Appalachia Appalachian Dialect

Lick in Appalachia


lick noun
1 A sharp blow or stroke with the hand or a heavy instrument.
1884 Murfree In Tenn 83 He hain’t struck a lick of work fur nigh on ter a month. 1937 Hall Coll. Gatlinburg TN “Let’s make it a sure lick this time” = here a fatal blow in a folk tale told by Lewis Reagan. 1939 Hall. Coll. Proctor NC. “Just hack it down. It’ll fall just in a minute. Just hack it,” he says. I struck a few licks on it, and it was just a little birch. (Dan Cable) ibid. Sugarlands, TN I knocked [the bear] in the head ever so many licks before I could get it to roll over and hush hollerin’. (Steve Cole) 1994 Walker Life History 75 The first lick he throwed he hit that wildcat and knocked it out.
[OED lick n¹ 4a”a smart blow”; DARE chiefly South, South Midland, Texas, Oklahoma]
2 The smallest amount (usu in negative contexts).
1956 Hall Coll.  Mt. Sterling NC He never worked a lick (Mitchell Sutton 1967 DARE (Maryville TN).
3 A supply of salt for ranging animals to lick as desired, often left in a cavity cut into a log. See also lick log.
1937 Hall Coll. A laurel lick [is] where deer used to come. [= a salt lick placed in a laurel thicket].
4 See citation.
1974 Fink Bits Mt Speech 15 = molasses. “Give him some lick for his dodger.”

Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English


As you can see from the dictionary entry, lick is a pretty important word in Appalachia. I most commonly hear it, and use it in the manner of number 2: “He ain’t got a lick of sense” or “She won’t strike a lick at anything unless somebody stands over her and makes her.”

A few other lick usages that come to mind:

  • A lick and a promise is said when a job or task is completed in a hurry and not with the usual thoroughness. Example: “I ran short of time. I gave the house a lick and promise. I know they’re company but it’ll have to do.
  • Lick one’s calf again: means the job or task wasn’t done right and you need to do it over.
  • Lick thumbs: to come to an agreement (I’ve never heard this one, but it was in the dictionary).


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  • Reply
    Tom Gervat
    April 1, 2021 at 5:15 pm

    Tipper, it’s ironic you should write on this. One thing I’ve always noticed every time I’ve seen a Pap & Paul musical video, was how definitively and purposefully Pap hit those strings. And then it struck me upside and backwards – this is what “guitar licks” are all about!

  • Reply
    James Kniskern
    April 1, 2021 at 10:48 am

    We folk over here on the Western side have licks all over the place… Paint Lick, Blue Lick, Red Lick, etc. Natural salt licks the critters came to, and were usually given colorful names, or named after the folks that discovered them. They have now become road names, and place names.

  • Reply
    Frank Vincent
    March 29, 2019 at 8:52 pm

    I was rascal as a kid… And because of it, I got quite a lot of lick’ns in my day…

  • Reply
    March 27, 2019 at 10:58 pm

    When we were rowdy kids, the threat of “you’re gonna get a darn good lickin!” set us straight. Sometimes.
    And I still use “a lick and a promise” all the time!

  • Reply
    Amanda Burts
    March 26, 2019 at 4:57 pm

    I had to chuckle one day when a friend, after a run or hike (or something we were doing), said “I’ve had the lick.” I had never heard such—meaning that she was worn out, had done all she could do, or was beat/whooped. I think you have one person, Ed Ammons, who mentions “having the lick” in your comments.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    March 26, 2019 at 1:46 pm

    and a Calf Lick when you have a whorl in your hair.

    • Reply
      March 26, 2019 at 10:33 pm

      Haha, I have a few of those, we called the cow licks.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    March 26, 2019 at 1:44 pm

    Don’t forget Pap’s saying “Boys I’ve had the lick.” May 14 2015

  • Reply
    March 26, 2019 at 1:42 pm

    HI Tipper,Back in my childhood memories in Wi. I remember my brothers being told they would gel a licking if they didn’t shape up. God Bless. Belva- Jean

  • Reply
    Tamela Baker
    March 26, 2019 at 1:17 pm

    Haven’t heard “lick a calf” but have heard and seen “lick thumbs” when Dad “contracted” with a crew to pick one of his fields.

