The words we use

This has little or nothing to do with the outdoors, but maybe you’ve noticed, people are constantly making up new words and expressions. Trouble is, some of my favorites are being forgotten and abused.


I can’t recall the last time I heard anyone say “skedaddle,” which means to leave quickly. Words that describe something or someone good, impressive or attractive are being used less and less, words such as “top notch,” “jim-dandy,” “humdinger,” “lalapalooza” and “doozy.”

There’s some argument about the origin of “doozy,” but there’s no doubt about it being used more after the Duesenberg brothers of Des Moines, Iowa, began making the fastest, grandest, most expensive automobiles in the world. Purchased by the rich and famous in the 1920s and 1930s, the Duesenberg became a symbol for excellence. By the 1940s, anyone who wanted to say something was exceptional said, “It’s a Doozy.” A shrinking number of us still do.

There was a time when if something was less than satisfactory, it was said to be “hunky-dory,” a word that’s been shunted aside by the limp-wristed “OK.”

When I was a kid, taking my 15-cents and going to see western movies at Saturday afternoon matinees, my heroes often referred to the bad guys as “owl hoots.” It’s been years since I heard an evil-doer called an owl hoot. The owl hoot has left the scene, along with the codger, the card sharp and the floozie.

A good owl hoot could be counted upon to “hoodwink,” “hornswoggle” and “bamboozle” people out of their gold claims and other valuables. If all else failed, he’d “bushwack” or “drygulch” them, attack them from ambush. An owl hoot was often in “cahoots” with others of his kind, conspiring to hornswoggle someone out of something. When caught, they’d either be shot, hanged or sent to the “hoosegow,” the prison. Vile deeds and their perpetrators continue to exist in vast numbers, but some of the words we once used to describe them are now as rare as horse whips and spittoons.

There’s lots of “tomfoolery” these days, but few people now use this great word to describe foolish behavior. There was a time when if you “smirched” someone, you brought them disgrace and dishonor. I’m reasonably sure that people are still out there smirching and being smirched, but now we’re calling it something else.

Like words, some real doozies of expressions are fading from use. “Champing at the bit” doesn’t get much play anymore, nor does “the whole kit and caboodle.” “Flying off the handle” has been shoved aside by “going postal.” To make matters worse, expression abuse has become epidemic. Twice on the Clarion’s Web site I’ve seen “tongue and cheek” used instead of “tongue in cheek.”

When we lived closer to the land, the use of animals in our expressions was common. When did you last hear “go whole hog,” or “hold your horses”? When was the last time someone “got your goat”?

I remember my father, a mechanic for most of his working life, talking about this or that “going haywire.” We rarely hear this expression, which probably came into use about a century ago, when baling wire began to be used to for temporarily fixing faulty machinery. I’ve never used “haywire,” which just goes to show how a good word can fall out of use.

My father spent a large chunk of his life sailing and cruising on Puget Sound. When the water was rough, he’d say it was “rough as a cob.” Unless you grew up on a farm in a time and place where toilet paper was unavailable, you’d have no way of knowing what it meant, let alone how rough a cob actually is. I haven’t heard anyone say “rough as a cob” since the Old Man died.

I’m just one voice, but I intend to do what I can to ensure that the good words and expressions live on. That they are dying out really gets my goat.

Les Palmer can be reached at