Appalachian Dialect

A Little Keen Hickory

A keen hickry
The other day Sue Crane left a comment that got me to studying on a few things.

Sue Crane: You knew you were in BIG trouble when my grandmother said “I’m gonna get me a keen hickory and cut the blood out of you”. She never did but she sure could make you dance!

The comment got me to thinking about the times Granny had to give me a dose of hickory tea for not minding or for sassing her. The comment also got me to wondering about the word keen. I’ve heard it used exactly like Sue did all my life, but what does keen mean?

A quick search of my Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English turned up two different definitions.

The first: to wail or make a lamentation

The second: sharp and piercing especially of the eyes. 

Next I jumped over to the Online Etymology Dictionary it also had the lamentation/wail definition, but it also had the following:

keen (adj.)
c. 1200, from Old English cene “bold, brave, fearless,” in later Old English “clever, prudent, wise, intelligent,” common Germanic (cognate with Old Norse kænn “skillful, wise,” Middle Dutch coene “bold,” Dutch koen, Old High German kuon “pugnacious, strong,” German kühn “bold, daring”), but according to OED there are no cognates outside Germanic and the original meaning is “somewhat obscure”; it seem to have been both “brave” and “skilled.” Perhaps the connection notion was “to be able” and the word is connected to the source of can (v.1).

Sense of “eager (to do something), vehement, ardent” is from c. 1300. The physical meaning “sharp, sharp-pointed, sharp-edged” (c. 1200) is peculiar to English. Extended senses from c. 1300: Of sounds, “loud, shrill;” of cold, fire, wind, etc. “biting, bitter, cutting.” Of eyesight c. 1720. A popular word of approval in teenager and student slang from c. 1900. Keener was 19c. U.S. Western slang for a person considered sharp or shrewd in bargaining.

I’ve heard Pap, and others, use the word keen regarding someone’s voice. If an individual had a shrill voice they would use the word keen in place of shrill.



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  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    June 2, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    Have any of you been threatened with a “keen withe”?? It must be akin to a “keen hickory.”
    Withe was a common word used in Choestoe, N. GA mounains, to mean a slender, limber limb from a tree, used to give a few “keen” disciplinary strikes to a disobedient or misbehaving child, or to an animal that was not obedient. I had not thought of either “keen hickory” or “keen withe” in ages until reading today’s post on BP&TA. Thanks for eliciting memories, even though some are not so good about this use of something keen and noticeable, indeed!

  • Reply
    June 2, 2016 at 7:49 pm

    Mom had a peach tree at the end of the porch. She could get a limb when it was raining without getting wet. Dad many times sent us for our own ‘hickory’. If he felt it was too small, he used it and sent us for another one. If it was too big he used it anyway.
    I used to threaten my daughter with a ‘sock full of wet sand’. I told her I could beat her almost to death without leaving bruises or marks and no one would believe her when she cried, “Abuse.”
    I usually heard ‘peach tree tea’ or ‘sassafras tea’.

  • Reply
    Ann Applegarth
    June 2, 2016 at 6:30 pm

    Well, Mama never called it “keen,” but it was! Sharp as glass! She would say, “Young lady, you need a dose of peach-tree tea.” and march out the back door to cut a nice supple branch. The time between the diagnosis and her actually administering the punishment was the worst! And, of course, while she was
    stinging my bare legs (little girls wore dresses back then) with that peach switch, she would say, “You know, Ann, this hurts me more than it does you!” I never believed that until I was grown and had kids of my own! The word keen was used to refer to knife blades, and I still use that. From what I see of the young generation these days, we could use a few more peach trees or hickory trees in backyards!

  • Reply
    Rev. Rose Marie "RB" Redmond
    June 2, 2016 at 6:10 pm

    Hope everyone’s having a great week!!!
    I’ve heard the word “keen” used in a negative way, such as: “I’m not too keen on that idea.” Not sure which of the definitions that would fit into.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, PhD
    June 2, 2016 at 5:53 pm

    Well Tipper! You sure ‘hit the nail on the head’ with this post. When you have ELEVEN children – with lots of conflict – you just have to use any kind of ‘hickry’ you can get your hands on to bring about order among those yungons! I know from early days in the Matheson Cove! Eva Nell

  • Reply
    David Templeton
    June 2, 2016 at 5:13 pm

    Not only did my momma use a switch, she made me go get it. She did laugh one time though when what I brought back was off the weeping willow down by the road. She never really made the switch sting very much.

  • Reply
    June 2, 2016 at 4:02 pm

    This brought back memories of the keen switches Daddy had us get when we got in trouble.

  • Reply
    June 2, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    Ive heard it used in different ways, but if used in the context of disipline, it was a Brother or Sister be good stick..

