The Old Paths: Getting too big for our britches

By Leslie Bray Brewer - Special to The Stokes News

The other day, my friend mentioned that kids these days don’t know what “britches” are. “Surely not!” I exclaimed, before asking my younger children if they knew the term. They did not.

I mean—c’mon….surely every kid has seen Disney’s “Robin Hood” in which the overweight Sheriff of Nottingham is referred to as “Bushel Britches.” No?

When I realized my younger children—ages 11-19—had never seen that movie, I required them to watch it. I was sure they would love it as much as their adult siblings had back in the day. Instead, they found it slow-paced and rather boring. This told me volumes about how much times have changed in just the last 20 years in this sped-up, technology-laden, special-effects world we now live in.

So I “put on my big-girl britches” and yielded to the sad fact that the changing times have even altered our conception of good entertainment. Be that as it may, everyone should still know what britches are. And it’s not just some hick word we “backward” Southerners made up. Although the word itself does go back a long way, we are not backward as in ignorant. I prefer to think we simply choose to walk the old paths a bit longer than other regions of our fine nation.

You see, britches comes from the old English word “breeches” which simply means “trousers.” As we lost our British accent in this country, the long “e” sound morphed into more of a short “i” sound. Many of these old-time words survived longer in remote areas of the South—especially in the secluded Appalachian Mountains region.

However, modern media and our intimately-connected world is quickly standardizing our language. So while most Southerners now refer to these garments as “pants,” there are fewer of us who still call them “britches.”

And as for standardizing the way we talk, you know by now that I don’t cotton to that. There’s another good Southern phrase—“cotton to.” But its roots are not in the South. Instead, it originated in England in the 16th century. The British were importing cotton from their colonies in India and using it to become the world’s leading textile exporter. A main goal was to insure the fibers of cotton successfully blended to form cotton cloth—that they “cottoned well.”

By the 1600’s, “to cotton well” or “to cotton” soon came to mean “to be successful.” In the 1800’s—even in the Americas—the phrase “to cotton to” had developed, meaning “to be drawn to” or “to get along with.” The term became very common in the southern U.S. since cotton was a leading industry down here for a long time.

I have a hankering to understand these old phrases. And so we have another word used in Southern vernacular which has European roots—“hankering.” It is thought that it was first used in about 1600. Some think its origin is Flemish (from Flanders—the northern part of Belgium)—from “hankeren”—which was related to the Dutch “hunkeren” which could’ve been kin to the Middle Dutch “hangen” which meant “to hang.” The idea is one of hanging around or lingering, due to intense longing or craving.

I guess it is true that when I had a hankering for something sweet this past weekend, I tended to hang around the Halloween candy the hubster bought for half-price on Nov. 1. And this past weekend, I lingered perhaps too long around the fudge chocolate cake I baked from scratch ‘cause I had a hankering for it.

(Even now there are a few pieces of that cake left on the kitchen table, tempting me to gluttony as I mosey on by. It’s my own fault for baking it. I’m always getting my britches caught on my own pitchfork!)

Now there’s a mysterious word—“mosey.” No one really knows where it came from. It was found in use in the 1820’s in the U.S., but some sources suggest it has British roots. The British word “mossy,” which was used long ago to describe someone who was a bit slowed down due to too much strong drink, was sometimes spelled “mosy.” Perhaps that’s where we get the word “mosey” to mean walking slowly along in a leisurely manner.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite of “lickety-split,” another interesting idiom we often use (well, some of us anyway) to mean “very rapidly.” The word “lickety” comes from the Scottish word “lick” which meant “quick.” Some scholars think this comes from using a whip to give animals a “lick” to go faster.

A Scottish gentleman used the term “lickitie” in an 1817 poem to mean “quickly.” The “split” was probably added once the word immigrated to the U.S. where it was used in print in the mid-1800’s. Something that was split was cut in half, hence the meaning of being quicker. You can see this illustrated in the phrase “split second,” as used to mean “a tiny unit of time split in half” so as to be even quicker than a second.

With this context, in the 1950’s, “split” evolved into a verb for “leaving a place quickly.” It gained popularity in the 1960’s with the younger generation. “C’mon, man—nothing’s happening here. Let’s split.”

In the spirit of the ’60’s, I guess it’s time I “split” and get on with some things that need doing around the house—perhaps sorting socks or sewing up holes in my son’s pants. As Sheriff Andy Taylor once said, “That boy goes through britches like he’s wearin’ sandpaper underwear.”

Yep, in Mayberry even little Opie knew what “britches” were. That’s what you put on before you took a notion to mosey on down to the store when you had a hankerin’ for a bottle of pop. Then you drank it up lickety-split before you went over to Thelma Lou’s to look at the TV—emphasis on the “T.”

I know, I know—this isn’t Mayberry. We drink soft drinks and watch TV—emphasis on the “V.” With all our newfangled ways, I just hope we’re not getting too big for our britches.

Leslie Bray Brewer can be emailed at Her blog is at

By Leslie Bray Brewer

Special to The Stokes News

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