Whoa! Native rural tongue can confound city folks


Madison County is considered a rural community, but many folks residing here now did not grow up in a rural lifestyle. Those, and visitors, are sometimes surprised with words and phrases commonly used by us country folks.

“Whoa” is a word that slips easily from the tongue of those of us involved with equines. Used to command a horse or other equine to stop, it’s of utmost importance and can save a horseman’s life. I consulted an online dictionary which said it can also be used to urge a person to stop and wait or to express surprise or command attention. I don’t realize I use it so much in my everyday speech except when I spend time with citified cousins and friends. Their faces show they consider me a bumpkin. That doesn’t bother me a bit. I consider them underprivileged!

I thought of those this week when I asked a man how he was doing. With a smile, he replied “fair to middling”. That inspired this Musings and some research on my part, which informed me that the phrase originated from agriculture and commerce. Farmers and merchants used a grading system to label quality products. Buyer won’t pay top prices for products of low quality, and sellers hope to be properly compensated for better-than-average wares.

In the 1700s the term “fair” was used to describe farm produce. An example of that use was found in John Mortimer’s farming handbook The Whole Art of Husbandry in 1707. He wrote that “fair” meant good, and as an example he gave “As you gather your fruit, separate the fairest and biggest from the middling.”

“Middling” is an old Scots word that has been in use at last since the 15th century, meaning of medium or moderate size, quality, or strength. The word first appeared in print in The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue written in 1450. Lots of us in Madison County have Scotch and/or Irish ancestors, so their words come easily.

“Fair to middling” came to describe items that were not the best but were better than average. The phrase appeared in a description in the Brittania Press in October 1822.

In the 1700s and 1800s, items of the best quality were designated fine, the next grade was “fair to middling”, another step down was ordinary, and the lowest quality was called “inferior”. By the 1800s, people began to use the word “middling” to describe non-agricultural products. In modern times it implies that something is not the very best choice so that middling is not deemed a complimentary term.

Soon after I was inspired by the gentleman’s description of his day, a friend planning a meal for guests informed me that she planned to “put the big pot in the little pot”. I understood her plans, but some of you may require explanation.

In this part of the country, that phrase usually indicates expending to lot of effort for a meal or an event. I read that it can also mean to stretch a meal to accommodate extra guests, but I have not heard it used that way locally. The words can unrelated to food or dining. Folk may “put the big pot in the little pot”

when decorating for a holiday, preparing for a trip, or whatever, as long as they expend lavish efforts. Sometimes folks reverse it and “put the little pot in the big pot”, but they generally mean the same thing.

“Put the big pot in the little pot” is not just said in east Texas. In 1988, Patrick Dunnahoo published a cookbook entitled “Putting the Big Pot in the Little One: Good Time, Good Food in an Arkansas Hill County (Saline) between the Two World Wars”. He also wrote a couple of other books about life in that area.

We are still aiming at a Museum exhibit of handcrafts. We hope it won’t be just fair to middling. We want to put the little pot in the big pot, but we cannot do it without YOUR help, please!

Madison County Museum, at 201 N. Madison St., opens to the public Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Museum curator Jane Day Reynolds and volunteers welcome your visits. Memorials or donations may be mailed to the Museum at P.O. Box 61, Madisonville, TX 77864. The telephone number is 936.348.5230.