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    June 2, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    A two foot length of rabbit cane was my mother switch of choice. My Daddy never whipped but his words were keener that Mommy’s switch. He made me watch him switch his own legs one time. He said that if he had to whip me, he wasn’t raising me right and it was he that deserved the punishment.
    There was an old woman who lived near us for a while. They called her Maw. She kept her “stick” near her all the time. It wasn’t a switch. It was more of a cudgel. About the size of a hoe handle. She tried to make us think she needed it to help her walk but we all knew the true purpose. She enjoyed whacking little kids. She would just sit there peacefully looping a rug or darning a sock until she lured you into her range. Then wham, she’d knock your legs out from under you. If you didn’t go down she’d strike again. Drop and roll was the best strategy if she lured you too close. Her grandson Beany used to tease her. He would jump into her range and back out trying to get her to swing. Kinda like a boxer finding his range. But, she’d had decades of experience. She would time him and “thump” he would be on the floor begging for mercy. Mercy was not one of her virtues!

  • Reply
    anita griffith
    June 2, 2016 at 12:29 pm

    I’ve heard keen used in most of these ways.Hadn’t heard it like Jim Casada used it about being keen on a girl,but my wife had.She said she was once keen on a boy.Hmm,didn’t know she was ever struck on anybody but me.
    We called it willer tea at my house,but it was actually whatever was handy.

  • Reply
    June 2, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    I’ve had some of these experiences with a “keen” hickory or alder switch. My daddy always went to bed with the chickens and me and my brother had been playing cowpasture football. Mama stayed up with us so we could do our homework. After we finished we had a good pillow fight. It got pretty fierce and just as my brother was about to lay me out, I ducked and he took out our living room window. We heard those heels hit the floor and in just a minute or two later we felt the wrath of the master. We didn’t ever pillow fight again tho…Ken

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    June 2, 2016 at 10:33 am

    I’ve heard it often but never felt it. Mama threatened often but seldom took action. I don’t remember her ever hitting me. She said she always remembered the one time her papa smacked her on the behind with his hand and she was absolutely heartbroken.
    I’ve worked with a lot of kids and I really don’t think it works very well in the long run, especially when it’s the over-used & only form of punishment. I could often pick out the most spanked kid–usually a boy and the worst behaved one in the group. My own son reacted better to time out or a good talk and rewards for outstanding good behavior.
    At school in the mornings I would put one Skittle or one sticker on the desk of the child who was settled down and behaving and verbally praise him/her. It worked like a charm usually–most of the others would immediately sit down & settle down & get their own reward. I was a substitute teacher & this method saved me many times. The promise of a 15 minute “talent show” or a pick from my Dollar Tree treat bag before buses were called helped all day. They loved telling their own stories too–“worst accident I ever had”, etc. I miss that job but my health & stamina just got to the point I couldn’t do it any more.

  • Reply
    June 2, 2016 at 10:16 am

    It appears the yellowbell is the Appalachian Mama’s choice for punishment! I wish I had a nickel for every time my Sweet Little Mama told my brothers and me that she was “going to cut a keen little hick’ry off the (yellowbell) bush and ‘stripe our laigs’ if we didn’t behave!”
    Time Out??? Pfffft. We never heard of it. We learned safe boundaries from that keen little switch and a loving Mama that wasn’t afraid to give punishment we deserved.
    I love our language!!! So full of color, hue and shade!!!

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    June 2, 2016 at 9:30 am

    I am very familiar with a keen hickory. We had a forsythia bush in the front yard and that was the abundant source of those things. They made an evil hiss like a viper about to bite as they cut the air.
    The bite they make leaves a whelp on the back of your legs. As a boy I silently cursed that bush and wanted it to die.
    As a man I think that yellow blooming shrub was like a sentinel standing proud to keep us kids in line with what was expected of us. That sentinel had a keen eye and an even keener bite when called into duty.

  • Reply
    Evelyn Richardson
    June 2, 2016 at 9:18 am

    My dad used a keen peach tree switch. With nine kids he had to at one time or another. It was usually after we had been warned to stop doing whatever we were doing. I don’t think it hurt us too bad. We loved him for correcting us. More parents and grandparents today could take a lesson from those days.

  • Reply
    Lois Porter
    June 2, 2016 at 8:58 am

    My mama threatened to “cut the blood out of you with a keen hickory” my entire childhood!! My siblings and I knew it was not an empty threat! When I read this story this morning, it really took me back!

