Appalachia Sayings from Appalachia

Appalachian Sayings – Eh Law

Eh Law

Click on the bar below to hear Pap and my Uncle talking about the Walnut Cove and the Coleman Gap, better known today as the housing development Brasstown Overlook. You’ll also hear Pap use the phrase eh law.


Transcript of Recording

Pap: Turn to the left to start that. And if you look right straight to your right you’re looking right up the Walnut Cove. You member you member the rocky point there?

Uncle: It’s on this side?

Pap: On this side of the mountain yeah, yeah all this I’m talking about is on this side.

Uncle: Oh okay.

Pap: But in other words where the creek comes out of the Walnut Cove and runs into that other little old bitty drain ain’t nothing but a spring drain you know comes out there. Why the road if you was following the old road going up the mountain gonna go through the gap it starts to switchback there. You know.

Uncle: Yeah. Yeah.

Pap: Well you member when it started that switch back and went to the left there’s a mossy cleared like place on the right there kinda that’s where that house was that’s where Joe Coleman lived.

Uncle: Really. Did he really.

Pap: And out there in the curve when it bent back this way to head back towards the gap that old fence that come down there what was left of it I can remember when the barn part of the barn somebody burnt the barn that was there and that was Joe Coleman’s barn. And that’s where Joe Coleman lived, you know.

Uncle: Was that in that little flat there?

Pap: Yeah in that little flat.

Uncle: Oh ok. I know where you’re talking about. I remember that old fence on the side on the lower side of the road down through there.

Pap: Eh law.


“Eh Law ~ An exclamation, at times in wonder, sometimes in resignation, and often with a tinge of sadness.” (Definition from Mountain Born written by Jean Boone Benfield)

The Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English has an entry for Eh Law, but my familiarity with the phrase is more like Jean Boone Benfield’s definition.

I most often hear the phrase used when there just ain’t nothing that can be done about an unfortunate situation and everybody in the conversation knows there just ain’t nothing that can be done. A sad resignation over something you just can’t understand, explain, or justify.




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  • Reply
    Clell Biggs
    September 6, 2021 at 8:47 pm

    My grandfather used to say this when he got upset at my grandmother. She’d be fussing about something he had done, or something someone else had done. He’d sit for a while not saying anything and just listening. Eventually he’d get feed up and as he went out the back door he’d yell “Eh law, woman!” Sometimes as he was walking away from the house he’d mumble under his breath “Law, law, law.” He had a shop where he made guitars and other instruments (he played Bluegrass), and he’d stay there for a while and then come back to see if she was still upset. If she was the whole thing would play out again. lol

  • Reply
    June 29, 2021 at 12:27 pm

    This was nice to hear. He reminds me of the way my Pop talked. (Pop is what I called my granddaddy). Oh, how you must treasure this recording! Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply
    Damian Bolton
    June 14, 2021 at 12:55 pm

    My grandmother used to say “El they law”! All the time and this is the first time i’ve heard it mentioned on the internet! So glad I found this! She lived in Beattyville, KY – Lee County.

  • Reply
    Teresa Cole
    September 24, 2019 at 8:37 am

    Thanks for the explanation of eh law. My husband just said that +which I had heard before). His parents are from Bryson City.

  • Reply
    John Carlton Templeton
    June 29, 2018 at 10:00 am

    As a child in Hawkins County, Tennessee, I often heard the “Law’ exclamation enhanced as, “They law, Bob!”. Similar to the denial, “No siree, Bob!”. If anyone knows who this “Bob” guy was, I’d like to know.
    Other idioms that may have been discussed in previous posts are “airy and n’airy” or as I also heard them simply “ar” and “nar”. For example, “Ain’t nairy a one of ’em been seen since”. These were used in various combinations of double and single negatives. I suspect these are corruptions of the archaic augmentatives “ere” and “ne’er”but don’t know.

  • Reply
    March 30, 2016 at 10:25 pm

    Eh law! – the origins and evolution of language are fascinating!

  • Reply
    Suzi Phillips
    March 30, 2016 at 5:03 pm

    Mitchell says Eh Law. I’ve always heard My Law! Dey Law! and more uncommonly- My lands! We weren’t allowed to say any of the above in my very straight-laced family. My Grandmaw said she would wash our mouths out-

  • Reply
    Nancy Schmidt
    March 30, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    You can read in Shakespeare an expletive just like this: it is “La”. The Oxford Dictionary of word origins addresses this. No doubt our various soundalikes were brought over from England in the 1600s and sounds have shifted from place to place. My folks in the Smokies used it very often, as an all purpose expression of interest or concern.

