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April 6, 2018

Endangered Words

By: W.F. Strong

We have many endangered species in the world. Among the better-known at-risk animals are snow leopards, Asian elephants and orangutans. In Texas, we have the gray wolf and ocelot as endangered animals, among others. Endangered reptiles here include the Texas indigo snake and the horned lizard.

But that’s not my focus today. That’s just a segue to talk about something else that’s on my mind, and that’s endangered words. They are words that, through lack of use, or through use seemingly restricted to the more senior of us Texans, run the risk of dying out when we do. Now “y’all” and “fixin’ to” and the like are safe. They have vast popularity. They have even been observed migrating up north. My endangered list is comprised of words that are becoming scarce and may disappear altogether, only to be seen caged up in old dictionaries in the future.

I want to make sure to clarify that I’m not claiming the following words are endangered for everyone. Many Texans still use them daily. I’m just claiming that they are becoming far less common than they once were.

Mosey is one such word. It used to be quite popular and still is used often among octogenarians. But you never see it or hear it venturing out among those under 40. Often when you do hear it from someone under 40, it is used in caricature.

Reckon is another word I reckon is headed for true scarcity in the next few decades. That would be a shame because it does have a wonderful place in the linguistic ecosystem. It fills a niche and is not easily replaced. One can say “I guess,” or “I suppose,” but neither have the beautiful contemplative nature of “I reckon,” when said with eyebrows raised and tipping your hat back. It is the pronouncement of agreement reluctantly concluded.

Supper. This used to be the dominant word for the evening meal. Dinner was at noon. But as we’ve become more urban, supper has been pushed out by dinner.

Ice house and ice box. Ice house used to be a common expression for running to the convenience store or making a beer run: “Gonna run over to the ice house a minute.” Ice box is a synonym for the fridge: “Martha, we got any Blue Bell in the ice box?”

Yonder. “It seems that yonder is most popular out yonder in the country.”

To make sure I was on the right track, I conducted a survey on the net and found a few more words folks agreed seemed to be endangered:

Britches refers to pants, of course: “Get your work britches on and let’s get goin’” Britches is still used among those over 60, but not so popular among the under 30 crowd.

Cattywampus for catty-cornered. Cattywampus is one word and catty-cornered is hyphenated. Both are spelled with two t’s and neither has anything to do with cats: “The flower shop is cattywampus to the Exxon station.”

Cotton pickin.’ “Just a cotton pickin’ minute!” There could be lots of reasons for this. Many Texans over 50 or so, have memories of pickin’ cotton. Even though combines mostly took over decades ago, the expression remains. “In high cotton,” too, hangs on. It means “having it easy.”

Dreckly – sometimes said “di-rectly” – has nothing to do with direction or going straight to something. It is about time and in Texas, has the meaning of manana in Spanish. “Yeah, I’ll be gettin’ to mowin’ that lawn dreckly,” which may well mean in a few hours when I “finish watchin’ the Astros play.”

Sam Hill. “What the Sam Hill is going on here?!” My father said it so often I thought Sam Hill was a relative I’d never met, but I hoped to. Seemed that he lived an exciting life. But it was just a euphemism for “hell.” It’s used in place of “What the hell is goin’ on here?!” and since I can now say hell on the radio, you can see why Sam Hill is endangered.

Fair to middlin’ is interesting. It’s fading away as a common expression but perhaps finding a second wind by means of its malaprop. Some Texans have taken to saying “fair to Midland,” which makes sense if you are driving from El Paso, or maybe from Abilene. Fair to Midland, rain in Odessa.

And some words that many people said they believed were dying out – and sadly so – were these:

Please and thank you.

I hope not. I’ll do what I can right now to help. Thank you for listening. Please stay tuned to The Texas Standard.


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