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Family Vocabulary

My maternal grandfather uses many idiosyncratic turns of phrase. The two most prominent are “cotton picker”* and “sap sucker.”** “Cotton picker” could be altered to the adjectival form “cotton pickin'” and the interjection “cotton pick!” “Sap sucker” took on the adjectival form only very seldom, if at all, but was sometimes deployed as “sap suck!” Both of these phrases were normally used in situations of frustration or potential frustration.

An affectionate insult was “turkey.” My grandfather sometimes altered this to “turn-key,” for emphasis. There is another variant that I mainly associate with my aunt: “turkey-lips.”

My immediate family’s dog is named Chloe. When my sister and I were young enough to be watching Saturday morning cartoons, there was a thematic sequence introducing commercial breaks on a particular network that featured a lazy dog named “Loafy.” Making the connection with our dog’s laziness, my dad called her “Cloafy.” Over a decade later, he is still sometimes heard to call her by that name.

On Saturday mornings growing up, my dad usually got donuts for us. At a certain point, my two younger cousins (sons of the “turkey-lips” aunt) started coming over for Saturday morning donuts as well. My dad was going by Dick at the time (his reasoning was that it was a name before it was a vulgar reference, but he has since given up and rechristened himself Rich), and so one morning my more mischevious cousin started calling him “Dickie Donut-Head.” In the last few years, this cousin has attempted to deploy the name on a few occasions, but his mother has scolded him, believing it to be disrespectful.


* Apparently a racist reference, though it’s unclear how conscious that was on his part.
** Origin unknown.


August 20, 2008 - Posted by | family values, language


  1. I think a sap sucker is a type of bird. Not sure if that is helpful.

    Comment by Rob B | August 20, 2008

  2. Well, if a “sap” is sucker, than a sap sucker…

    Comment by Jared Sinclair | August 20, 2008

  3. Internet research indicates that a common type of sapsucker is the “yellow-bellied sapsucker” — hence “sapsucker” might refer to a coward. Yet it seemed to be a completely general term of derision.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | August 20, 2008

  4. My maternal grandfather also used “cotton picker” and “cotton pickin'”. He didn’t use it as a racial slur, but I don’t doubt that he knew it was one (he was from D.C. and so knew all the slurs for blacks, Italians, Irish, Poles, etc.).

    Fun fact: up until about two minutes ago I had thought that “sap sucker” referred to crane flies. I had thought that crane flies sucked the sap from trees; they look like giant mosquitoes, so I was probably indulging in some analogical reasoning along the lines of: crane flies:tree sap::mosquitoes:blood.

    Comment by Currence | August 20, 2008

  5. My michigander father-in-law uses “potlicker” as a general term of grave derision that he just assumes everyone else uses and understands. We’ve looked around a bit and found some interesting suggestions as to its provenance, but aren’t necessarily satisfied that those suggestions explain his particular usage or where it would have entered his vocabularly.

    Comment by old | August 20, 2008

  6. My maternal grandmother also used “cotton-pickin’,” as in, “wait a cotton-pickin’ minute.” All the time. Don’t know what was in her mind, and she’s thankfully dead. But she also used “coon’s age,” as in, “I haven’t seen him in a coon’s age.” I think there’s some dispute on that. My paternal grandfather simply uses “n*”

    The “Potlicker” reference is interesting, since it would seem to refer to “potlikker.” See:

    Comment by thegrumpyacademic | August 20, 2008

  7. thanks grumpy. that article successfully muddies the waters even more, ’cause I’m damn sure my Michigander father-in-law is neither referring to greens juice or some kind of alcohol.

    Comment by old | August 22, 2008

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