Sunday, September 26, 2010

That Old Grey Mare...

My aunt kindly lent me letters to scan that she received from her grandmother (Cornelia AKINS MIX SIMPSON).

There were 13 letters in total and they spanned the years from 1959 to 1974.

My great-grandmother was born in 1887 so that would have her age at the first letter 72, and 87 for the last one. Sadly, even after all these years of figuring out ages, I still, STILL have to use a calculator for that kind of stuff! I'm hopeless!

Anyway, I am a great fan of language, I love knowing the history of words, how slang has evolved, stuff like that. So I especially enjoyed looking at the language in the letters to see what were natural phrases for my great-grandmother to use.

So, when looking at Cornelia's language, I have to keep in mind that she would have been in school in the late 1890s, but no college. However, she did have amateur nursing experience due to a job. She grew up and lived in the Finger Lake region of New York state, mainly in the surrounding areas of these towns: Ithaca, Valois, Burdett and Sodus Point. Her relatives were mainly in agricultural pursuits (farmers, blacksmiths, etc.).

One thing I noticed in many of her letters was that when closing her letters she often wrote something like:

Well, I'm going to ring off now.

This actually 'sounds' British to me but seems to be an outdated American phrase as well for hanging up the phone. I did find this out there on the interwebs:

Another phrase I noticed is that when mocking her age at one point, she referred to the fact that:

I guess the old grey mare hain't what she used to be

The "hain't" is exactly as she wrote it and apparently was used by some as an interchangeable word for "ain't".

See this entry:

Finally, I thought you might like to hear the song that the phrase came from. When I went to listen to it, I realized I knew the melody quite well because it was used in many of the old cartoons that I grew up watching - seems to me it was more likely to turn up in the cartoons from the 30s.



  1. We were always taught in school that 'ain't' was improper language and to never use it...the use of the word 'hain't' was probably a way to get around that rule. I never heard it before but I can just see kids doing that.

  2. Truly enjoyed the Old Grey Mare tune! Great story, reminds me to get out my great grandmother's letters and re-read them and see what phrases were unique to her!

  3. As I was reading your post and read "The Old Grey Mare," the tune instantly popped into my head. lol