One of my dad’s favorite expressions popped out of my mouth the other day. I didn’t expect it, really, but the situation called for it and it certainly made my point.
“You know why they don’t send donkeys to school, don’t you?” I asked my son archly. Then the comedic pause. “Because nobody likes a smart a—.”
In our family, it got so Dad didn’t even have to deliver the punch line. We knew we were getting too sassy and we had better cut it out.
That expression may sound a tad risqué, but that was as racy as it got. I believe I heard my father swear only twice in my life. My mom had just one off-color word and she was mortified every time it slipped out. I think this contributed to their regular use of goofy yet pithy expressions.
Once I had children old enough to verbally chastise, these same expressions, long dormant and not commonly used, came flying out, perfect for the parental occasion. I delighted in their renaissance. It was also then I fully realized how funny my parents were. They could have just said, “Stop being sassy,” or something equally ordinary. Instead, they had a host of phrases they used as part and parcel of our discipline, and most of them made you laugh.
If we stood in front of the television, successfully and thoughtlessly blocking everyone’s view, we’d hear, “Your father wasn’t a glassblower” or “You make a better door than a window.”
The one we really hated to hear was, “Don’t give me the idiot treatment!” That one came only when we were busted for trying to pull something over on them. But most of the funny things my folks would say were said with a smile, to make a point or ease a situation with a little humor. When we’d answer a question with an ineloquent, “Huh?” the standard retort was, “You can kick a pig and get that much out of it.”
If someone called for us and we were in the restroom, my dad would thoroughly confuse them by saying we were “in the sandbox.” And if any of my girlfriends should accidentally catch my dad in his undershirt, he teased them gleefully, saying, “You know this means we’re engaged.”
And how many of you know what a “Stella Dallas” party is? That’s a ’30s classic movie my mom always referenced, about a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who tries to enter society. When she throws a party, no one comes.
My all-time favorite, which was actually from my very Irish and very superstitious paternal grandmother, was, “Whistling girls and cackling hens never come to any good end.” She delivered this without fail and with a grin each time she heard me whistling absent-mindedly.
Her other contribution to our list was, “I don’t chew my cabbage twice.” That means you have no intention of repeating something, because whoever wasn’t listening the first time. It may sound random but used in context and with the proper wounded expression, believe me, your husband and your children will know exactly what you mean.
And when it came to treating small wounds with antiseptic, your whining would prompt, “If it doesn’t hurt, it’s not working.”
There were dozens and I wish I could remember them all, but, as my mother often said, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride!”
Jean Gillette is a freelance writer who knows where she got her love of words. Contact her at [email protected].