The Star-Herald

Foibles and fun with favorite phrases

You know how this feels: you’re in a conversation with someone and you utter a folksy expression you’ve heard all your life, and the other person tilts their head and wrinkles their nose as if you had just spoken Armenian.

Sometimes this is age-related — you know, those young folks just don’t talk the same — and sometimes it’s geography-related.  We Mainers have our own language, you know, and here in The County (wherrre we say ourrr RRRs) we sometimes turn that on its head, too.

These are curiosities, for sure, and a whole bunch have come to mind recently. For some reason, a lot of these expressions involve living creatures.

Take “Curiosity killed the cat.”  I was at a drive-thru window and had a menu question, so I said, “By the way, curiosity killed the cat — what happened to that sandwich?” 

“What about a cat?” came the somewhat panicked reply. “Who killed a cat?”

I tried to explain the expression, but judging from the huge eyes looking back at me, this fell flat.

Then, there’s “kill two birds with one stone,” which means to accomplish two things at the same time. This puts me in mind of my great-grandmother, Alberta Jane Flewelling, who — according to family legend — never shot a gun in her life but could take a rock, pitch it and drop one of the farm chickens or a partridge instantly. She killed two birds with one stone: helped handle the bird population AND solved the question of what was for supper.

Whenever someone acted a bit odd, my mom was fond of this saying: “He’s crazier than a duck shot in the …”  (well, rear end). As long as I can remember, I’ve heard family members say this, which I gather comes from hunting lore. 

There seem to be several expressions involving clams. “Happy as a clam” is the one I’ve heard most. I remember hearing it as a child and thinking, why are clams happy? Then you learn the whole saying: “Happy as a clam at high tide,” which does make a little more sense. “Clams” are also used as slang for money — remember the comic B.C.? And to be tight-lipped is to “clam up.”

This one you don’t hear much anymore, unless you’re watching a certain mattress company’s commercial: “count sheep,” used in reference to helping one fall asleep. One night when I was about 4 or 5 years old, I couldn’t go to sleep. I wandered into my parents’ room and nudged my dad.

“Daddy, I can’t sleep.”

Very groggily he said, “Count sheep.”

I went back to my room, pondering that. “Count sheep?” I said to myself. “We don’t have sheep.” After I mulled that over for a bit, it somehow clicked that I was supposed to imagine the sheep. I remember closing my eyes and trying to picture sheep jumping over a fence, counting them as they went. 

This did not help me fall asleep. 

Here’s one that I didn’t know was fairly unique to Maine: “right out straight,” meaning extremely busy. “I haven’t had time to call you back. I’ve been right out straight.”

According to urbandictionary.com, this phrase is “used frequently and vigorously by residents of Maine, as observed by comedian Bob Marley.” 

And for someone who’s really “right out straight,” here’s this one: “busier than a one-armed paper hanger,” which echoes the complexities of hanging wallpaper — handling paste and other paraphernalia, trying to align a strip of wallpaper before the paste dries. UsingEnglish.com explains, “It’s a tricky job at the best of times, when you have two arms. Imagine the hassle of doing all that at once — with one arm.”

And finally, just in case you were thinking the end of this column couldn’t come fast enough, you could use this expression for things going at a snail’s pace, for which I found references including a 2010 science textbook and an 1875 romance novel:  “That’s moving slower than cold molasses running uphill.”

Paula Brewer is assistant editor for The Star-Herald, Aroostook Republican, Houlton Pioneer Times and St. John Valley Times, plus websites TheCounty.ME and FiddleheadFocus.com. She can be reached at 207-764-4471 or via email at pbrewer@bangordailynews.com.

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