“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” “Many hands make light work.”
Proverbs are handed down from mother to child all over the world, but nowhere are they so confusing as perhaps in the American south. There are things my mom said to me as a kid that I didn’t even interpret until I was an adult, but I grew to simply nod at her apparent ramblings and say, “Okay, mom.”
Though I didn’t understand her wisdom until I’d gained some of my own, I am grateful to have had a Southern mom who taught me some mom-isms I can hand down to my kids.
Here are 15 Southern mom-isms explained, some of which came from the mouth of my own sweet mama, among others.
15. Never look a gift horse in the mouth
Back in the old days, before John Deere perfected the tractor, horses were work animals that literally pulled their weight around a farm. If you were buying a horse, you’d want to check its teeth to make sure it was the age you were being told it was. However, if the horse was being given to you free of charge and you check its teeth in front of the person gifting it to you, it’s insulting. You should just be grateful for the gift horse, instead of checking to see how many years it has left. So basically this phrase means to be grateful for what you’re given.
14. A whistling woman and a crowing hen never come to a very good end
I guess, back when this saying first came into popularity, it was considered masculine to whistle (for some unknowable reason), and obviously, hens aren’t supposed to crow, that is left up to the rooster. So this saying is cautioning women to behave in a ladylike manner.
13. Those are scarce as hen’s teeth
Do y’all have any idea how much this confused me as a child? No. No you don’t. For the longest time I was convinced that chickens had microscopic teeth. Turns out, they don’t have teeth at all. This saying means that basically (whatever you’re discussing) is so rare that it might as well not exist.
12. Pretty is as pretty does
You’re only as pretty as your actions. If you’re pretty on the outside, but have an ugly heart, then you’re an ugly person.
11. You have to suffer to be beautiful. (or) Beauty is pain
My mom would always say this to me as an excuse for the Machiavellian way she would brush the tangles out of my hair. She was merciless as I’d yell and cry, and the only thing worse than the pain was that damn cliche she’d spout at me while yanking my hair out by the roots.
…And now I say it to my daughter.
10. It’ll all come out in the wash
Everything will be alright in the end. File this one with “There’s no use crying over spilled milk”.
9. You’ll catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar
I heard this old adage a lot when I was whining about something. My mom would remind me that bellyaching was no way to go about getting what I want. Yes, that’s right. Southern women teach their kids to be manipulative from an early age, which is why we make such good lawyers, negotiators and public relations experts.
8. Remember to load your brain before you shoot your mouth off
Basically, think before you speak.
7. Madder than a wet hen
An old farm practice for breaking a broody (non-laying) hen is to take the hen from its nest and dunk it in water, this causes the chicken to get upset and run about, after which it will start laying eggs again. So if you’re madder than a wet hen, you’re pretty dang pissed.
6. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch
Those who keep chickens know that not all eggs end up hatching. If you count each egg as a potential chicken before they prove themselves viable by hatching, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. This phrase means to not count on something until it pans out.
5. Come Hell or high water
Basically, this means nothing can stop you, not flood waters or Satan himself. My mom would say this to indicate that she was determined to do something and we’d best not get in her way or argue. “You’d better put on those shoes because we are going to church come Hell or high water!”
4. Full as a tick
This one is so gross. Did you know that sometimes if a tick drinks too much blood, it actually bursts? Just… so gross. And we say it at the dinner table.
3. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig
Dressing up something ugly doesn’t change its nature. I used to take this literally as a kid, and always wondered why anyone would want to chase down a pig to put lipstick on it.
2. Might as well be talkin’ to a fence post
This one is usually uttered after your mom instructed you to do something and you sat there like an idiot, not doing it. Basically, you’ve got the brains of a fence post. (Whispering) Psst! Your mom thinks you’re stupid.
1. If wishes were horses then beggars would ride
Translation: Tough sh*t. Usually, this one is in direct response to your incessant pre-adolescent whining. “Ugggghhhhh. Mom! No one understands what you’re talking about! I wish you would make more sense!”