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A Look Back at how our predecessors spoke

If you had been living in Hartselle back around the turn of the 19th century and the early years of a new centennial, here are some of the words and expressions you might have heard or used yourself: 

  • Banty—short or brief, as in there is not much news for the Alabama Enquirer to 
  • publish 
  • Bursting up—as in a prohibition referendum to determine where and under what conditions liquor can be sold, not just the one question of prohibition or no-prohibition up or down 
  • Churn dash—the center square in the middle of the butter churn is the churn dash 
  • Cocked hat—an old-time hat with opposing brims turned up in order to give two points (bicom); knock into a cocked hat is to outdo or defeat 
  • Cottonitis—an irresistible temptation of Morgan County farmers to grow cotton even though the price is low 
  • Devil’s broth—slang for whiskey 
  • Diggings—surrounding area; a local farmer boasts that he has the finest mule colt in all these “diggings 
  • Do things up brown—to do a super job; the editor predicts that a fellow-journalist will “do things up brown” in writing about a recent trip to the beautiful Blount Springs, a spot which he predicts will be the “Saratoga of the South” 
  • Drummer—a salesman, either calling on businesses or going door-to-door; before the train he would go by horse-drawn wagon; when L&N was firmly established, he would take the accommodation for Hartselle to Falkville, etc. 
  • Free State of Winston—a popular designation for Winston County, which was pro-Union and resisted Confederate domination during the Civil War; for many years, the representative from Winston would be the Legislature’s only Republican. 
  • General Crab Grass—Morgan County farmers, like cotton farmers elsewhere in north Alabama, were always fighting the fast-growing, sprawling crabgrass.  Frequently it seemed like a losing battle, thus the designation of “General.” 
  • Grind out the news—see “banty” above; trying to come up with interesting stories when nothing is really happening. 
  • Had rather wear out than rust out—Methodist founder John Wesley and those who followed after him believed it was better to wear out with work than with rust. 
  • Half-sheet—when news was really light or the editor was sick, perhaps with la grippe, one page of the country newspaper might only be printed on the top side, leaving the bottom side blank. 
  • Hard to handle—one meaning is hard to be in an election contest. 
  • High out—don’t stir up trouble after drinking. 
  • Holy bonds of hemlock—one folksy reading said, “We’ll be jined together in the holy bonds of hemlock, Epluribusunum, world without end.”  One who attended an entertainment at Hartselle College might have heard this satire on marriage taken from “Humorous Recitations.” 
  • Hootchie-coochie dancers—performers of belly dances as demonstrated at world fairs, national expositions and state fairs.  
  • Hop-jack—in a Morgan County still brewing moonshine, this would be the vat with a false bottom to retain the solid contents of the mash-tubs, straining the hops. 
  • Job lot—a miscellaneous collection of goods for sale as a lot, as to a Hartselle retailer by a drummer; generally not of good quality. 
  • Jower—overheard in town; men growling over some perceived wrong they’ve suffered. 
  • Kale—slang term for what’s in a man’s envelope when he’s paid for the work he’s done at the L&N shops. 
  • Knight of the grip—another slang term for the traveling salesman with a big territory; maybe he stays overnight at the hotel operated by former Mayor Cooper.