Appalachian Dialect



The other day I was thumbing through my Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English and noticed there were several interesting entries for the word feather.

feather dance noun Same as a buck dance.
1983 Matthew Cutting a Dido 105 The “feather dance” [is] a local sobriquet for old style buckdance: “A ‘feather dance,’ that’s just a little toe dance. You just kind of move from your knees down, a little feather dance. The old-timers said that when you were a smooth dancer, a feather dancer, that you could dance with a bucket of water on your head and never spill it.”

Although I’ve heard of buck dancing my whole life, I’ve never heard of feather dancing.

feather into verb phrase
1 To attack, shoot.
1917 Kephart Word-list 412 = to attack, as with arrows piercing to the feather. “He feathered into him, feedin’ him lead.” 1931 Combs Lg Sthn High 1308 “Feather into one” means to attack him violently. 1952 Wilson Folk Speech NC = to fight, to light into. 1955 Parris Roaming Mts 21 Don’t laugh when a mountain man talks about how he “feathered into them,” a phrase that passed out of standard English when saltpetre replaced the long-bow.
2 To work vigorously to get done.
1937 Hall Coll. The man feathered into this crop. 1939 Hall Coll. He seed the work had to be done, and he just feathered into it. 1967 Hall Coll. Del Rio TN Feather into, that means to fall into something and get right with it. (Wilford Metcalf)

The manner I’ve heard feather into used is most similar to the 1952 Wilson Folk Speech example.

feather-legged adjective Cowardly.
1952 Wilson Folk Speech NC 539 = frightened, cowardly. “I get sorta feather-legged when I get around her.” 1972 Cooper NC Mt Folklore 91 = cowardly. 1995-97 Montgomery Coll. (Brown, Cardwell, Norris).

I have never heard feather-legged.

feather out verb phrase To dress up, wear fancy clothes.
1937 Hall Coll. Cades Cove TN She was all feathered out. (Dave Sparks) 1995 Montgomery Coll. (Cardwell).

I’ve never heard feather out, but I like it!

feather tick noun A bed tick filled with feathers, on which one sleeps in winter. Same as flock tick.
1975 Purkey Madison Co 40 Spring cleaning was another important event in our household. On a bright sunny day everything in the house was carried outside, and the straw ticks were emptied and refilled with fresh straw. The younger fry loved to play hide and seek and turn sommersaults among the feather ticks as they lay sunning in the front yard. 1991 Haynes Haywood Home 41 Most everyone had cord beds in their homes. On top of the cord webbing, they put a straw tick , and on top of that, a feather tick. In spring, all the feather ticks would be taken outside to be sunned for several days. 1995 Andrew Jes’ Broguin’ 6 Then, after she hung the dish-rag on the nail of the kitchen wall, she went off into the back room to her feather tick bed to snuggle under the quilts.

Like most folks, I’ve heard of feather ticks. I’ve never slept on one though. Hard to imagine sleeping on a cord bed with a straw tick and a feather tick—doesn’t sound very comfortable, but I bet it beat sleeping on the floor!

The Deer Hunter never had a feather tick either, but he did have feather pillows as a child. He about drove Miss Cindy crazy over them. As he went to sleep he’d work feathers out of a corner of the pillow and drop them behind the bed. Once Miss Cindy caught on to his game she sewed the corners shut, but that didn’t deter the feather pulling, He still figured out how to get the feathers out and continued to drop them behind the bed 🙂


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  • Reply
    Walter Holokai
    January 24, 2021 at 12:23 am

    Next time you see Josh Griggs tell him to try to locate a volume of “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. “The book was a runner-up in 1980 for the National Book Award. It frequently has been revised, with the most recent edition covering events through 2005. In 2003, Zinn was awarded the Prix des Amis du Monde Diplomatique for the French version of this book Une histoire populaire des États-Unis. More than two million copies have been sold.” I remember from the video that he once aspired to be a history teacher and think he would really appreciate reading it. It’s basically the history you never learned in school. I really enjoyed your interview with him.

  • Reply
    January 21, 2021 at 5:13 pm

    The Deer Hunter probably pulled out feathers that were poking him. I know that was what I did. Someone mentioned shuck ticks – I’ve slept on them as well as feather and straw ticks.

    Geese F F probably meant they were old enough to have developed all their feathers. Goslings don’t have full feathers – just down. Geese F F would be for eating.

    I remember when I was a teenager we had feather comforters on the beds in Winter over the quilts or blankets. With heat only in the kitchen and sometimes in the living room the bedrooms were cold. These comforters and a brick heated on the hearth and wrapped in a towel made a big difference.

  • Reply
    Ron Bass
    January 21, 2021 at 4:02 pm

    I grew up sleeping in a feather bed. During cold winter nights they were great, still use feather pillows. I have always used the term feathering in reference to painting.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    January 21, 2021 at 3:13 pm

    Feathers are used in splitting rock. They’re not off a bird though, they’re metal. You drill a hole in a rock, insert two feathers on opposite sides of the hole and drive a plug (wedge) between them. That’s a major way rocks were cut before explosives were invented. It is still done today. if you want to watch.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    January 21, 2021 at 2:17 pm

    My cousin Joe was deathly afraid of feathers when he was a baby. His mother, my aunt Merrill, told what she did when she needed to get her housework done without worrying about him crawling off and getting into something. She said she make a ring of feathers in the middle of the living room floor, put him a toy in it and sat him in the middle. She said he would sit right there in that ring and play. He never ever tried to crawl out.