  • Reply
    Carol Rosenbalm
    March 30, 2016 at 3:56 pm

    In my family in east tennessee one of the surnames is Law which traces all the way back to the creation of the smokies.
    My great-grandmothers maiden name was Law so my relatives have always ss memory of her is LAW,LAW!
    We think it’s funny
    Carol Rosenbalm

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    March 30, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    One time, just before one of the girl’s concerts started, Pap came up to me and said “Ken, you keepin’ everything straight up in Topton?” I said, “I’m trying to but our Mayor up and died on us a few years ago, and we never replaced him. Did you ever know Buck Godfrey?” Pap said, “you know when I was a boy, it got so cold over where I live that folks stole the ties off the railroad to keep warm and it was several days before the railroad got it fixed.”
    I hushed after that!…Ken

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    March 30, 2016 at 2:07 pm

    I’ve heard eh law, they law, law law, lordy lordy, lord a mercy, lord have mercy and by hokies. “By hokies” don’t fit in here but it makes me smile every time I think of it.
    We had a neighbor who ended every sentence with it. His first name was Vance. All the men in the community who went to church called each other “Brother” before their given name. My dad was Brother Fred, my uncle was Brother Wayne, etc. to the whole Needmore area. That made Vance, “Brother Vance.”
    All us kids in the area didn’t use the Brother part when speaking of the menfolk, except in the case of Vance. Not only did we add the Brother, we added his byword. So, he became “Brother Vance By Hokies.” Of course we never called him that to his face or in the presence of any grownups. Nor to his kids. That would have reaped you a beating to within an inch of your life.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    March 30, 2016 at 1:44 pm

    I agree with Ron about “they law” being an expression of astonishment. I have a friend that
    will say “they law” if you tell her the price of gas just went up! ha
    I was so tickled to read Bill Burnett’s description of the gentlemen saying, “Eye Doggie”!
    We used to have a fellow that wanted us to call him as soon as we found any rare pieces of a pattern called “Autumn Leaf” distributed by the Jewel Tea Company. “Don’t sell it before I get there,” he would exclaim. Then when he saw it, his heart pounding, eyes sparkling in wanton anticipation….I would tell him the price, he would always say, “Eye doggie” as he was pulling out his billfold to give me the money. Even though he knew I always gave him the best price I could and make a bit of profit myself for finding it for him.
    Bill, that sure brought back memories of a great friend and customer (with the largest collection of Autumn leaf in this part of East Tennessee….
    Thanks Tipper
    and Bill for your memory and comment!

  • Reply
    March 30, 2016 at 11:25 am

    i was going to add “they Laaaaw…” (drawing out that law)- so was glad to see that Ron did. Haven’t heard it in a coon’s age! Another one is “Law, you don’t mean it!” as a response to something incredible.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    March 30, 2016 at 11:06 am

    I am like Sheryl Paul. I suspect this expression arose as an an alternative to saying ‘ O Lord’ because some old timers thought saying that was just plain wrong. My Grandma didn’t like to hear my brother and I say ‘darn’ because to her it was cussing. The sad truth probably is that if we were to be transported back to 1900 or so the old timey folks would be shocked at some of the things we say. And we would be shocked that they reacted that way.
    I have not heard ‘ Ah law’ in awhile but am very familiar with it. Depending on the situation, it can convey about any emotion. But I agree with you that it tends to be most commonly used to mean a compound of regret, sadness and resignation. It has taken me over half a century to realize that every generation arrives at that place.

  • Reply
    March 30, 2016 at 10:43 am

    Well… Being a recovering Yankee, I have heard the same, only different, and it’s my thought that “Lawsy Mercy” in Appalachia is the same as the Northern folks’ “Lord, have mercy”, of which I am very well acquainted. Likewise, “Eh law” = “Oh (or Ah) Lord”.
    But we all know than Yankees talk funny…

  • Reply
    sunshine smith
    March 30, 2016 at 10:37 am

    I’ve heard, “Lordy Mercy” and, “Lord ‘a mercy”, meaning Lord have mercy. This is probably an offshoot of this expression and kind of self explanatory.

  • Reply
    Chuck Howell
    March 30, 2016 at 10:31 am

    I heard it as “They Law.” “Awesome” Kids have changed everthing, I Rekon!

