Have You Ever Cut the Devil’s Throat? | An Examination of New England Phrases

New Englanders don’t necessarily need adjectives and adverbs to describe something. Here, we examine a few unusual New England phrases.

By Judson D. Hale

Dec 01 2016


Jud’s Journal author, Jud Hale.

Jud's Journal author, Jud Hale.
Jud’s New England Journal, the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale.

In this column a few years ago, I recalled my old friend and barber, the late 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, yes, 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 months later, we exchanged a few other examples of typically New England phrases and expressions that excluded, for the most part, adjectives and adverbs. Here are a few…

  • 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 into chunks with your jackknife. Or the fog was so thick you could hardly spit.
  • She was homely as a hedge fence (or a mud fence, or as hell is wicked). Or she was homely enough to stop a down train.
  • His head looked like it had worn out two bodies.

Comparisons like these truly do communicate the desired image or message more quickly than any 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 remains in my mind today. Another saying my father often used in referring to someone he didn’t particularly admire: “He doesn’t know if he’s on foot or on horseback.”

Morality is expressed in the form of maxims or “sayings” (“Haste makes waste,” “All is not gold that glitters,” “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’s—at least, the outsiders I’ve told it to had never heard it said. And perhaps that’s just as well, because like so many maxims it can be a brutal conversation-stopper. I was exposed to it some years ago in Weston, Vermont, while dining with the late Yankee writer and photographer 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 think I passed it along, too.

Well, anyway, merry Christmas and/or happy holidays, everyone. Hope you can have your cake and eat it, too.


This has been the December 2016 edition of Jud’s New England Journal, the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, the editor in chief of Yankee, published in Dublin, New Hampshire, since September 1935, and The Old Farmer’s Almanac, available nationwide wherever magazines are sold.