    I slept on feather pillers (pillows) all during my growing up years. We had a lot of chickens. We ate a lot of chicken. We had a lot of feathers. Mommy would save some of the feathers to stuff pillows. Not all feathers are fit to use. The bigger outside layer wouldn’t do. The inner layer is similar to the down on a duck or goose. That’s what she used. She would smell them before she would use them. If they had an odor she threw them out. Some people used all the feathers, washed and chopped them up. Mommy had a lot of chickens to work with so she could afford to be picky (pun intended) with her feathers.

  • Reply
    January 21, 2021 at 12:28 pm

    Never heard of feathered spoken in any words other than feathered pillows. My Mother gave us two feathered pillows when we got married and my husband absolutely loved them. Oh I did hear of it used a different way. Many years ago, we toured an antebellum home in Columbus, MS., and it was pointed out to us that the baseboard running down the floor which looked like MARBLE was actually done by “feathering” paints on wood. It absolutely looked like marble. It was hard to belief it was done by using feathers.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    January 21, 2021 at 10:16 am

    The only way I can recall hearing “feather” used is in “feathering” an edge, that is, making a gradual change from more to less, especially much less, until the change ended. The painting example fits it. That use might speak of “feathered out” or “feathered in” depending on the reference direction.

    My Grandma had at least one feather bed, a “feather tick”. I recall sleeping on it but not its being made. When I was small, she had a few geese. I was afraid of them. They were as tall as I was and one in particular would bite.

  • Reply
    January 21, 2021 at 9:19 am

    My Uncle Joe and Aunt Sara had feather beds when I was growing up. We used to spend the night there and sleep on them with their granddaughters. I do remember them being comfortable, but kids never seems to mind where they sleep. A few years ago, my daughter bought a feather mattress topper that was a few inches thick. She offered it to me after a few nights of sleeping on it if that tells you how much she disliked it. I can not use feather pillows or mattress toppers, as they would surely send me back to the allergy doctor. Death crowns or angel crowns are said to form in feather pillows according to Appalachian folklore. That makes me want to use use another form of pillow stuffing.

  • Reply
    January 21, 2021 at 8:51 am

    We had feather pillows when I was a child. If they had a small hole or tear in them the feathers would come out and they seem to be flat. I sure could sleep good with those pillows and a couple of the old time quilts on the bed in the un heated bedroom.

  • Reply
    O. P. Holder
    January 21, 2021 at 7:42 am

    There were some of these beds around in the Tuskegee, Sawyers Creed, Stecoah sections during the 30″s and 40″s. I remember my grandfather and an uncle slept on them. They didn’t look very comfortable.

  • Reply
    Sanford McKinney Jr
    January 21, 2021 at 7:38 am

    An old gentleman once told me that his mother was the best dancer that he had ever seed (saw) because she could dance on a looking glass (mirror) and not break it. My guess that was some type of “feather dancing?”
    Also, I hear painters today make reference to “feathering in” paint.

  • Reply
    Sanford McKinney Jr
    January 21, 2021 at 7:29 am

    Your comments concerning feather ticks made me think of the following.
    The ultimate pillow and tick fillers used to be goose down? Well, that is unless you were allergic to the down. The pillows are still available and quite expensive. Not sure if there are down mattresses (ticks) available?
    I have a family document, dated Dec 9, 1896, where some ancestors sold items and one of the items was interesting because it was written as geese each “f f” which I figured out meant fully feathered. I am not sure if “f f” made them worth more or less? Since goose down was used back then for the aforementioned purpose, perhaps the geese were worth more when “f f”?
    Any of you “old timers” (I’m an old timer, also) out there who can answer my question? Any of you ever heard of a “corn shuck tick”? When feathers weren’t available, the very resourceful Appalachian people used dried corn shucks for fillers. Of course the hard end of the corn shuck was cut off before use.
    BTW, as a side note, the geese were priced @ .30 each on the Dec 9, 1896 receipt.

    • Reply
      Larry Paul Eddings
      January 21, 2021 at 8:17 am

      My maternal grandparents came from the area around Greenville, SC. They used the expression “feather-legged” to refer to someone who was cowardly or chicken. I don’t recall ever hearing anyone else use it.

    • Reply
      Ron Stephens
      January 21, 2021 at 2:09 pm

      I think you are onto something and that your interpretation is correct. By 1896 I expect the primary market was for geese ready to cook but that a smaller market existed for fully feathered ones or even possibly partially feathered ones. Those would be to people who wanted variously all the feathers and down or just the down and were willing to do the work themselves to pluck and sort and clean them. Probably the market in cities was for mostly plucked but in the country mostly feathered and historically had once been as feathered everywhere. Selling as fully feathered would have worked much better also with driving a flock to market because the seller then would have been poorly situated to handle feathers and down.

  • Reply
    Cindy Pressley
    January 21, 2021 at 6:49 am

    Yep, I always liked feather pillows and yes, the Deer Hunter had great fun pulling the feathers out of the pillows. I actually still have the two feather pillows I had as a child. They are a little thinner…thanks to the Deer Hunter!
    I don’t recall ever hearing any of these other uses of the word. One other use I’ve heard is feather brained, meaning a light weight brain!

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