Colorful Expressions

The Richness of Words

By Jeff Salter

We’re yakking about expressions and/or figures of speech. I won’t try to parse what makes a short set of words one or the other of those categories (or both). I’ll just list some word sets which have captured my attention over the years.

I’ll start with a relatively new one: “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.” To other fiction writers, that speaks for itself, but non-writers might need a bit of explanation. This could be said lovingly to someone very dear… or could be muttered under your breath to your horrid co-worker. You see, we need all sorts of characters for our fiction!

Words from Loved Ones

Sometimes, what makes a phrase stand out is how colorfully – or even obliquely – it is expressed. Here’s a few from dear relatives and friends who have since passed on:

“I’m so hungry, my stomach thinks my throat’s been cut.” My dear friend and co-worker Gabe Holden had enough colorful expressions to fill this column today, but this one always grabbed me.

My late father-in-law was a never-ending supply of colorful phrasing. Once when we were playing golf and I faced a long shot, he advised, “Better turn loose Ole Blue.” I stopped in mid-swing and walked over to him asking, “What?” He had to explain that Old Blue was an archetypal dog … and I needed to hit the ball hard. Duh! [I can be such a literalist at times!]

One day when Denise and I had her folks with us, my mother-in-law told me we needed to head home instead of going on wherever we’d been heading. [I was driving.] I did as she instructed but continued to wonder why. Finally, my father-in-law said, “Don’t spare the horses.” So I actually slowed down to inquire what the heck he was talking about. Turned out he had an upset tummy emergency and needed a bathroom immediately. His colorful expression meant, “Hurry.” But it wasn’t like either of them to be specific or to offer any useful explanations out front.

Occasionally, schedules would be over-filled with activities and someone (usually my wife) would inquire of her mom, “Are you ready to ______?” (whatever the activity or destination had been). To which my late mother-in-law would sometimes say, “Let’s not, and say we did.” That was her way of saying, “I’ve changed my mind” or “I don’t feel up to it anymore.” But there’s an additional indecipherable element which I still can’t grasp. Seems to have something to do mollifying with other people’s expectations.

A few of my own

Dating back from the days Rawhide was on TV, I’ve loved the expression, “Head ‘em up… move ‘em out.” I use it when there are significant numbers of people milling about but seemingly without urgency or purpose. It also comes in handy when corralling kids at AWANA or VBS. You see, it conveys at least three important facets: attention, focus/direction, and movement. But wouldn’t it be dull if you stopped to say, “Okay, youse guys, listen up. Everybody get ready to go to the (whatever)… and let’s start walking now.” Head ‘em up… move ‘em out.

More recently, but for at least the past three decades, one of my frequent refrains has been, “Hurry, before the tour bus gets there.” This I invoke when there are interminable discussions (or delays) on departing for some eating establishment. The imagery itself comes from those occasions when you pull into a fast-food place and discover an entire busload of people (whatever age) had just arrived (parked on the other side of the place) and are waiting in line, in front of you. Trust me — if you see a tour bus at the golden arches, just keep driving.

The Numbers Game

Not sure how many generations this goes back, but my parents used it to get us kids moving. “I’m counting to three.” If we were being willful and directly disobedient, my folks often reached the dreaded Number Three and we faced the consequences. But if we were making visible efforts to accomplish (whatever), then we often received the grace of some fractions after two: “…two-and-a-half…two-and-three-quarters…” etc.

With our own kids, we did the same thing (if they were trying), only I believe I used decimals: “…two-point-three… two-point-six…” etc. I found decimals gave me more flexibility if they really were trying to comply but it was taking longer than a straight three-count.

I’ve witnessed my daughter’s variation of this three-count with her children. However Julie often skips the announcement and begins the actual count: “One…” In the cases I’ve witnessed, she usually gets compliance by “two”.

A General Parting Word

This expression is not used with everyone, but to the folks – usually guys – who understand it, it can be quite meaningful. When friends or colleagues are parting, their last words (after all the other farewells) might be: “Keep your powder dry.” It means a lot more than its historical context of the old black powder muskets. It also means, “take care of yourself” … “watch out for (whatever)” … “be encouraged” … “we’re counting on you” … “come back in one piece” etc.

Figure of Speech

By the way, a true figure of speech is something like, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”  It very seldom (anymore) refers to actual cat-skinning. It represents the notion that there are multiple solutions to a given situation/problem.


What colorful expressions stick out in your mind?



