of those, depending on where in the country you’re eating it.
ES: Your other books, Smart Words and Words at Work, let us share your delight in vocabulary and diction. How did your research on Words at Work and/or Smart Words relate to your research for Wicked Good Words?
MH: My research for Wicked Good Words was more similar to what I did for Words at Work. Both of these required eavesdropping on English, as I call it—trying to catch people in the act of saying what comes naturally. Smart Words, on the other hand, was something I researched primarily by reading publications that I consider to be well written and looking for unusual words.
One of my challenges with Wicked Good Words was to trace the expression’s origin, so that meant I had to go beyond the eavesdropping. Lots of people use regionalisms without knowing where the expression came from. So I did a lot of corroborating. Was the expression online? Was it online in enough reliable places? Could you find it in, say, the Dictionary of American Regional English? I ended up with quite a varied bibliography.
ES: Did any words miss the cut? Any words you've since come across, or that readers have proposed, that you would have liked to include?
MH: I’ve discovered there are two things that happen when you publish a book of regionalisms. First, everyone asks you if you included this word, and that one, and this other one. And second, a number of people inform you that they’ve never heard of this word, or that one, or this other one. It’s all good, as far as I’m concerned, as it’s validation for how we Americans still have some very specific ways of saying things. It also underscores how many regionalisms are generational. Knowing that, we should try to hold onto as many as we can.
And yes, if I could add more to the book, two that I would add come courtesy of some of the great comments I received on my piece on the Huffington Post. One is “right out straight”—how Vermonters say they’re very busy. The other is “shoobies”—daytrippers to the Jersey shore. And note that’s shore, not beach (New England) or down-nee-ocean (Maryland) or coast (Oregon).
Readers: What are YOUR favorite regionalisms? Were there any particular expressions you remember from where you grew up?
Want to keep up with my reviews and all of Barnes & Noble’s exclusive reviews, author interviews, videos, promotions, and more? Please follow us on Twitter: @BNBuzz!
Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.
You must be a registered user to add a comment here. If you've already registered, please log in. If you haven't registered yet, please register and log in.