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How We Talked and Common Folks

How We Talked and Common Folks

Verna Mae Slone
Illustrations by Len Slone
Michael B. Montgomery
Sidney Saylor Farr
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    How We Talked and Common Folks
    Book Description:

    Two of Verna Mae Slone's most beloved books -- How We Talked and Common Folks -- are now available in a single edition. How We Talked is a timeless piece of literature, a free-form combination of glossary and memoir that uses native expressions to depict everyday life in Caney Creek, Kentucky. In addition to phrases and their meanings, the book contains sections on the customs and wisdom of Slone's community, a collection of children's rhymes, and stories and superstitions unique to Appalachia. More than just a dictionary, How We Talked is a rich compendium of life "on Caney," offering an understanding of the culture through the distinctive speech of its people. Originally published in 1979, Common Folks documents Slone's way of life in Pippa Passes, Kentucky, and expands on such diverse topics as family pets, coal mining, education, and marriage. Slone's firsthand account of this unique heritage draws readers into her hill-circled community and allows them to experience a lifestyle that is nearly forgotten. Whether she is writing about traditional Appalachian customs like folk medicine or about universal aspects of life such as a mother's yearning for the little girl she never had, Slone's instinctive sense of what matters most makes Common Folks a compelling meditation on a legacy worth remembering. Published together for the first time, How We Talked and Common Folks celebrate the spirit of an acclaimed Appalachian writer.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7329-0
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-4)
  3. How We Talked

      (pp. 5-8)
      Michael B. Montgomery

      The remarkable circumstances of how a memoir, written by a native of a small rural community in Knott County, Kentucky, became an Appalachian classic are unique to the annals of American literature. Critics and readers alike wondered how Verna Mae Slone, a grandmother who did not devote herself to writing until well into her sixties, could emerge to produce such a striking, compelling account of life in the Kentucky mountains. Given her plainspokenness, she probably would have told an interviewer something like, “I wrote when I was ready to write.” Indeed, she was prompted first to write for her descendants,...

      (pp. 9-42)

      The beautiful language of our people is slowly fading into the past. Impossible to capture on paper, hard to understand or learn, it cannot be imitated: even on tape it loses something. Yet it’s never forgotten or lost by someone born into it. I have seen and heard folks come back to the hills after being away, Ph.D’s to their credit, slip back into our dialect in a manner of hours. Yet I have heard professional actors that speak several languages fluently think they were talking “like a hillbilly”: to us it sounds so unreal it would be pathetic if...

      (pp. 43-58)

      I have listed some of the most-used words by us. Some are common words used by people elsewhere, but they still seem to be a great part of our language. Some are unique; some mispronounced by us; all are interesting.

      Slap dab - exactly

      Persacitly - exact

      Purt nite (also, purt near) - almost

      Tatters - potatoes

      Matters, matoes, tom-a-toes - tomatoes

      Pie plant - rhubarb

      Artie-choke - to us, the roots of a tall plant with daisy-like flowers. Sometimes called Jerusalem artichoke, a type of sunflower.

      Plum-granny (pomegranate) - to us, a small melon, nice smell, edible but not...

      (pp. 59-66)

      All of our old folks were wonderful story-tellers. Their descriptive phrases added humor and interest, giving character to the tale. Many of the ones I have listed were of their own invention, some are used by people elsewhere, but I have included them because our folks used them too.

      Naked as a jay bird

      Sleeping like a log

      Smart as a whip (smart, meaning “wise”)

      Working like a house on fire

      Working all power

      Looking like something on a stick

      Kicking up his heels and showing his oats

      Crooked as a black snake

      Crooked as a rail fence

      So stiff...

      (pp. 67-75)

      I have just included a few names of animals, insects, plants, and birds that we pronounce the names differently, have our own name for them, or have some superstition about them.

      The “grave robber” was an animal that was feared because it was supposed to have dug into newly-dug graves and eat the bodies. I have not been able to prove nor disprove if there was such an animal. It was described to be the size of a fox, only larger around, black or dark brown, short legs, long pointed nose, long sharp teeth (could have been a wolverine). Our...

      (pp. 76-79)

      Hill people had a lot of old customs of their own, a way of life, of doing things, that were called “chimney corner laws.” These were more strictly kept and observed than the real laws handed out by the government. In fact, one of the chimney corner laws, “never turn in one of your kinfolks to the law,” meant protect him in any way you can. This was one time it was permissible to lie. The law and its enforcers were the enemies and all was fair in trying to outwit them. These chimney corner laws were taught to children...

      (pp. 80-99)

      It would be impossible to write a cookbook of recipes in modern terminology describing dishes prepared by our Appalachian cooks in time past. They had no written forms of how to prepare a dish. They cooked on stoves heated with coal or wood; there was no way to regulate the heat. There were no measurements such as modern cooks use. A dab, a pinch, a handful, and a smear were some of the terms they used. Most girls learned by watching their mothers, and taught their daughters the same way. There is no assurance that the following directions will come...

