The other day in a grocery store, I pored over shelves crammed with oddities.
“Are these things on sale?” I asked a young man working on them. (When I say young, I mean younger than I, so he could have been from the Jurassic Period, for all I knew.)
“No, sir,” he replied. “These are clearance items the story is trying to get shet of.”
His reply took me back through the decades.
“Where are you originally from?” I non sequitured. (Look, if everyone else is going to turn nouns into verbs, I will, too. Anyway, according to Webster, I had just made “a remark having no bearing on what has just been said.”)
“Right here,” he said, meaning the Augusta area and not – as some non-Georgia graduate might have interpreted his remark – at the end of the frozen-food aisle. “Why?”
“I grew up in northwest Georgia, and people there used to say ‘shet’ when they meant ‘shut,’ as in, ‘I really need to get shet of that boy.’”
That last remark was generally uttered when my father was looking in my direction. In fact, he said “shet” a lot, and I always thought it was a new-fangled way of swearing. That’s because, like Ralphie’s dad in the film A Christmas Story, my father “worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master.”
Only later, in college, did I take the time to learn that “shet” was a colloquialism for “shut.” To “get shet of” was an idiomatic verb that has been around for centuries, especially in the Southern hill country. My father and mother had retained other holdovers from their forebears, so that when Daddy said “bresh,” I knew he meant brush. “Dreen” was drain, and “cheer” was chair.
Months ago, after I taught our adult Sunday school class, a member said, “Smallest,” as she walked by.
“Pardon?” I said.
“It’s smallest,” she said, “not littlest.”
I apparently had inserted “littlest” into my lesson where “smallest” might have sounded better to modern ears. Back in the eighth grade, though, when I had been asked to draw posters of the Littlest Angel for our school play, no one questioned my choice. Somehow, “The Smallest Angel” wouldn’t have sounded so tiny, just as Rudolph the Slightly Off-Color-Nosed Reindeer wouldn’t have been ostracized by his sleigh mates.
What it all boils down to is that all along, my parents knew more than I, no matter what I believed then. I thought we were a bunch of hillbillies – but not rednecks, you understand – when, in fact, my parents were just among the holdouts of settler generations keeping the Old English, Irish and Scottish dialects alive.
If only our grandchildren today appreciated where we came from. But no, kids a third or fourth of our ages seem to know more than we do, and use language that I would like to get shet of!
Reach Glynn Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org.