Proverbs and Sayings from the Southern Appalachian Mountains

By Dorothy Buckland Kickasola

Copyright © 2008 Dorothy Buckland Kickasola
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4357-1989-7

Chapter One


Love me, love my dog.

If you love people, accept them as they are.

I like you, but I but I don't like your ways.

I like you as a person; I just wish you wouldn't do what you are doing.

You've got to take the bitter with the sweet.

A variation: You've got to take the good with the bad.

It's better to give than to receive.

From the Bible, Acts 20:35

Beggars can't be choosers.

When you are in desperate straits, take what is offered, even if it's not your first choice.

Don't bite the hand that feeds you.

If someone is taking care of you, make nice.

Don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

When you receive a gift, it is impolite to inspect it too closely. By looking at a horse's teeth, you can make a rough determination of how old the horse is, since the horse's gums recede with age.

Take it or leave it.

Accept something for what it is or reject it.


Fight fire with fire.

A desperate situation often requires a desperate solution. Firefighters sometimes set fire to a strip of land so that when the fire reaches that area, there is nothing left to burn.

That's the way the cookie crumbles.

Things don't always turn out the way we want them to. A variation: That's life.

Dog eat dog.

Ruthless competition.


One not favored to win. In dogfights, the dog that ends up on the bottom of the pile will probably lose.

Egging somebody on.

Provoking a fight.

A free for all. / A Donnybrook.

A noisy argument or a fight with no rules. The village of Donneybrook, now a suburb of Dublin, was famous for the drunken and disorderly conduct of those who attended its fair. It was said that these visitors would rather fight than eat.

Fighting tooth and nail.

Fighting like wild animals. Animals fight with everything they've got, including their teeth and nails (claws). A variation: Fighting like cats and dogs. (Note: Any word ending in -ing would have been pronounced -in', such as fightin' instead of fighting.)

To clobber.

To beat repeatedly.


You're as young as you feel.

Brand spanking new.

Newborns are often spanked to make them start breathing.

A spring chicken.

Very young. Chickens are hatched in the spring, so spring chickens are baby chickens.

Over the hill.

Old and decrepit. When you reach the top of the hill and start down the other side, you have passed the mid-point and are on a decline or past your peak.

Getting on.

Getting on in years, getting old.

As old as the hills.

Very old.

An old goat.

Old, perhaps fussy and cranky.

As old as Methuselah.

According to Genesis 5:27, Methuselah was 969 years old when he died.

You can't teach old dog new tricks.

Sometimes older people become inflexible and don't want to learn or try anything new. This is a condition that I call "cement in the head."

Long in the tooth.

Old. By looking at a horse's teeth, you can make a rough determination of how old the horse is, since the horse's gums recede with age. The longer the teeth appear to be, the older the horse is.

An old chestnut.

A joke that's been told so many times that it's no longer funny.


Seeing eye to eye.

Agreeing with each other.

You can say that again.

You agree with the other person's statement.

I reckon.

An indication of agreement, as in, "Are you going outside?" "Well, I reckon so." Although the word reckon means to count or compute, my grandparents also used it to mean that they were thinking about something, as in, "I'm reckoning on it."

You don't cotton to it.

You don't agree with or don't like something. Cotton thread sticks to almost anything.


Looks like something the cat drug in.

Cats sometimes drag in yucky, dead things.

All that glitters isn't gold.

Don't let appearance deceive you. Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

You can't judge a book by its cover.

Don't judge people by how they look, but by what they really are. A variation: Clothes don't make the man.

Gone to the dogs.

In very bad condition. This phrase can be used to describe appearance, behavior, and/or health. In the old days, dogs lived harder lives. All they got was leftover scraps of food and, if they were very lucky, a sheltered place, like a barn, to sleep in.

Keeping up with the Joneses.

Since Jones is a common family name, this means trying to keep up with the neighbors by copying their possessions and lifestyle.

Knee high to a grasshopper (or a duck).

If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it must be a duck.

If someone or something claims to be different from what you observe it to be, don't believe it. Figure out what is obvious.

His bark is worse than his bite.

People who speak in a sharp manner don't always follow through with actions.

As thin as a rail. / As skinny as a bean pole.

Looking like the cat that swallowed the canary.

Looking proud of yourself.

What you see is what you get.

You are not pretending to be something that you're not.

Dyed in the wool.

Set in your ways, unwilling to make changes. Wool that is dyed before it is woven doesn't fade as easily as wool that is dyed after it is woven.

Sticking out like a sore thumb.

