By Norma J. Kirkpatrick
In casual conversation with a friend a few months ago, they asked me if I had ever heard of a “Yankee Dime.” I had not heard that expression in many decades.
My first memory of it I was about seven years old. My mother told me if I would wash the dishes that night, she would give me a Yankee Dime. “What is that,” I asked. “You will find out after you wash the dishes,” she said.
Excited and intrigued, I pulled a wooden chair up in front of the sink and tackled the task. When I finished, I took off the adult size apron and ran to my mother with my hand outstretched. “Come closer,” she said. As I got beside her, she leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “Well? Where is it?” I asked. “That’s it,” she said, “that’s your Yankee Dime.” She thought it was funny. I didn’t. But that is where I first learned the term, by being tricked by my own mother!
The earliest citing of “Yankee Dime” in print is 1846. Some folks say it was a Texas expression that meant a quick kiss. People born and raised in the deep South know better than that; the Texans probably learned it from us. It was a prevalent saying in the South around and after the Civil War. It suggested that a Yankee had rather give a quick peck on the cheek than to part with a coin.
The term expanded into, “He ain’t worth a Yankee Dime,” which was another way to say the carpetbaggers weren’t going to pay their bills before they left. Two similar expressions are a “Dutch Quarter,” which is a hug and a “Quaker Nickel” is a quick, innocent kiss. Such colorful language with a double meaning has been passed down through the generations in the South. I remember things my elders said from my childhood, and I still hear someone say them now and then.
“That dog won’t hunt; he’s as stubborn as a mule; he’s got ants in his pants; you don’t need to telephone, just tell a woman; I smell somethin’ fishy somewhere; only the Tom gets to gobble; she needs to spend her time sweeping around her own front door; if she didn’t know something bad to say, she’d make something up; better let that go in one ear and out the other. She had rather bite her tongue than tell the truth. I’m as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Every chicken knows you never find anything unless you do some scratching; she throws more out the backdoor than he can bring in the front. I feel like ten miles of bad road. I feel like I was sent for and wouldn’t do when I got there.”
The motto of true southern expressions is to never say something with one word when you can explain it with an entire word picture. Delicious! Oh yes, say it slowly, with facial expressions like raised eyebrows. All Southerners have drama in their bones.
Norma J. Kirkpatrick is a wordsmith; having contributed to teaching materials, magazines and newspapers. She also collaborates with authors on literary projects and writes an occasional poem. She can be reached at: email@example.com.