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
    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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