A few old Florida expressions

While writing my two Florida folk magic novels, I suddenly became immersed in some of the dialect and slang that was popular when I was a child in the panhandle part of the state. If you lived somewhere else, you probably thought we talked funny. Truth is, we thought you talked funny.

floridapostcardA few examples. . .

  • Able Grable – 1940s’ slang for an attractive and available woman, based on the name of the actress Betty Grable, 1916-1973. Okay, this one isn’t Southern, more of of World War II expression.
  • Aunt Hagar – According to myth, Blacks are descendants of Abraham and Hagar and Whites are descendants of Abraham and Sarah, making Hagar the first ancestor of all African American slaves. This myth is behind the 1920s W. C. Handy/J. Tim Brymn blues song “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” (also called “Aunt Hagar’s Children”). You still hear Aunt Hagar mentioned sometimes.
  • Beelutherhatchee – An imaginary place.  Seldom heard these days unless one’s referring to the home of the late Florida folklore collector Stetson Kennedy.
  • Big moose comes down from the mountain – Something important is happening, perhaps personal, perhaps judgement day. I haven’t hear this for ages.
  • Bogot people – Descendants of the Lower Creek Apalachicolas who sought refuge near present-day Blountstown, Florida when Indians were sent westward in the years following President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal act of 1830. You’re more likely to come across this term in historical and cultural articles than everyday conversation.
  • Boiled Peanuts – Raw peanuts boiled for a while in salt water in their shells until they have a soft, Lima bean consistency. Used to be sold everywhere along highways in penny nail sacks. In the old days, these were called goober peas.
  • Chamber Lye – Urine used as a detergent. In folk magic, female urine brings luck in gambling, especially when it’s used to “feed” (adding various liquids to keep ingredients active and powerful) a mojo bag.
  • Chewing John – One of three roots named after the mythic John the Conqueror who was purported to be a Black slave who knew how to outwit and/or cast spells upon his master without getting caught. To say his name would protect a person from being hexed. Chewing John, Alpina galanga, is chewed like tobacco for luck in court cases. A hoodoo term.
  • seaoatsCoast – Floridian’s word for “the beach” or “the shore.” The cops and rangers will arrest you if they catch you picking sea oats (see photo).
  • Cooper Book – A Sacred Harp tunebook first published by W. M. Cooper in 1902, and popular in the Florida Panhandle, Georgia, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi. A 2012 revised edition is available.
  • Diddy-Wah-Diddy – A mythical town dreamt about by slaves and those conscripted into turpentine camps, chain gangs and orange grove labor in which ready-to-eat food presented itself to those who were hungry and sat on the curb waiting to be fed for free. Seldom used except in folk tales these days.
  • Dominicker – While the word generally refers to a breed of chicken, it’s an old pejorative term indicating a person of mixed blood, often used for an individual of African American and American Indian parentage.
  • Fat ’round de heart – Slang for “scared” or “worried.” A bit out of date.
  • floridawaterFlorida Water – A floral scented toilet water used by hoodoo practitioners for spiritual cleansing, the protection of a place or person, and for luck in gambling.
  • Floy Floy – Slang term for venereal disease that can also refer to trash talk. Slim Gaillard, Slam Stewart, and Bud Green popularized the term in their 1938 jazz song “Flat Foor Floogie (with a floy floy)”
  • Four Thieves Vinegar – Purportedly originating in 15th century Italy as a preventive medicine, the varied recipes for this preparation were later adopted in magic for personal protection. Root doctors’ clients would drink it or put it in their bath water.
  • Goofer Dust – A mixture of ingredients, including graveyard dirt, snake skin and sulfur, used to harm or kill another person who walks through it or is hexed via a sachet. Places where goofer dust has been spread are said to have been goofered. The term is sometimes used to refer to hexes or hexed places in general. A hoodoo term.
  • Hoodoo – A varied system of folk magic primarily of African origin. Practitioners, also called conjurers or root doctors, often included Kabalistic and Christian influences, Native American and European herbal knowledge and a variety of other occult beliefs in work on behalf of their clients. Hoodoo is not a synonym for the Voodoo religion.
