I am wanting to get back into examining “Southernisms” again, Southern sayings and aspects of Southern culture that in their own quirky way reveal both the beauty and heartache at the heart of southern culture. To that end, I’m re-sharing an old Southernism post about one of my favorite topics — adorable kids.
Do you have any time-worn Southern phrases or practices you’d like me to tackle? If so, let me know.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
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Southernisms: Knee High to a Grasshopper
We regularly do a hashtag game centered around a southernism. A southernism is either a southern phrase or a cultural tradition in the south. We invite people to think of an example of that phrase, practice, or institution connected to our weekly theme and write it out with a hashtag attached to it.
Our most recent Southernism is “knee-high to a grasshopper”, a description often used to describe little children. Many a time I remember seeing an aunt or uncle, or family friend who I could not remember tell stories about me as a wee thing, saying, “I ain’t seen you since you was knee-high to a grasshopper”.
According to http://www.allaboutstuff.com/Critters/Knee_High_to_a_Grasshopper.asp this phrase is at least 200 years old, since we find a form of it in print that long ago. My guess is forms of this phrase existed long before then, and that is just the first time it was in print. “Knee high to a grasshopper” is the latest form of a Southern colloquialism using animal height as a measure of height or growth. The earliest such descriptor in print is found in 1814: “ knee-high to a toad” Later on we see references to other forms of this phrase in print, such as “knee-high to a mosquito” and even briefly “knee-high to a duck”. There are around 120, 000 varieties of grasshoppers according to this source, and to be knee-high to one would involve being between one millimeter to one inch high depending on the variety of the grasshopper.
Website http://makingheadsortailsofidioms.com/2012/02/07/knee-high-to-a-grasshopper/ adds the phrases “knee high to a splinter”, “knee high to a bumblebee”, and “knee high to a jack rabbit” to the list of ancestors to our modern southernism “knee high to a grasshopper”. The first reference directly to “knee high to a grasshopper” in print was in the Democratic Review in 1851 where we read, “You pretend to be my daddies; some of you who are not knee-high to a grasshopper!”
This source defines “knee high to be a grasshopper” as meaning either 1) to be very young or 2) to be very short. Two example phrases are given:
1) Back when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I used to play hopscotch.
2) You will need a ladder… you are just about knee-high to a grasshopper!
We began this hashtag game a little after school started and at Sunday School and Confirmation classes for the year began at the church Kat and I attend. I asked my readers to share stories of insights and humorous adventures of the little ones in their lives.
Here are some of the stories you shared:
“So my nephew has a tablet he uses to color. One day he asked me what sort of tablet I used when I was his age. He looks puzzled when I show him crayons and an etch-a-sketch.”
Rev. Beth Abbot tells of the following: ‘When we were in Ohio, my grandson explained why they’d come to watch Dave rappel down the Key Bank Tower for Big Brother / Big Sisters of Dayton: “We wanted to be here with you Nana in case Pop Pop goes splat.”
“We were watching my nephew and walking the dog while hiking in the woods. The dog had to do his business. I don’t know why, but the dog looked shocked at the tree he’d done his business at. My nephew turns to him and says ‘it’s ok, puppy, everybody’s got to pee sometime”. My wife and I died laughing”.
“While watching my three year old nephew, he got a blue balloon from my landlady. He played happily with it for 45 minutes until it popped loudly. I was worried he’d be sad. ‘You ok buddy?’ ‘Yeah uncle Mike. Balloons pop. It’s what they do!’ If only we could always ‘let go’ like that.”
Another reader writes: “My son rarely lies to me about anything. He’s autistic and lying is difficult for him. When, on the occasion he does lie to me, I tell him the lie broke my heart. Logan will then come up to me and rub his cheek on me. He calls it ‘snuggling.’ It’s for mending broken hearts. He always asks ‘does that fix your heart Momma?’ Yeah…. I have to say I’m a sucker…. totally mends broken hearts.”
“My 3 yr old daughter loves to make me laugh. She always tells me , ‘laugh Mama cause it’s funny.’ (Even when it’s not.). It reminds me to just laugh. It makes everything better.”
