Every occupation has its own specific vocabulary. Spinners ply, millers brew, carpenters plumb, and social media enthusiasts tweet. Farming certainly has its own slew of specific vocabulary—like the complex system of names for the genders and ages of animals, where an adult intact male hog is a boar, the female a sow, the little ones piglets…but if they’re girls they’re gilts and the boys are barrows. But what really sets farm talk apart is the use of phraseology. We’ve all heard it straight from the horse’s mouth, from those who are fit as a fiddle and merry as a lark. But here are a few that, unless you’re a farmer, you might not have encountered before.
Many of these sayings involve animals, such as the notion that you shouldn’t try to teach a pig to sing. It’s a waste of your time and it annoys the pig. Good fences make good neighbors, but the best fences are horse-high, pig-tight, and bull strong. We all know that the early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese. Crying over spilled milk isn’t quite as bad as when someone notes that your behavior is like locking the barn door after the horse is stolen.
References to people and their particular ways of doing things are also common. Someone new in the neighborhood might not know you from a bale of hay. Another fellow might be deemed slower than molasses in January. A chatterbox might well be caught chewing the fat with a neighbor, while the patient type will explain that they ain’t in an all-fired hurry. It’s all six of one, half a dozen of the other.
Is it a playful sense of language, its own form of insider’s code talk, or just plain old fashioned farm humor that stands behind these sayings? Of course, if you’re a city slicker who doesn’t know sh*t from Shinola, then you might have a problem catching on. But the stories behind words and phrases have always held a special fascination for me. For example, S.H.I.T. was originally an acronym that stood for “ship high in transit.” This dates back to the age when manure was hauled in sailing vessels to other parts to fertilize fields far removed from livestock raising areas. Waterlogged manure has a way of overheating and potentially causing fires, so the shipments were marked with the acronym to ensure that they were placed higher up in the ship’s hold, keeping the manure dry and the crew safe from spontaneous combustion.
A goodly portion of farm-steeped phrases have to do with life philosophy. Some are rather practical, like knowing that life is simpler if you plow around the stumps—a fitting thought for a region that was homesteaded after the cutover. Once the timbering trade left the landscape bereft of its majestic white pines, immigrant agencies touted pamphlets illustrating “seven easy steps for pulling out stumps.” The propaganda was augmented with pre-Photo Shop images of farmers pulling wagons piled with mammoth onions, cabbages, and potatoes. But those cutover farming days only worked for those who could keep skunks and bankers at a distance, if you know what I’m driving at.
It goes something like this; if you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging. That, and most of the stuff people worry about ain’t never gonna happen anyway. The biggest troublemaker you’ll probably ever have to deal with watches you in the mirror every mornin’. And when you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty.
These might not be the same admonitions that marked our own childhoods, with warnings to look both ways before crossing the street, say please and thank you, and hold the door for folks older than oneself, but they carry their own set of wisdoms. The knowing warning of never to corner something that is meaner than you could sure come in handy. The school of hard nocks is aptly summed up by the sentiment that good judgment comes from experience, and a lotta that come from bad judgment. And, if you ever get to thinking that you’re a person of some influence, try ordering somebody else’s dog around!
A mix of humor and humility, appreciation and irony abounds in farm talk. I can remember one day rummaging around in the machine shed for a board or a wrench or something and just about getting wedged stuck between a hay rake and a wagon. I turned to my mom with a straight face and said, “Don’t you think we could have gotten these a little closer together?” She immediately burst out laughing and accused me of sounding like her cousin Jeff, who has a farm in central Illinois. Irony is far better than complaining. Doing something foolish and then whining about it is often met on the farm with, “Well, what’dya do that for?” And who can’t help but chuckle at this notion—forgive your enemies; it messes up their heads.
My grandpa remembers his father saying “Thanks ‘til you’re better paid,” when a neighbor would do him a favor. Times were tough in the depression era, and everyone knew that lending a hand without monetary compensation was part of the fabric of community life. Being there for each other is a farming ethos we can all learn from this week. So, as you remember some of your favorite Old Time Farm Talk, here is one last piece—live simply, love generously, care deeply, and speak kindly. See you down at the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is part owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com