  • Reply
    March 26, 2019 at 12:28 pm

    I grew up in NW Iowa and heard my parents, grandparents, and the neighbors threaten their young-uns with a licking if they didn’t behave. And my grandfather often used lick in his speech in ways similar to what is recorded here. “He ain’t worth a lick.” And, “I ain’t done a lick of work since breakfast,” for example. So the usage was once widespread outside Appalachia. I haven’t listened to Iowans for a long time, but perhaps some still use the word that way. It’s nice to know it is being preserved as part of American language in your area.

  • Reply
    Sallie (the Apple Doll Lady)
    March 26, 2019 at 11:40 am

    I learned from my mother and use lick and a promise and lick the calf over. Related to all these is lickety split-meaning going fast. (Not in my auto-correct!)

  • Reply
    March 26, 2019 at 11:03 am

    I remember as a kid if you were about to fight with someone you doubled your fists and licked your thumbs. I don’t know why. We did it because we saw others doing it.
    In Georgia I made ice cream and poured the salt water on Kudzu to kill it. The deer licked up the salt and dirt 3-4 inches deep. I said, “I guess they thought that was a salt lick”. I had to explain to my wife and neighbor about deer needing salt in their diets.
    I do very few licks of work now a days.

    • Reply
      April 3, 2019 at 8:20 am

      We did that in Galloway when I was a wee boy.
      There was (probably still is) the custom of both parties spitting on their palms and shaking hands to seal a horse trading deal.
      Lick also meant speed as in “He was going at a fair lick when he hit the wall”.

  • Reply
    March 26, 2019 at 11:02 am

    I have heard and used these Tipper. Also a lick an a promise. Love em.

  • Reply
    aw griff
    March 26, 2019 at 10:24 am

    A very common one to me is, he or she don’t have a lick of sense.

  • Reply
    Janis M.
    March 26, 2019 at 10:10 am

    Thanks for leaving a smile on my face and in my heart! Your blog brings back so many memories!

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    March 26, 2019 at 10:07 am

    A lazy person “won’t hit a lick at a snake”.

  • Reply
    March 26, 2019 at 10:00 am

    I’ve used a lick and a promise in reference to house cleaning. I’ve used the expression “haven’t done a lick of work” before. I live in the suburbs of Richmond, Va., and I’ve heard these expressions all my life.

  • Reply
    carol harrison
    March 26, 2019 at 9:45 am

    my mom use to say she gave it a lick and a promise when she washed woodwork or floors with a bucket of Spic and Span water. i remember my brothers and their friends licking thumbs and putting them to their friends thumbs to seal the deal.

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    March 26, 2019 at 9:10 am

    As boys it was a fun to swap licks with your buddies. You would hit each other in the upper arm as hard as you could until one of you couldn’t take it anymore. I know people who wouldn’t strike a lick at a snake. Meaning they are lazy. Licking your calf over was not doing a good job and having to redo it. I think that comes from the mama cow cleaning up her new born calf at birth. My battery must be dead because my car won’t hit a lick. Theses are so common to me that I don’t even think about them being uncommon to some people. When I’m in a hurry I’ll sometimes give something a lick and a promise to do better next time.

  • Reply
    Ed Karshner
    March 26, 2019 at 8:36 am

    Not having a lick of sense is a favorite saying where I’m from. Something heard might not make a lick of sense either.

    Sometimes, if you are really fitful, you might not give a lick, either.

    I miss hearing these words and expressions on a daily basis. Most of the time, the only person speaking right is the self-talk in my head!

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    March 26, 2019 at 8:15 am

    I haven’t done a lick of work all day is the most common one I have heard. I never heard the lick a calf. I also heard he needs about 40 licks to get him going.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    March 26, 2019 at 8:04 am

    My Mom would say the ‘lick and a promise’ one a lot. My Dad would say the ‘strike a lick’ one, mostly in reference to those who wouldn’t. A favorite one was “wouldn’t strike a lick to kill a snake”.

    So ‘take a licking’ means to take a bunch of ‘licks’. Must be widespread or they wouldn’t use it in the Eveready commercial.

    • Reply
      March 26, 2019 at 9:56 am

      It used to be part of a Timex watch commercial years and years ago, too. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    March 26, 2019 at 7:24 am

    Yes, lick is a very versatile word here in Appalachia. I’ve heard most of these examples except lick thumbs, and there is something way back in my brain storage that I can’t quite access about it. It’s not the expression I’m remembering but the act of licking thumbs then touching them with another person to confirm an agreement.

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