Editors Note: For more than two years, James Spears, professor emeritus of English at the University of Tennessee at Martin, corresponded with the editors of Voices about his life and folklore research. The following is a composite of this exchange. Professor Spears, an early contributor to the New York Folklore Quarterly, has continued collecting folk speech and expanding his original article, “The Metaphor in American Folk Speech,” NYFQ 29 (1973).
I was a Great Depression baby, with all that the tag implies and entails. The son of a sharecropper, I was born only several months shy of October 26, 1929, the day of the stock market crash in Tyronza in Poinsett County, Arkansas. I grew to manhood lacking suitable warm clothing, living in an ill-heated, drafty shack, and deprived of sufficient, nourishing daily food. These circumstances have left an ingrained, indelible mark and imprint upon both my personality and character.
As a young man growing up on the plantation, I was drilled and schooled by my father in the work ethic. I was also counseled by my paternal grandfather in loyalty to one’s employer and the importance and significance of “doing one’s job and keeping one’s nose clean,” a homespun philosophy that has served me well throughout my life.
Yet throughout my life, I have metaphorically fought as many windmills as did Don Quixote himself.
While growing up on the Twist brothers’ plantation, its 17,000 acres situated in Cross and Crittenden counties in Arkansas, I worked and played with African American children at a time when segregation and discrimination were a fact of daily southern life. At age five, Zenobia was my first playmate. When I was seven years old, Frank, my buddy, introduced me to “soul food” before the term was coined. We cleared new ground, hoed and picked cotton, and plowed together. As a clerk at the Twist plantation store, where I filled the grocery orders of many African American families who traded there, I developed a rapport with children and adults alike, from whom I developed my lifelong interest in metaphor and folklore, especially regional expressions of the South.
Today, in my retirement from the academic world, I “eat pistachios and cultivate my garden” (à la Voltaire’s Candide), but I have not lost my interest in folklore. To this day, I carry a pen and pad with me to be ready to record everyday folk expressions that I might hear. My sole function is as linguistic collector and recorder. But metaphors live on the lips of speakers, “as sure as a pig’s ass is pork, until he sits down and then it becomes pressed ham.” The days of the raconteur have all but vanished, replaced by fast-paced urban life with its tempo of dying cellular phone batteries and by hurriedness present everywhere in communication and transportation. Listener attention spans have diminished. Because of noise pollution, listeners have become adept at tuning in and tuning out. Even brevity in business dealings has taken the day with online transaction. Language is the servant of its users, not the reverse as some traditional grammarians assert.
The list that follows is an excerpt of the more colorful metaphors from a glossary of almost 150 folk expressions, which I have collected over the years since I first published my glossary in 1973:
as busy as a bee in a tar bucket
as busy as a cranberry merchant
as cold as a well digger’s lunch pail
as crazy as a betsy bug
as dead as Elvis
as deep as ass-high snow to a tall Indian
as fine as frog hair split seven different ways
as full as a stuffed tick
as full of shit as a Christmas turkey
as gay as a goose
as happy as a dead pig in the sunshine
as hot as a roasted fart
as hot as two nuns playing squat tag in a cucumber patch
as impotent as a marshmallow
as poor as Job’s turkey
as popular as a skunk at a Sunday school picnic
as queer as a deer from the rear
as red as a fox’s ass in pokeberry time
as reliable as a Mack truck
as rough as a rub board
as sharp as a rat’s turd in a glass of buttermilk
as short as Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie’s honeymoon
as tightly packed as uranium
as tough as a two-dollar steak
as useless as a sidesaddle on a hog
My glossary, “The Metaphor in Folk Speech: An Extended Contemporaneous List,” continues to increase, but the question may arise, why now for a new list? To quote from a 1970s advertisement for Virginia Slim cigarettes, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Since 1973 there has been a revolution in both language and social mores, which is encapsulated in the examples of folk speech presented here.
James Spears lives in Hughes, Arkansas.
My sole function is as linguistic collector and recorder. But metaphors live on the lips of speakers, “as sure as a pig’s ass is pork, until he sits down and then it becomes pressed ham.”
This article appeared in Voices Vol. 31, Spring-Summer 2005. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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