  • Advertising Ephemera Collection - Database #A0160 Emergence of Advertising On-Line Project John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library Hoyt’s Cologne – An inexpensive perfume that, in folk magic, was used as bring good luck in gambling. You can still buy it today, though dedicated conjurers prefer to make it from scratch.
  • Hush Arbor – A secret, out-of-the-way place where slaves would congregate to practice their religion, one that tended to combine Christian teachings with traditional African practices and beliefs. Many songs grew out of these meetings and were passed down as spirituals.
  • Jick – Whiskey, often moonshine.
  • Jick Head – A drunk.
  • Joe Moore – Pronounced, Joe Mow (JOMO), the term is used by some conjurers to refer to objects used as charms, often related to gambling or personal protection. The term has also been used as a synonym for MOJO and for conjure work in general.
  • Jook – Also known as a juke joint or a barrelhouse, a bar offering food, drink, dancing, gambling and socializing. The word rhymes with “took.”
  • Judas eye – A belief that a conjurer can harm a person by looking at him.
  • Mister Charlie – An out-of-use pejorative term used by African Americans. Originally, it meant any white man. Later it came to refer to whites in power.
  • mulletMullet – A Floridian’s view of this fish showed where he or she was coming from, class-wise. Upper class people considered it a bait fish to be cut up for deep sea fishing trips. The rest of us thought it was very tasty and ordered it at restaurants down on the coast with slaw and a plate full of hush puppies.
  • Rosin Baked Potatoes – Potatoes cooked in a large pot of rosin, usually outdoors over a cook fire. When they rise to the top, they’re done. We’d wrap them up in twists of brown paper cut from old grocery store sacks when we took them out of the pot.
  • Scrub Chicken – An old wiregrass region name for the gopher tortoise which was once hunted for food. During the Depression, the tortoise was also called a “Hoover Chicken.” The tortoise lives primarily in pine woods habitats and is considered endangered. According to Florida folklore, the gopher tortoise resulted when the Devil tried to make a turtle to impress God, the result being a land-based reptile without the turtle’s love of water.
  • scuppernongSculpin – One name of the Scuppernong grape, a variety of Muscadine found in the Southern Unite States. The light, greenish bronze grapes work well in baked goods, jelly and wine. As they say, all Scuppernongs are Muscadines, but all Muscadines are NOT Scuppernongs.
  • Shine – Moonshine.
  • Shoo-shooing – Whispering.
  • Shug – An endearment meaning “sugar.” Rhymes with “hood.”
  • Steppin’ back on my abstract – Collected in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men as “Standing in my tracks/stepping back on my abstract,” meaning standing one’s ground. Haven’t heard this for years.
  • Squinch Owl – Screech Owl.
  • Sugar Cane – Used to be easy to get at street corner vendors. Kids would buy short stalks and chew on them for hours; or, you can get the juice in small Dixie cups. Harder to find these days than boiled peanuts.
  • Titi – A flowering plant, Cyrilla racemiflora, also called Swamp Titi, Black Titi and Myrtle, that grows in dense thickets in pine woods, swamps, wet prairies and bogs. Pronounced tie-tie.
  • torreyaTorreya – A rare and highly endangered conifer found along the Apalachicola River near Bristol, Florida. Also called “Stinking Cedar,” the tree was said to be the same gopher wood from which Noah’s ark was built. For years, Bristol resident E. E. Callaway promoted the area as the actual Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden trail is in the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve.
  • Trick – A form of natural magic, often consisting of a spell with a powder or symbol, that’s placed (laid down) where the intended victim is expected to walk. A tricked place is a spot that has been hexed in some way. A hoodoo term,
  • Tush hawg – Used in various ways, the word often refers to a rough and tumble man. Haven’t heard this for years.
  • Two-Toed Tom – A huge, legendary alligator feared by residents along the Alabama-Florida border in the early 1900s, and said to be still on the prowl many years later. It was reportedly fourteen feet long, suspected of eating cattle and mules, and assaulting women. His left front foot was missing all but two of its toes, the result of being caught in a steel trap.
  • Swamp Booger – North Florida’s version of big foot.

