Short-Legged Hogs and Chickens
I have lived in the South since the 1990s. Two of our three boys were born in the South and all three boys have been raised in the South. I do not cringe when the boys throw around a “y’all”; I have been served brains and eggs; I fully expect some part of a pig to be included in a vegetable dish; and I understand the difference between fixin’ and fixing. Yet, to many around here, I remain a Yankee.
I could never escape or disguise my Jersey roots. I know a pie is not apple or blueberry, but rather what others call a pizza; a Taylor ham and egg sandwich should never be called pork roll; toll booths on highways do not scare me; I can easily navigate jug handles; every town should have a diner where food is served with extra attitude; and bread should always be crusty.
I traded in one part of the country where the plural of you is “yous” as in “Where are yous guys going?” Instead, the plural of you is now “y’all” or even the very plural “all y’all”. Perhaps one day we can retire to a grammatically correct region.
I have also lived in Upstate New York and Boston. Each part of the country offers its unique culture, quirks and approaches to life. Appreciate and embrace these aspects as they are part of the glue which binds communities. One such local aspect in each geographic area remains the use of phrases. In this regard, the South presents with an abundance of rich sayings to address almost any aspect of life.
I could not begin to catalog all the sayings encountered in daily life in the South. However, I have taken note of a number of phrases which have been used by lawyers, politicians, mediators, arbitrators, and even judges while practicing law. These sayings have popped up not merely in informal discussions, but also in open court on the record and in public meetings.
For my former Yankee brethren, below are a few examples of Southern turning of a phrase and, at least, my interpretation of what it means. I request the indulgence of my Southern colleagues to correct erroneous meanings assigned to any saying. Some sayings remain straightforward in concisely conveying a point. Others require a little thought to get there. For at least one saying, I still have no clue as to its meaning despite being first encountered by me over 18 years ago.
Category I: Self-explanatory Phrases
“He Got His Ox in a Ditch”
No one wants their ox in a ditch. If you find yourself in this scenario, all best laid plans have already veered off the road and crashed. It is so bad you will require help to get all upright and back on the path. An ox in a ditch can only be big trouble for you.
If you are whole hog, you are all in and holding nothing back. In settlement conferences and mediations, this phrase routinely arises when one party claims that no more money is available. “We are whole hog with this offer, there is nothing else.”
Honorable Mention of Self-explanatory Southern Sayings
“Only Got One Oar in the Water”.
“As Useful as a Trap Door in a Canoe”.
Category II: A Little Thought May Be Needed
“That Dog Won’t Hunt”
When first hit with this gem, I thought it simply meant that someone’s position or argument would not carry the day. If the dog will not track the critter you seek, you have no chance for success. I have come to appreciate that the phrase can mean just that. However, it more often is a method to kindly call someone a liar. The dog that won’t hunt is one that fails to fulfill its intended purpose with the underlying plan or scheme then failing. It is the dishonesty of the dog in refusing to honor its work obligation that establishes it as the liar.
“All Hat, No Cattle”
If you sense an animal theme in these sayings, you are correct.
Think of the movie City Slickers on this one. The three New Yorkers show up at a ranch with brand new cowboy boots, jeans, chaps, plaid shirts with pearl buttons, and ten gallon hats. Of course, none of them knew how to ride a horse let alone rope a steer. They quite literally represented the saying being all hat (i.e., all show), no cattle (i.e., not a remote chance to back up the image with actions).
A common tactic in closing arguments is to belittle the adversary’s case as “All hat, no cattle” to suggest that it looks flashy, but lacks substance once you get past initial appearances.
When crops are good and crop prices are up, you are in “high cotton”. The phrase more generally refers to someone who is well off, is doing well, or confronts quite favorable circumstances. If you place your house for sale and a bidding war in excess of the asking price ensues, you are in high cotton. The term could also carry a slightly negative or disparaging connotation. Someone with the perception of coasting through life, relying on old family money, may be characterized as in high cotton with no need to worry.
“Throw the Corn Where the Short-Legged Hogs Can Reach It”
Here is one of my favorites. I first encountered this saying while serving on a panel at a legal seminar. In response to the moderator’s question, a fellow panelist who also happened to be a federal judge in the South, merely stated: “Well, I think you need to throw the corn where the short-legged hogs can reach it. You agree with that Mr. Geiger, correct?” I wanted to respond: “Judge, I’m not certain if you are still speaking English. Corn and short-legged hogs? Did you have a stroke?” Instead, I recall responding along the lines of: “Of course, Judge, we are all of the same mind on this point.”
With some thought after sidestepping any immediate response, I defined this saying to instruct someone to keep things simple. Make it easy for people to “get it” just as you make it easy for the vertically challenged swine. I think we have here much more colorful and vibrant version of Keep It Simple Stupid.
Honorable Mention for Sayings Requiring a Little Thought
“Butter My Butt and Call Me a Biscuit” (shocked or surprised).
“Don’t Know Whether to Scratch His Watch or Wind His Butt” (incredibly confused).
Category III: No Idea What These Sayings Mean
“He Needs Another Chicken in His Yard”
This one requires a set up. A new general counsel joined the company where I served as the lawyer in charge of litigation and all risk matters. In addition to being Southern through and through, the general counsel was a former U.S. Attorney with decades of experience. We met to discuss the potential settlement of a case. Being fully prepared, I detailed the facts, applicable law, strengths and weaknesses of legal positions, dynamics of the court, cost projections to try the case, case worth, and realistic settlement range. After discussion, I requested authority to settle the case within a defined range.
The general counsel placed his arm around my shoulder as we walked toward the door of his office. He told me that the presentation was thorough. Regarding settlement, as he ushered me out of his office, he stated that the adversary just needs another chicken in his yard. End of meeting.
Huh? I walked down the hall in bewilderment. Do I settle? Do I take the case to trial? Do I buy a chicken to bring to the settlement conference? Where would I get a chicken on short notice?
Pause. I had to think this through. Why would someone need another chicken? Do more chickens signify greater wealth? If so, then we settle to allow the adversary to buy more chickens. But, does someone want another chicken? In movies, people chase chickens but rarely catch them. More chicken droppings would be all over the yard. Another chicken could mean more chaos. Then we do not settle and we remain the chicken in the yard causing more chaos.
Ultimately, I determined that it costs money having another chicken in your yard. The chicken must be purchased. The chicken must be fed. The chicken needs a coop. The adversary cannot get another chicken absent funding. Settlement it is! Actually, after so much thought, I ignored the entire chicken drama and used my own judgment. In future discussions with the general counsel regarding potential settlement of disputes, I requested authorizations with no poultry references.
To this day, I have no idea what is meant by this chicken saying.
Honorable Mention for Indecipherable Phrases
“Grinning Like a Possum Eating Fire Ants” (beyond the possum appearing pleased, no clue).
“That Dills My Pickle” (supposedly it involves being overjoyed, but it just sounds wrong).
What can we learn from these colloquial sayings and my struggles to understand them? These type of sayings are part of the fabric of the region, culture and people. They are to be embraced in order to understand your neighbors, fellow attorneys, judges, potential jurors, and mediation participants.
I may not use many of these phrases as they sound funny with a Jersey accent. But I sure better understand them to continue to be an effective mediator who needs to demonstrate understanding, sympathy and empathy. While I may never get the chicken reference, by and large, I have come to appreciate the points being made through these sayings. In many ways, these Southern sayings represent polite ways to convey negative messages. That style runs counter to a slightly more direct approach instilled through my Jersey upbringing.
It is important to appreciate not simply who you are, but where you find yourself as well. If you cannot understand this significance, I can only say Bless your Heart.