Not fitting in. Sore thumbs are swollen and bigger than the other fingers.

All cats are gray in the dark.

Don't judge by outward appearances. In the dark, white cats and black cats look alike. This saying appears in the folklore of many countries and was quoted by Heywood.

Like a fish out of water.

Not fitting in because you're in a totally unfamiliar environment.

Still waters run deep.

Sometimes quiet people are the most thoughtful or intelligent.

Cold nose, warm heart.

People who seem to be unfriendly may be very nice people. This probably comes from observing dogs, who have cold noses, but warm, loving dispositions.

As pretty as a picture.

Most people go to an effort to look good when they have their picture taken.

An ugly duckling.

Someone who doesn't show much promise or beauty at first, but turns out to be really talented or beautiful. The Danish author Hans Christian Anderson wrote a story about a mother duck that hatched a number of eggs. All looked like normal ducks, except one, which was grey and too big and clumsy. Because it looked so different, the poor animal was abandoned and left to fend for itself. It had a difficult summer and an even harder winter, when it almost froze to death in a pond. In the spring, it approached a group of beautiful swans who took it in. It turned out to be a swan too, and the children who found it said that it was the most beautiful swan that they had ever seen.

As bald as a billiard ball.

As cute as a bug's ear. / As cute as a button.

As neat as a new pin.


Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Don't get rid of an object, idea, or way of doing something just because part of it is bad or doesn't work. Before there was running water in homes, people had to carry water to fill the big, circular metal tubs that they bathed in. Since this was a chore, they used the same water for the entire family. The man of the house bathed first in clean water, followed by the other sons and men, then the women, the children, and last of all, the babies. By this time, the water was so dirty that it could be hard to see the baby in it.

Directions for bathing:

My grandmother, like many country women of her time, was extremely modest. She undressed in the closet or in the dark, and I feel sure that she never looked in the mirror at herself unclothed. This modesty dictated that intimate body parts were never referred to by their proper names. Her admonition when I bathed was: Wash as high as possible, then as low as possible, and then wash Possible.

Bird bath.

For homes without running water, a full bath was rare since water had to be carried from the spring. A bird bath meant putting water in the sink and washing with a wash cloth.

Cleanliness is next to Godliness.


As ugly as a mud fence. / As ugly as homemade sin.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

We all have different ideas about beauty. A wonderful person may be beautiful to you, in spite of appearances.

Beauty is skin deep.

A good-looking person who has a bad personality is still ugly. The complete quote: Beauty is skin deep, but ugly goes all the way to the bone.


Pretty is as pretty does.

Physical beauty or fancy clothing doesn't make you a beautiful person.

Actions speak louder than words.

You show others what you really are by how you act, not by what you say.

A barking dog never bites.

A dog that is using its mouth to bark can't bite you.

You're really full of yourself.

As a young child, I knew when I heard this that I was being warned that my behavior was getting out of control.

Keep your nose on straight.

Behave, don't get out of line.

Play pretty.

Get along with others and cooperate.

Mind your p's and q's.

Behave. An English proverb that probably refers to little children confusing p's and q's when they began to write.

Sour grapes.

Acting like something doesn't make any difference, when you're really disappointed. In an Aesop fable, a fox tries to get grapes which are so high up in the tree that he can't reach them. When he fails, he says, "Well, the grapes are probably sour anyway."

Don't make a spectacle of yourself.

A strong admonition to quit behaving in a manner which draws undue attention to yourself. Another common warning was to Straighten up and fly right.

What goes around comes around.

The way you treat others may end up being the way you get treated in the future. An old Greek proverb states that Kindness begets kindness.

A loose cannon.

A person whose unpredictable, erratic behavior can be harmful to others. On sailing ships, loose cannons were very dangerous in rough weather, since they were heavy and could cause a lot of damage.

Monkey see, monkey do.

Others may copy what you do.

Don't kick people when they're down.

Don't be mean to people in an inferior position or condition. Aesop

Get off your high horse.

Quit acting like you're better than everyone else. In the old days, if you had a tall steed, you were probably rich.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

From the Bible, Matthew 7:12

When the cat's away, the mice will play.

An example: School children who misbehave when the teacher's back is turned or they are left unsupervised.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

When you travel, try to fit in with the way others do things instead of criticizing them simply because they are different.

Sowing wild oats.

Bad, usually disreputable, behavior. There were two types of oats in Europe. One was used for cereals and the other, called wild oats by the English, was a weed. The seeds from these two types of oats were difficult to keep apart, and if wild oat seeds got into the farmers' seed supply, the wild oats would crowd out the good oats when the crop began to grow.


