April 1996

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Letters to Suzanna

Peggety's Pot


Barbara H. Bell

Letters to Suzanna is a series of fictional letters based closely on historical facts that tell of the day-to-day experiences of a family establishing a homestead in the region near the south end of Seneca Lake in the early nineteenth century. Click here for more letters.

Dear Suzanna,

It occurs to me that some words which were an everyday part of language at our house might be different than you talk. So here are some examples.

One expression that stands out in my mind is "Peggety's Pot" which Mama often used. She gave the explanation that the fictional Peggety did not keep her cooking pot really clean and she did not watch carefully when it was set over the hearth to boil. It would boil over and food streaks on the outside would burn on and be highly visible. So Peggety's Pot was an example of sloppiness. If we did not make our bed neatly, it looked like Peggety's Pot. If hair braiding was not smoothly finished—you guessed it! That expression was frequently heard in our house. If someone was wishy-washy about making a decision, or always let someone else decide, or if there was a person who was always taken advantage of and never stood up for himself (or herself) that person was an eggsop.

When Mama or Papa wanted to dismiss a statement as unimportant, they might say "Pshaw" or "Piffle."

We were repeatedly reminded to "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." That came from the Bible, of course.

So did "Get thee behind me, Satan" which we were advised to say when tempted to do something we knew was wrong.

If somebody limped, we said he had a game leg. I am not sure where that came from but maybe whoever made it up thought game birds or other animals had a strange gait and so did a lame person. We children were taught never to remark about any such problem of another, even a stranger, though.

Anyone who found fault a lot or was in a foul mood was called Granny Grumble or Grandpa Grunt.

If we had a few raindrops that failed to become a true rain, that was a dripple. If there was a sudden, severe but short, rain, that was called a plump.

During cloudy weather, if we could see a fair-sized splotch of blue sky, we could predict fair weather to come if there was blue enough to "make a pair of Dutchman's Breeches."

Whenever something rather surprised Mama, she was apt to remark "Well, forever more!"

If any of us had a bad case of stomach cramps, we said they were in the snake's grip. We never spoke the word pregnant except in the very closest family confines. If it was necessary to say something about a woman or an animal expecting to give birth, we said that female was in a family way. And if someone needed to go to the outhouse, we said they were about to read nature's news.

At home, we might say outhouse or backhouse but in school, or when visiting a non-family home, we called that a necessary.

If someone were bragging or exaggerating, that was "pig feathers and paupers" or "cheese and chestnuts." And the person who was loudly self-important was bombastic.

A lazy individual was said to "work like a broken plow."

When Papa's temper was rising, he might warn, "Don't angrify me!"

Piney tar was anything sticky.

All hosiery was known as stocks but there came a time before I grew up that we changed that to socks "or stockings." One never referred to another's legs, in public, or our own either. They were limbs.

Rose or berry bushes, alike, were pricklers.

If you were called a dolt, it meant you were none to smart. When one grew sleepy and began to yawn frequently, it was because he or she was "gappy." A hot-tempered person was a pepper pot.

We often heard our parents say "It pleasures me" when something was going well or to denote a favored past-time.

An ill-fitting garment, on either man or woman, was a granny-gown. The intimate item, which a man wore beneath his pantaloons, was trews. I need to remember, as I write, that what I keep calling pantaloons were later better known as pants or trousers.

Papa never took the name of the Lord in vain, at least not in my presence. I never heard him say "damn" (I am glad he does not know I wrote that out so boldly!) Maybe he did when things went wrong in the fields or barn. When Papa began to mutter under his breath and went on and on, that way, we steered clear of him. That was a sure sign that he was very upset about something and might get "angrified."

If a man put on great airs of being very wealthy or conceited or vain, he was called a patroon. Umm. I wonder what we called a woman who acted like that. I can't recall.

I suppose there were others but I cannot bring more to mind. I have learned some of the speech of your day and you use words that could be a foreign language for all I can understand them!

© 1992, Barbara H. Bell
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