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    June 2, 2016 at 8:24 am

    I have heard it used as understand, I keen you need to catch that train. Also spelled ken. I think it is Scots.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    June 2, 2016 at 8:24 am

    I have heard it used as understand, I keen you need to catch that train. Also spelled ken. I think it is Scots.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    June 2, 2016 at 8:24 am

    I have heard it used as understand, I keen you need to catch that train. Also spelled ken. I think it is Scots.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    June 2, 2016 at 8:24 am

    I have heard it used as understand, I keen you need to catch that train. Also spelled ken. I think it is Scots.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    June 2, 2016 at 8:11 am

    I’ve heard and used keen in many ways.
    *That’s a keen feller, for sure (meaning he’s highly intelligent).
    *He’s keen as a pet ‘coon (meaning sharp, and closely related to the above usage).
    *I was keen on that purty girl back when I was a youngster (had a crush on the girl).
    *The hickory switch usage you mention, although I always took keen to mean it was sharp enough to tear your hide.
    Speaking of hickory switches, they were never used in my boyhood, but a good, thick yellowbell limb got considerable usage, as did limbs from spirea bushes. In my case a razor strap once came into play as well, and that was administered by a 9th grade English teacher at Swain High School, Thad Dehart, in what he described as “Six of my best.” I don’t recall my transgression, although I have no doubt whatsoever I deserved the whipping. My biggest mistake, however, was hurriedly stuffing a Duxbak cap into the seat of my britches while Mr. DeHart was momentarily out of sight getting his razor strap. Evidently the bulges from the cap were discernible, because he flailed the daylights out of me. Today that would get him fired, bring a lawsuit and community outrage, and who knows what else. Back then though, I didn’t dare tell Daddy, because it would have meant another whipping.
    Incidentally, I greatly admired Mr. DeHart and he was a significant influence in my becoming a writer. Now, all these years later, I’ll actually get to share the tale of that whipping in an upcoming story assignment I have connected with a longing look backwards to when Duxbak clothing was THE thing for hunting or work attire. Duxbak was incredibly tough and right now I’m doing a bit of consulting work with a group planning to bring Duxbak back on the market. I’ll bet a number of your older readers, especially the male ones, will have fond memories of Duxbak.
    Now that I’ve rambled all over the globe with this post, I’ll conclude with a little ditty I heard often as a youngster.
    When I was a little boy just so high,
    Momma took a switch and made me cry.
    Now I’m a big boy and Momma can’t do it.
    Daddy takes a hickory stick and goes right to it.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Vann Helms
    June 2, 2016 at 8:11 am

    My mother used to say “Keen Hickory” when referring to a “switch”, even if it came from her favorite “switch tree”, a forsythia. A Hickory Stick always meant a “switch”, which made all of us kids “dance” when applied. I always thought it meant “sharp”, like in a “keen sense of smell”. Thanks for this memory, although some of those “switchings” I would prefer to forget, especially the ones that brought a little blood.

  • Reply
    Lorie Thompson
    June 2, 2016 at 8:04 am

    Your post this morning interested me on two fronts. First of all, I am old fashioned and proud of it. I raised both of my children with the regular threat and a rare use of a keen hickory. They both turned out to be great adults, so I think it works. It was the way that my parents and my Grands raised me. I never spanked, slapped, or whipped my children. I did not want to ever strike them with my own hands and I think a belt or such could hurt them. A keen hickory stings, but there is no real damage. Just as my parents made me, I would send them out to cut their own hickory. The anticipation of the punishment was far worse than the actual switching.
    They both knew this was last resort punishment. I would threaten them with it and if bad behavior continued, they would earn a hickory switch. My Mama would switch my legs every so often and on occasion she would swat me with a fly swatter. I deserved every stripe I got and both of my own children, as grown ups, will tell you the same. I was raised with a lot of love and a little discipline along the way and did the same with my own children.
    The second thing of interest to me is the definition of ‘keen”. My maternal grandmother was Ruby Keener McKay. The local Keener family were original settler’s in this area and still have l a large family here. I have read about the professional “keeners’ and “wailers” who were hired and brought in to mourn the death of a person. I suppose there is some “Keener” relative, way back in time who was known for their ability to make a high pitched wail. Maybe it was ll the practice they got as children when they were getting switched with a “Keen” hickory!
    Thank you for the thoughts this morning.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    June 2, 2016 at 8:03 am

    Gee, till I read this I never realized I understood at least, if I don’t use, the word keen in so many senses. It was a walk down memory land and I could almost hear the voices from my past. My Dad would talk of putting a ‘keen edge’ on a knife or of a keen wind.
    These reminders make me long for voices that are gone and for the more civil time that I remember.
    Hope each of you BP&A folks have a blessed day.

  • Reply
    June 2, 2016 at 7:44 am

    My only recollection of the word “keen” is from the 50’s and early 60’s. Seems they used it on the “Leave it to Beaver” a lot to show approval and perhaps in some of the “beach” movies. My older cousins frequently used “keen”, “neat-o”, “swell”, and “nifty” as part of their teen-age slang in those times.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    June 2, 2016 at 7:10 am

    I am familiar with all those usages of the work keen, except bold and brave. As a child it wasn’t a keen hickory it was a belt.

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