If you grew up in the South, but outside of Florida, you probably heard some of these words and expressions as well. But, I’ll always associate them with my childhood.


This post first appeared on “The Sun Singer’s Travels”

Don’t let the old salts send you topside on mail buoy watch

The carrier's island - goodhugh photo on flickr
The carrier’s island – goodhugh photo on flickr

As I work through the final edits for my upcoming novel The Sailor, I find myself smiling at all the weird, strange, and often crude navy slang and acronyms that were a part of daily life when I served aboard the four acres of sovereign soil better known as an aircraft carrier or a bird farm.

Since this is a family blog (don’t ya think?), I won’t mention the profane slang other than to say you can find it quickly enough in a Google search.

One of the first things you learn on an aircraft carrier is that the navy does not fly choppers. If you call a helicopter a chopper, you’ll probably be placed on mail buoy watch (more on that later) or sent off in search of various kinds of equipment and supplies that don’t exist. The helicopter is a Helo (hee-low).

A liberty port
A liberty port

Going ashore is going on the beach whether it’s a beach, a pier, or liberty (free time) in a foreign port where you might get screwed, blued, and tattooed. (Oops, I forgot this is a family blog.)  Now hear this, if you get back late from liberty you are not AWOL, you are UA. UA = authorized absence, as in, “I was UA” or “Mr. A.J. Squared Away (a sailor with a perfect shave, perfect uniform, etc.) went UA.”

Once you become a member of Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club, called the Gulf of Tonkin Yacht Club during the WESTPAC (western Pacific) Vietnam War days, your first duties involve listening up, taking a good set of notes, and otherwise learning the rocks and shoals (regulations).  If the chief (chief petty officer) thinks you’re slacking off, otherwise known as skating, and aren’t learning, he’ll either write you up (put you on report) or send you off to the galley to wash the flavor extractors.

If you get written up, you’ll end up shooting pool with the captain, that is, brought before a captain’s mast hearing after which you might variously be sent to the brig, demoted, or served a big chicken dinner (bad conduct discharge).

A Tin Can is a destroyer, like the one escorting your carrier, not a metal outhouse.
A Tin Can is a destroyer, like the one escorting your carrier, not a metal outhouse.

If you’re serving on an aircraft carrier, you’ll soon learn to stay off the flight deck during flight ops unless you are authorized to be there. If you work on the flight deck, the color of your shirt (yellow, green, white, red, blue, purple, brown or black) identifies the job you’re supposed to be doing. Red is, of course, for crash and smash (firefighters). If you want to watch launch and recovery operations, head up to the windows called vulture’s row in the island (AKA superstructure) where the view is perfect.

Old salts will try to fill your head (brain, not the rest room) full of crap (lies, yarns, and obviously erroneous scuttlebutt) that will only result in your being considered as gear adrift or a good candidate for mail buoy watch. “Mail buoy watch” is mandated by lifers (old salts) when the weather is poor.

During bad weather, somebody (you) is dressed up in foul weather gear and sent topside (AKA, a weather deck) with a hook. Your job will be to watch for the mail buoy, that is to say, the place where the ship’s mail will be waiting because either the COD (the mail plane) or some mythical mail ship can’t deliver the mail in a storm.

Before you head out to snag the mail, your uniform of the day (helmet, life jacket, etc.) will be critiqued by those in the know. Pictures will be taken and then you’ll be on your own in the rain until you realize you’re a victim of the kind of good-natured hazing that will give a guy a lot of grief, a bad cold, and a trip to sickbay for some Corpsman Candy (an ineffective cough drop).

It’s always best to at least look like you know what you’re doing, that is to say staying 4.0 (pronounced four-oh) and squared away during your tour of duty on the big gray ship (BGS). Who knows you might stop saying FTN (you can figure out what that means) and ship over (reenlist). On the other hand, if you’re a bent shitcan, then you’re too hopeless to even be in the navy.

You May Also Like: Heave Out and Trice Up


Can’t get enough Cracker Jack

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.

–Take Me Out to The Ball Game

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was written in 1908 by a Vaudeville star who had never seen a baseball game. Jack Northworth, who wrote some 2,500 songs (including “Shine on Harvest Moon”) didn’t see his first ball game for another 32 years. Albert von Tizer–who wrote the music–didn’t see his first baseball game for another 20 years. Today, baseball fans know the song well.

I wonder if either Nortworth or von Tizer had ever eaten Cracker Jack, the caramel coated mix of peanuts and popcorn introduced by F. W. and Louis Rueckheim at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The secret to Cracker Jack–which is still a secret today–is what keeps the peanuts and popcorn in a box or sack of Cracker Jack from all sticking together.

Cracker Jack was a success, but the song made it famous. While the song was first sung at a baseball game in 1934, Harry Caray made it a solid tradition when he started singing it in 1971 from his Chicago White Sox broadcast booth. Across the country, fans sing “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack” during the seventh inning stretch at the ballpark no matter who is winning or losing.

Legend has it that a salesman for F. W. and Louis Rueckheim tasted a batch of the caramel coated popcorn and peanuts and exclaimed, “That’s Cracker Jack.” Suddenly a product name and a now-famous trademark were born, one that–under Borden and then Frito-Lay is lasting far longer that the term “cracker jack” is lasting in general English usage. In the late 1800s, the term was popular slang for what, today, we would call awesome!

“Cracker jack” meant high quality whether it referred to a person and event or a product. We still use the word “crack” in that way today, as in “she’s a crack shot” or “my crack staff will finish the project before lunch.” “Jack” was slang for a boy or man or a manual laborer, as in lumberjack or steeplejack, and often referred to a sailor. (The Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo trademark image still adorns Cracker Jack packages today.)