  • Reply
    March 30, 2016 at 10:12 am

    I have never thought a lot about this expression, as it was such a common one. My daughter seems to say it more, but it is more like, “Oh law.” She surely learned from my Dad who was a walking Appalachian dictionary. It is used in circumstances that are bewildering. Thanks, Tipper, I love learning from your blog

  • Reply
    Eldonna Ashley
    March 30, 2016 at 9:58 am

    We use “My law!” Or “Lawsy Mercy.” It is almost a mild oath or a phrase used to show wonderment, disappointment,or used as you mentioned. I always took it to mean ” My Lord.”
    Through the years the usage may have evolved a bit.

  • Reply
    Pam Danner
    March 30, 2016 at 9:55 am

    My Mom used to say Eh-Law often so did most of her family and they were from Virginia.

  • Reply
    March 30, 2016 at 9:33 am

    Have heard the expression. Always thought it was yea lawd (lord) , similar to lawd,lawd.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    March 30, 2016 at 9:32 am

    E#h Law, Oh Lord same sentiment. I have heard that Law, Lawsy are both idiums used to keep from saying the :ord’s name in vain.

  • Reply
    March 30, 2016 at 9:21 am

    I have heard a number of phases using “Law” before and I always thought that it meant “Lord”… eh Law would be “aw/oh Lord” and “laws a mercy” “Lord a mercy.” What do you think?

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    March 30, 2016 at 9:09 am

    Thanks Tipper for this post.
    I hope we can hear more of Pap and Granny along the way…I believe you had some interviews taped about some Appalachian traditions, etc. that we might enjoy listening to his families way of doing things, back in the day.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    March 30, 2016 at 8:55 am

    Eh law, how many times I have heard that term in my family and have used it myownself with out even thinking…My Mother especially would express the term when something occurred and there wasn’t anything she could do about it. She might say, “Eh law,” you’d a thought they’d a known better”!
    I think I use the term in exasperation…as “eh law,” I don’t know how I’m going to get something done, or over something, maybe sadness if you will….
    I hear voices of my grandparents as well, using this expression at the shocking news of the world.
    I have heard them say, “Eh law, this old world is going to hell in a hand basket!”
    As a youngster, I wasn’t sure what they meant! All I knew was, I didn’t think the world would fit in Grannies egg basket, that was a’hangin’ on the nail on the back porch! And who in the blazes would carry it there if it did fit, eh law!

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    March 30, 2016 at 8:53 am

    I grew up hearing “eh law”as an expression of sadness or pity for someone or some situation. It was also common to hear the expression of “they law” as a response to hearing something unbelievable or astounding. That is a common expression my oldest sister still uses. I love to hear both of them used.

  • Reply
    March 30, 2016 at 8:30 am

    My favorite way to express surprise is a tad different than Pap says it, but means the same thing. Uh laa!

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    March 30, 2016 at 8:11 am

    I’ve heard and used Eh Law pert near all my life, many Appalachain “Old Timers” had their expressions and by words they used and many were known by them, one example I’ll always remember was a gentleman we were related to by marriage who was always cattle trading with my Dad and my Maternal Grandfather, when he would be trying to get someone to cut their price he would shake his head and exclaim “Eye Doggie”, that’s a bit high. I can remember this from the time I was knee high to a grasshopper since I loved to travel with my Grandfather on his cattle tradin excursions and our Wednesday visits to the Livestock Auction in Franklin when I wasn’t in school. These are great memories. These trips were as much social events to these characters as they were about making money.

  • Reply
    Brenda O'Halloran
    March 30, 2016 at 7:51 am

    The Appalachian conversation and accent aren’t too much different from how the older rural folks often sound here in Missouri. Of course, most of the Missouri ancestors came out of Appalachia to settle here. I bet the “eh law” and the “lawsy me” I am familiar with have the same origination because they are used in similar ways.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    March 30, 2016 at 7:45 am

    Tip, I think I’ve heard that a few times but not a lot. I certainly understand the sentiment. I think we need to revive the expression, there’s just so many situations in the world now a days when there is just nothing that can be done, eh law!

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    March 30, 2016 at 7:38 am

    Tipper–To me the use of “eh law” is reminiscent of “well, bless her (or his) heart” being used to describe some woman or man who is hopelessly incompetent, plain-out stupid, imbued with all the negative attributes we ascribe to flatlanders, or just chronically irritating. In other words, the phrase carries a condemnatory tone along with one of sad resignation.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    March 30, 2016 at 7:33 am

    Gary-thank you for the comment! Yes I believe Eh Law is related to lawsy mercy : )

  • Reply
    Garry Ballard
    March 30, 2016 at 5:31 am

    Is it somehow related to another exclamation I’ve heard which is “laws a mercy” or something like that’s?

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