      (pp. 100-104)

      Making whiskey was not thought of by hill people as being immoral. It was just another way of making a living, and as for the government, it had just better leave us alone. A “revenuer” (officer) was hated by both young and old. We no longer have many men that make moonshine whiskey, and those that do don’t make the real corn whiskey like our old-timers did. The stuff they make now is more harmful. The real “corn likker” was made from corn, no sugar added. It would not hurt you, nor make you crazy drunk. It was used for...

      (pp. 105-116)

      Of all the changes that progress has brought to Appalachia, our church has suffered the least. It’s almost the same as it was two hundred years ago when our folks came here. Except for better houses with modern plumbing, there is little or no change. There are several denominations, but Baptist is predominant, and they are subdivided into United, Freewill, Missionary, and ours, Old Regular Baptist. In Knott County at least ninety percent of the people are of the Baptist belief. Not all are affiliated with any church, but they will tell you that that’s the church they “believe in.”...

    • SCHOOL
      (pp. 117-120)

      Our one-room schools are another source of misunderstanding that have been distorted and misrepresented by writers and journalists. Until the mid-sixties we had small schools. True, they only taught the eight grades, but the closeness, friendship, and sharing between the teachers and students was a great loss when these schools were discontinued. The school was so much in harmony with the family life, there was no shock to the young child beginning school. The few times that a teacher was whipped or run off have been exaggerated and blown all out of proportion. Most always the teacher was a relative...

      (pp. 121-131)

      Some are funny, some teach a lesson, some are sung when doing a job of work; all are part of our mountain heritage, taught to one generation by the older one, passed on and on by word of mouth. Some may have been brought to the mountains from Europe. Some may have been learned from the Indians.

      (To count toes)

      Here’s Will Willson.

      Here’s Tom Dunkins

      Here’s Long Rach

      And here’s Betty Bobkins.

      And here’s poor little shoe whackey, shoe whackey, shoe.

      This little pig says, “I want some wheat.”

      This little pig says, “Where are you going to get...

      (pp. 132-143)


      Scraping the outer bark of the birch and beech tree to get the sap. Some mixed the sap with sugar and let it set overnight.

      The small sprouts of the beech nuts, when they just have the first two leaves.

      Mountain tea - found on the top of hills and along the ridges. We ate the berries and chewed the leaves, which have a wintergreen flavor.

      Sweet anis - Dig and chew the roots of this plant, which has a licorice flavor.

      Eat the flowers and buds of the redbud tree. Some children got sick after eating these. They...

      (pp. 144-148)

      The weather meant a lot to our people. In a way, it controlled their lives. There was nothing they could do about it, but there was a lot they learned by watching and remembering. For a long time they did not have calendars, almanacs, watches, or clocks. They had their own devices to “keep track of time and space.” Watching Mother Nature to know when it was going to rain, snow, or “be a long dry spell” was taken into consideration each and every day, so as to know when to plant and when to gather. When your very survival...

      (pp. 149-176)

      These are medical terms and remedies used by our folks. I will not attempt to say the cures used would work every time, and do not mean that anyone should use them, but I have tried some of them and found that they did help. I know that some of the herbs they used were good. All the terms and names are authentic.

      Creel - to turn or twist the ankle when walking; or, to “creel over dead.” Could come from the word “reel” like to “reel and rock.”

      A bile (also called a “risin’”) - meaning a boil. An...

      (pp. 177-187)

      If you had hairy legs, you would be good at raising hogs.

      If you had big ears, you were clever (meaning generous or hospitable).

      If you had small ears you were stingy.

      If your nose itched, someone was coming for a visit. Left side meant a woman, right side meant a man.

      Don’t sew anything for someone sick. If you do, they will never live to wear it.

      Don’t sew anything while wearing it. If you do, you will get it torn off you.

      Don’t begin any job of work on Saturday that you can’t finish that day.

      If you...

      (pp. 188-196)

      Crap - Crop. Usually meant the amount of corn grown for each family.

      To tend a crop - The process of growing a crop of corn or other food. Also used the term “to tend the land.”

      A truck patch - A garden.

      To clur (clear) a newground (always pronounced as one word) - To cut all the trees and remove them from a piece of ground. The trees were cut, the larger logs hauled away for firewood or buildings, the smaller trees and branches put into piles and burned. The stumps were pulled out with oxen, burned with fire,...

  4. Common Folks

      (pp. 201-322)
      Sidney Saylor Farr

      I first met Verna Mae Slone in 1982 at the Hindman Settlement School, Hindman, Kentucky, where I interviewed her forTable Talk, my second cookbook. We sat in chairs facing each other in a hallway. As we talked, the afternoon sun slanted through a high window and touched her silver-white hair, braided in two long plaits, which hung down on either side of her gentle, wrinkled face. Her eyes were a vibrant blue. Throughout the interview, she spoke with a soft mountain dialect, her words as clear and straightforward as her writing.

      What My Heart Wants to Tell, the author’s...