I like Cracker Jack, and the chance purchase of a couple of sacks at the grocery store this morning when I was purportedly there to purchase fresh produce, got me to thinking about the ever-changing use of slang. I haven’t heard a phrase like “He is one cracker jack salesman” for a long time. In context, I suppose most people would figure out what it meant. I know what it means, but I never use the term–except when buying a sack of Cracker Jack, because it’s not in fashion any more.

As a writer, I like tracking down how word usage has changed as well as the original meanings of slang expressions that continue to be used long after their literal meanings are forgotten. Some day–and perhaps that day is already here–most people will think the word “Cracker Jack” has always applied to the candied popcorn and nuts, and nothing else.

But for the moment, we know better, don’t we?

Heave Out and Trice Up

When a sailor reports aboard Navy ship right out of boot camp, s/he will have four immediate concerns: (1) Not being fooled by old salts into searching the boat from stem to stern for pieces of equipment that don’t exist, (2) Getting lost, (3) Following the proper General Quarters “traffic pattern,” and (4) learning Navy phraseology.

1MC Speaker

The Navy insists upon standard phraseology in its deck logs, phone talker communications, reports and 1-MC (ship-wide public address system) announcements. 1-MC announcements are accompanied by boatswain’s pipe calls which all sound the same at first.

While I was working on a novel about the sea, I remembered what it was like being transferred to the aircraft carrier USS Ranger (CVA-61) right out of boot camp. Compared to boot camp, the ship was much better duty, but there was still a lot to learn.

When I reported aboard, I was informed that I had been assigned to a floating city with an airport where the residents spoke a foreign language. Soon, I would have to learn what was supposed to happen when we “set condition zebra” (a readiness condition with certain hatches and fittings closed); and that a “shot line” didn’t refer glassware on a bar but to a small-diameter line fired over an alongside ship prior to an underway replenishment (UNREP).

Reveille throughout the city came a lot earlier than one expected even though the chief petty officers in charge of our boot camp companies at Great Lakes had brainwashed us that squared-away sailors loved getting up early. But they didn’t tell us that aboard ship a BMOW (Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch) would announce over the 1-MC to “Heave out and Trice Up.”

My first thought was that everyone aboard ship was being asked to vomit on command in the head. I was wrong. The phrase means get up. If you’re sleeping in a hammock, tie it up. If you’re sleeping in a rack (bunk) tilt it up against the bulkhead (wall). This makes it possible for the sweepers or compartment cleaners to sweep the deck (floor) underneath it. In the old days, a trice hook held the rack/hammock to the bulkhead.

The Public Affairs Officer as the Lone Ranger
The Public Affairs Officer as the Lone Ranger

Planning to join the Navy and–as we always said–let the world see you? Be ready to learn fast. When it’s time to get up, you won’t have time to study your Bluejacket’s Manual for instructions. But one way or the other, you’ll need to know the difference between heave, heave in, heave around, heave out, heave to, and heaving line.

Scuttlebutt (gossip) isn’t always “the straight skinny” (accurate facts) especially when it comes from the fabled all-knowing (and mythical) “port butter cutter.” With luck, the old salts will soon tire of sending you off to find fictional left-handed crescent wrenches, cans of relative bearing grease, buckets of prop wash, or of asking you stand “mail buoy” (huh?) watch on the bow. Then they’ll remind you (if you need reminding) that all stairs on ships are called ladders and doors are called hatches and dogs are what keep them closed.

Maybe they’ll tell you the handy general quarters acronym FUSDAP so that in the three-minute rush to get to your duty station you’re moving with traffic rather than against it. Forward and up on the starboard side, down and aft on the port side is very handy to know.I hope they don’t have to tell you not to head for the flight deck looking for a Quidditch game when the BMOW comes on the 1MC and says “sweepers sweepers man your brooms.”

On the other hand, our ship really did have a horse, fiberglass, that is, so if the chief sent you to give it a bucket of oats, it was best to disappear for a while until everyone else in the compartment was done laughing at the joke.

Update: Since this post was written, the USS Ranger was sold for scrap because in all the years it was available to be purchased by a group willing to turn it into a museum, no viable plan was submitted to the navy. Movie stars spend more on their houses than was needed to preserve this ship and all the history it contained. Screwed up priorities, I guess.


AtSeaBookCoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of the Vietnam War-era novel set on board an aircraft carrier, “At Sea.” For David Ward, going in harm’s way seems to apply more toward the people back home than life in the sailor towns and the ship.