A harsh condemnation of acting like you are better than others. For example: A student who brags loudly and excessively about getting an A on a test when none of his friends got a grade higher than a B. A similar saying is Rising above your raising.

Practice what you preach.


Being proper to the point of being prudish or puritanical. In England, strait meant tight or narrow. Women were considered to be more prim and proper if they pulled bodice laces tight, thereby diminishing their feminine curves.


The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

From my mother: He who tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted. Bragging is not necessarily a bad thing, if it means that's it's the only way to get others to notice your accomplishments.

Blowing smoke.

Bragging without any way to back it up. Probably a reference to the fact that magicians use puffs of smoke to conceal what they are doing.



When I was growing up in the 1940's and 50's, telephones were used basically for business calls. So if someone got a personal call, it often meant that there was an emergency or someone had died, hence the saying No news is good news. How did they communicate? They actually wrote letters.


Politeness was a big deal in the south, such as saying Ma'am and Sir. As a young child, my brother Ralph got so frustrated at being constantly corrected for mixing up genders that he finally gave up and called everyone Ma'am/Sir.

Pretty please, with cream and sugar on it.

An extra-polite form of please.

Now y'all come over and have dinner with us.

A friendly gesture I heard many times after church. However, the speaker would have been horrified if people had shown up at his home for a meal.

Y'all come over and sit a spell.

This invitation was taken seriously, because years ago, it was not uncommon for people to drop by unannounced on Sunday afternoon.

The noon meal was dinner. We never used the word lunch. And the evening meal was supper, not dinner. If someone said "dinner," we would think they were, as my grandmother used to say, "Puttin' on airs."

That road was surveyed by a cow.

A crooked road. When cows go up a hill, instead of going straight up, they zigzag from one side to the other until they reach the top.

Being nickled and dimed to death.

Spending a little bit here and a little bit there adds up. Years ago, nickels and dimes, and even pennies, were worth something. In the 40's, you could buy a loaf of bread for a nickel. Comic books were 10 cents and a stamp was 3 cents. And, believe it or not, people actually stopped to pick up a penny on the sidewalk.


In the old days in the South, there were very few 4-lane roads and no interstates. Most roads were 2-lane roads with bad curves. (Roads had to go around hills because there were no machines to move the dirt to make the road straight.) Since roads were narrow with little opportunity to pass, traffic would back up, creating a situation similar to trying to cram all the liquid from a Coke into the neck of the bottle.


Walking on eggshells.

Being careful not to hurt someone's feelings.

Better safe than sorry.

Being sorry doesn't repair the damage of doing or saying something stupid or hurtful.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

It's much easier to prevent a problem than it is to try to fix it after it has already happened. A variation: A stitch in time saves nine. If you repair a hole in clothing when you first find it, it will save you from having to repair a bigger hole later.

Take what someone says with a grain of salt.

Be cautious. Some people stretch the truth. Salt was thought to have healing properties. If you ate food that might be poison, you took it with a grain of salt.

Giving someone a wide berth.

Keeping away from someone, probably a dangerous person. Berth is the space required to dock a ship.


Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.

Rural people worked six days a week. The only day they got to put on "good" clothes was Sunday.

Putting on the dog.

Wearing your finest clothes or using your finest possessions, like setting the table with seldom-used china when people came to visit. In the 1800's, doggy was a popular slang term meaning stylish, costly, or fancy.

Dressed to kill.

In the old days, people usually had only one dress-up outfit, which was worn on only two occasions: to go to church or to be buried in. If you were dressed as you would be when you were buried, you were in your best outfit and therefore were "dressed to kill."

A git-up.

Clothing that is ridiculous or doesn't fit the occasion. For example, wearing cowboy boots and hat to a formal wedding.

Wearing your birthday suit. / As naked as a jay bird.

Naked. You're born with no clothes on.

Put on your bib and tucker.

Your best clothes. In the old days, women tucked pieces of lace, called a bib, into their blouses.

All dolled up.

Dressed up in your fanciest clothing.


Heavy, thick soled shoes used by farmers for walking through fields covered with clumps of dirt.

Dressed to the nines.

Wearing your most expensive clothing. The best suits took nine yards. There was a lot of fabric which couldn't be used, since all the pieces had to be cut in the same direction as the warp of the cloth.


Keeping someone on a short leash.

Wanting people to do things the way you want them done. Similar to Keeping someone under your thumb.

Ruling the roost.

Being in total control of everyone, much like the rooster lording over the chickens in the barnyard.


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