In this column last February, I recalled my old friend and barber, Bill Austin, telling me a joke I might use in a forthcoming speech I was to make at the local Women’s Club and assuring me that, no, I needn’t worry. It was clean. In fact, he said, it was so clean “you could tell it to your grandmother sitting on the john.”
Well, over breakfast at the Peterborough (New Hampshire) Diner a few weeks ago, we exchanged a few other examples of typical New England descriptive phrases and expressions that exclude, for the most part, adjectives and adverbs. Here are a few from Bill’s memory.
It stands out like a blackberry in a pan of milk.
You can trust him as far as you can throw a meetinghouse by the steeple.
She was dressed to death and drawers all empty.
The fog was so thick you could cut it up into chunks with your jackknife. Or, the fog was so thick you could hardly spit.
She was as homely as a hedge fence (or a mud fence). Or as hell is wicked. Or, she was as homely enough to stop a down train.
Her head looked like it had worn out two bodies.
Comparisons like these — and we all know hundreds of them — truly do communicate the desired image more quickly and cleanly than a number of descriptive adjectives could do. One of the clearest in my mind is a certain phrase my father used when he, my sister, and I threw stones into the farm pond in front of our house. Once in a while, someone would throw one very high, and it would enter the water without making a splash. “You cut the devil’s throat,” he would say. And that sound will be in my mind forever.
Morality is expressed in the form of maxims or “sayings” (“Haste makes waste,” “All that glitters is not gold,” “Iron bars do not a prison make,” etc.), but it seems to me that most of these are used universally, even though many are of New England origin. One in particular, however, may be exclusively New England — at least, the outsiders I’ve told it to never heard it said in their native areas. And that’s just as well, because like so many maxims, it can be a brutal conversation-stopper.
I was once exposed to it some years ago in Weston, Vermont, while dining with YANKEE Magazine writer and photographer, the late Lawrence F. Willard (a true lover of fine food), his wife, Helen, and Helen’s mother, the late Etta French, a native Vermonter, then quite elderly. It was time for dessert and, as a large bowl of homemade strawberry ice cream was being passed around, Larry said, “I’m not really supposed to eat ice cream, so I’ll just take a very small helping.”
At which point Etta French piped up, “You might as well eat the devil as sip his broth.” Poor Larry replaced the serving spoon that had been poised to take a modest scoop and silently passed the bowl along to me. And as I recall, I passed it along, too.