Many idioms and colorful expressions are often credited to the South, and Texas is no exception. However, many of these colloquialisms stem from much older parables, proverbs, history, literature, or simply the facts of everyday life. But, add a good ol’ Texan accent, and each adage sounds more Southern than the next. Many of these phrases reference animals, not surprising as the South, and particularly Texas, is largely agricultural. If not native to the Lone Star State, learn these down-home phrases and let the fun begin. Enjoy a curated collection of editor’s favorites from the five part series of articles explaining these familiar phrases!
‘Til the cows come home
This terminology describes an unspecified and unhurried amount of time. Due to the unconcerned and laid-back nature of cows, they are not likely to head anywhere quickly. If someone is going to be doing something “until the cows come home,” then they could be a while. While it is easy to imagine this saying in an East or West Texas accent, it likely came over to the U.S. from Scotland, as uses in the media date back at least to 1829. In the 1933 Groucho Marx film, Duck Soup, he further popularized an already known idiom, with a clever play on the words.
Madder than a wet hen
Likely coming to the South by way of Appalachia, a wet hen is one angry chicken indeed. Hens, or female chickens, do not like to be wet and will become extremely angry accidentally finding themselves in water. In fact, hens “bathe” in the dirt to keep their feathers from sticking. When hens are routinely laying and incubating eggs, it is common for them to become a bit broody, or down. One of these phrases that comes from a real-life agricultural practice, farmers could sometimes dunk a hen in cold water to help snap her out of it. No doubt, the wet hen was surely livened up! If a fellow Texan is “madder than a wet hen,” then they are making a scene, angry to the point of acting crazy.
Go whole hog
To “go the whole hog” means to do something thoroughly, to the furthest extent, completely. Likely a term in the butchery world, utilizing an entire pig would let nothing go to waste, from “tail to snout.” Usual porcine cast-offs such as the skin or even the hooves can be processed or pickled for use or consumption.
In the late 1770s, William Cowper, poet and Christian, wrote The Love of the World Reproved in which he used the phrase “the whole hog,” to make fun of another religion, a practice not uncommon at the time. During the United States presidential elections in 1828, Andrew Jackson’s passionate supporters gained the nickname “whole hog Jacksonites.” By the 1830s, the catchy saying had traveled across the pond, where it also found favor in the United Kingdom. Since then, Americans have dropped the “the” and prefer to “go whole hog.”
While some may argue over whether or not the correct terminology is kitty-corner or catty-corner, Merriam-Webster defines the term as something relationally located “in a diagonal or oblique position.” Down South, it is no surprise to have someone provide directions that might include “over yonder,” “down the road a piece,” or “just a hop, skip, and a jump.” So when a Texan friend says the store is catty-corner to the old bank, its position seems perfectly clear.
However, the origin of the phrase actually has nothing to do with cats or kitties. Rather it traces back years and across languages. The concept of cater-cornered came from an English dialect in which “cater” was a verb meaning “to move diagonally.” But its history does not end there. Earlier on, “cater” first referred to the positioning of the “four” side of dice. Further back than that, it was actually borrowed by the English from the French word “quatre,” which unsurprisingly means four or four-quartered.
While kitty-corner is the most widely-used form of the adjective adjective and adverb, it is more often used by Northerners. Catty-corner is the popular form of the idiom in the South, with about 30 percent of all Americans saying it this way. So go ahead, Texans. Give directions that include the phrase–it seems almost everyone will know exactly what you mean!
Raining cats and dogs
Like most colorful phrases of yesteryear, this one is certainly well understood to mean the skies are unleashing a relentless downpour. And like such metaphors, it is also hard to pinpoint its exact origin. However, this phrase has certainly been around for centuries and there are a few popular ideologies about its history.
One theory has to do with the more primitive construction of homes in the past. If a dwelling had a thatched roof, it was not uncommon for animals to find a safe haven here, especially when the rains would begin. A particularly heavy downpour or collapsed roof may send the animals out into the inclement weather or even down inside the house, making it seem as if the menagerie were also raining from the sky. However, this idea seems to be mostly conjecture passed down over the years. It is also unlikely that dogs lived in the roof, much less found their wet footing up there in a storm.
Like the thatched roof approach, a similar idea is that flooding in the street of Britain would often drown small animals like cats and dogs, if the waters rose enough. As the dead animals washed up or floated along, it may have seemed they came down with the precipitation too. This accounting though seems to have its roots more in literature than in reality. Jonathan Swift published a poem in a magazine in 1710 that referenced animals floating after a city shower. The work was both satire and metaphoric; if it was common for animals to float down the road after a rain, much less larger mammals like dogs and cats, it would likely be more well-known.
Further back in the literary realm, Richard Brome’s 1653 comedy The City Wit or The Woman Wears the Breeches includes a line referencing the raining of dogs and polecats. So perhaps the phrase was more common than written recordings would have one believe.
Some speculations pit dogs and cats against each other as natural enemies, their animosity “stormy.” But that also seems a stretch. Other proposals look to mythology for the answer here, claiming that the Norse god Odin is often depicted with dogs or wolves. There is little document for this theory. Wherever the colloquialism originated, one thing is for sure: there is rarely a Texan who does not understand what this means!
Never look a gift horse in the mouth
While this may conjure up some lively mental images of equines bearing presents and treats, in this classic proverb, the horse itself is the gift. But why would the recipient of a perfectly good handout be inspecting the mouth of such an equine?
The phrase has been around for centuries. John Heywood documented the adage in his 1546 book discussing proverbs translated into the English language. It is commonly thought he pulled the phrase from one of St. Jerome’s letters, written in Latin around 400 C.E. translated, “Never inspect the teeth of a given horse.”
Horses’ teeth tend to grow as they age. While the practice is less common today, likely requiring specialist training, inspecting an equine’s mouth could indicate the age and health of the animal. Should one look closely at the quality of a gift, it could convey to the giver that the recipient mistrusts the token. Translated into practical everyday advice, it is meant to encourage gift recipients not to investigate too closely the items they receive, but rather accept the present with grace and thankfulness.
Interestingly enough, this practice of inspecting a horse’s mouth is the same concept behind the descriptive adadge, “long in the tooth.” Like rings of a tree, long equine teeth would indicate an aging animal. If one is described as “long in the tooth,” it has little to do with teeth; they are simply being referred to as old.
This phrase is more British than many of the other Critter Colloquialisms, but it is an interesting one; nonetheless, as it is truly a pun, a play on words! First used in 1916, the phrase “donkey’s ears” was written in reference to a long amount of time. Edward Verrall Lucas was a humorous author, and when he published his story Vermilion Box, the term was likely a play on words already in use, such as “donkey’s years,” found in print as early as the late 1800s, meaning the same. While donkeys’ ears are actually long, when it comes to years, donkeys also like quite a long life! The Cambridge Dictionary likens its use to the phrase “a month of Sundays.”
Clean as a hound’s tooth
Meaning spic-and-span, spotless, and incredibly clean, the phrase can be applied to actual cleanliness or even character, meaning pure, unmarred, reputable, and honest. Unlike many idioms making these lists, this one is mostly used in the South and Midwest, with the same meaning as “clean as a whistle.”
Hounds were and are common in more rural areas, such as those found across the South, although the term could simply refer to any dog. When given bones on which to gnaw, the canine teeth of such dogs would appear to be very white, with the appearance of being clean and blemish-free.
The simile can be found in print as far back as the late 1700s, and its use at the time indicated it was likely a common saying. It has been used in literary works, by authors like Texas’s own O. Henry. It was even a favorite phrase of President Dwight Eisenhower.