These cute stories about our kids, as well as the continued use of phrases like “knee high to a grasshopper” to speak of them is all a sign of our long-held love of our children here in the south. I cannot think about the way in which southern folks really do act as if it takes a village to raise a child without also thinking about this country music song, which depicts the way our kids look to us:
I think a part of why we love kids so much is because of seeing how their life calls us to rediscover something within ourselves. Deep in our hearts we long for the mindset of a child, to see the world again with their eyes. This longing to me is in part a voice calling us to never lose the mind of a child. I am reminded of some words from a sermon I gave a year ago to a little church in Fayetteville, NC, about Jesus’s call for us to be born again:
“Jesus’ urging to be born again is another way of Jesus saying what he did in Matthew 18:2-3 – ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’
“Two Christian teachers have hinted to me what this means: G. K. Chesterton & Martin Luther King. Chesterton writes that ‘Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.’
“Early Christians remembered the apostle Thomas telling us that Christ’s glory and plan is hiding in plain sight, when he said, “Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” (The Gospel According to Thomas, Saying 77)
“In a way what the Gospel of Thomas invites us to rediscover is what Chesterton is saying children already have. They really see their lives. They really see what is right in front of them. And so they are filled with wonder. If you’ve ever seen a child play, you know what I mean. The simple, everyday aspects of our lives that we overlook are what these dear little ones focus on with joy and wonder.
“Similarly, Martin Luther King, in his speeches would tell of how growing up had friends, white boys he would play with, who as little children saw him as no different than them. Then they got older. They were brought to school. And then and there, they learned they could not play with people of a different skin color. They had to be taught prejudice. It was not there form the start.
“Life teaches us to close our eyes to the wonder and mystery around us – where we can see, hear, and feel God speaking even in a little piece of wood, a stone, a sunset, each other. Life teaches us to see difference – color, gender, sexuality, height, weight, gifts, disabilities – as something to fear and hate for. Life teaches us to see our own worth to others and God based on being good enough, doing enough, fitting a particular mold. We do not enter life like this. And to see God’s plan, we need eye transplants. We need to see life again, with wonder. See others again, as beautiful just as God made them. And to see ourselves as precious loved, forgiven children of God.”
Not only does our love of children call us to recapture childlike wonder and childlike lack of prejudice, I think spending time thinking about our little ones who are knee high to grasshoppers invites us to think about who much we truly care about children.
Earlier this year, a study was released about findings of how our children are faring. I’d recommend a look at it, here http://neatoday.org/2014/08/19/how-are-children-faring-in-america-the-good-and-bad-news/
One really discouraging reality is that despite the many ways we in the south like to talk up our love of those knee high to the grasshoppers, we are not doing near as much as we can to care for them.
The biggest concerns on my mind right now, since though I am white, I have extended family with little ones who are people of color including both cousins and a nephew, is how we are treating our children of color. This year in Ferguson, we saw a repeat of the Trayvon Martin incident from a few years ago. Yet again we see as a society how little we are valuing the lives of children of color. We need to remember whatever our skin color, a society in which children have to fear for their lives, not just from criminals, but from vigilantes and now the police, is not a society that is yet valuing its ones that are knee high to grasshoppers.
Likewise, in my own state of North Carolina, as southern preachers like Rev. Dr. William Barber and my own pastors Rev. Dr Jill Edens and Rev. Richard Edens have been saying in the Moral Monday movement, our legislators are laying our children on the altar sacrificially in the ways in which they are cutting programs that uplift poor children and children from struggling families.
Further, I cannot help but think of my wife Rev. Katharine Royal’s work with Operation Bullyhorn, which works with children who are encountering bullying, and my friends Reverends Becca Cranford-Smith and Terry Smith, who work with homeless youth. In both the case of bullied youth, some of whom are suicidal, and homeless youth, a disproportionate number of those youth are GLBT youth in the south who after being ostracized for who they are by their parents, family, and church.
The scandal of we southerners who claim we love our children doing this, let alone we southern Christians, many of whom talk about the sanctity of life, not being there for our children as we should is beautifully described by Catholic nun, sister Joan Chittister:
“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”
Her words are yet another way of stating the challenge that my namesake, the prophet Micah of Israel, gave when he confronted the ways Israel in the name of God was sacrificing their children to God:
“With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn child for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
They have shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6).
God does not want us offering our children on the altar of a chopping block, whether because of political expediency or because of our beliefs about what is or is not an abomination. No, God wants us to embrace the need our children’s voices as a call to a deeper commitment to justice, as is so beautifully pictured by this 80’s rock song:
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie!
Your Progressive Redneck Preacher,