About Jeff Salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Fourteen completed novels and four completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Cowboy Out of Time" -- Apr. 2019 /// "Double Down Trouble" -- June 2018 /// "Not Easy Being Android" -- Feb. 2018 /// "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 /// "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 /// "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015 /// "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015 /// "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015 /// "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 /// "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 /// "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014 /// "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014 /// "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013 /// "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013 /// "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 /// "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012 /// "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012 /// Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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24 Responses to Colorful Expressions

  1. Jeanne Theunissen says:

    Well, Jeff, the one that sticks out in my mind is that discussion we had a while back on your FB page about what it really means when you say “It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.” Most people today would think that was a rather crude expression, but it dates back to the days of old sailing warships. Iron cannon balls were stacked on a square platform with round indentations in them, and these platforms were called “monkeys” and made of brass so that the iron wouldn’t stick to them when they rusted. During very cold weather, the brass would contract, and the cannon balls would fall off.


    • Thank you, Jeanne! I never knew where that came from , so you can be sure,I never dared use it! (Who am I kidding? I still won’t!)


    • jeff7salter says:

      It’s great knowing how the expression originated, but I can’t help continuing to think of the humorous [bawdy] interpretation that I’ve grown up with.


  2. You had me chuckling to no end here,Jeff.I have heard all but one of those expressions. Of course, I sent you a Tshirt with the ‘novel’ phrase on it.
    I was told when I was too young that”Let’s not and say we did” would be used by dating kids who, at the time, actually used self-control and prudence in their relationship, but didn’t want to appear ‘square’. it is nice to know that there are other uses for the phrase.(Although,you can imagine that my eyes widened hearing it from your m-in-l!)
    As for Ol’ Blue, yes, somewhere from my earliest life there have been expressions about him, where ever he came from, but that phrase at that moment would have stopped me in my tracks, too!
    Fun post, Jeff.


    • jeff7salter says:

      Yes, I looked up that photo of the t-shirt you sent me so I could get the wording correct!
      Interesting origin for “let’s not and say we did.” Knowing my M-I-L, I doubt she was aware of that cultural interpretation.


  3. jbrayweber says:

    Great post. I’ve heard most of these expressions. Use one of them from time to time.
    I heard one the other day that had me laughing, and it’s definitely colorful.

    “If we were all given a pie, she’d sh*t in the middle and eat the edges.” This essentially meant the woman is vindictive and selfish.



  4. My favorite colorful expression is something my crazy aunt used to tell me when I was being indecisive: “You can’t ride two horses with one butt, sugar.”


  5. The colorful expression that stands out as my favorite is one that my crazy aunt used to tell me when I was being indecisive: “You can’t ride two horses with one butt, sugar.”


  6. Stephy says:

    My favorites are “you can’t judge a book by its cover” or as my dad would say “quit teasing your hair, you already made it mad enough”. In other words it’s not what’s on the outside that matters, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.


  7. Theresa says:

    I’ve got three, all my mom’s. “That’s too much sugar for a dime” — it’s overkill, when something gets overly complicated or detailed and it becomes not worth it anymore. “Take care of the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.” Pretty self explanatory. Don’t fritter away your money by thinking oh well, it’s a small amount; it doesn’t matter. “Six of one, half a dozen to the other.” This one blows my husband’s mind! Don’t know why. It just means not enough difference between two choices to matter.


    • jeff7salter says:

      All of those are great, Theresa. I’ve heard variations of the pennies/dollars saying all my life. In fact, one of my dad’s good friends was wealthy and she lived very frugally … watching every nickel.


  8. Theresa says:

    Oh and about the “Let’s not and say we did” (and I love that one and have used it before, a friend of mine said when he and his friends were randy teens they had a variation of that. He said it was tell a girl “Let’s do all the stuff I’m gonna tell my friends we did anyway!” Not nice, but funny!


  9. Iris Blobel says:

    Great post, Jeff. And I think I can now say, I have an idea what a “figure of speech” is 🙂


  10. Those are all great, Jeff. There are so many southernisms I’ve grown up with. Like “I love you a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck”. Also, I tell my granddaughter to just “hoop and gobble and knock herself out.” I have no idea what that means, but mama said it to us. They are often silly. but have wonderful memories attached to them.


    • jeff7salter says:

      Thanks for visiting, Teresa.
      I’ve never heard those expressions before… though I do recall hearing “hoop and holler”


  11. pjharjo says:

    I recognized a lot of your “phrases,” Jeff. Your final one, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” It very seldom (anymore) refers to actual cat-skinning.” brought to mind another one that does not have literal meaning and is often frowned upon in today’s Politically Correct society.

    The one I speak of, you ask? – “Killing two birds with one stone.” Some folks get their dander all up (LOL! There’s another one!) over the bird phrase, when obviously, it means we can get two things done at once with the same method.

    just sayin’ 😉


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