Barn Language


Barn Language

My wife Michelle and I met during my last semester at St. Norbert College.  She was a sophomore.  We met in American Romantics class; it was the only class I ever had in college where the professor arranged the student seating in alphabetical order.  I was a “W-A”; she was a “W-E”.  It seemed to be destiny.

I commuted to classes from the westside of Green Bay, just a 15-minute drive from campus.   Michelle had a dorm room; her family’s dairy farm was about an hour north.  I remember well the first time that I drove up to her house to see her, as she had gone home for the Christmas break.

Since Green Bay wasn’t, and still isn’t, a large city, I never considered myself, a “city slicker”.  But, I did encounter some things that first day on the farm that confirmed that I wasn’t exactly a “country boy” either.  In the late afternoon Michelle announced that she needed to change clothes because it was time to “do chores”.  She went into her room and emerged shortly in blue jeans, a jean jacket and she had put her short hair into two little pigtails that stuck out from a red bandana kerchief.  I thought she looked adorable.

We headed down to the barn.  Her parents and two brothers were busy in the main barn area with the milking.  Michelle turned the opposite way, and said over her shoulder that she needed to “feed the calves”.  We turned a corner and came to a pen that held about a half-dozen calves of assorted sizes.  I watched from a step or two back; she looked like a Norman Rockwell All-American farmgirl painting.  Well, she did, right up to the point where she was trying to feed a bottle to a days-old calf, but one twice the size kept butting in.  She pushed him back.  She pushed him back harder.  She climbed in the pen and tried to get in-between them so that the little calf could get her nourishment.  Finally, obviously frustrated, she grabbed a five-gallon bucket that had some ice in the bottom.  She did a roundhouse swing with the bucket in front of the bigger calf and let go a loud, profanity-laced verbal assault that had the both the larger calf and me backing up a few steps.  Michelle noticed what must have been a look best described as shock on my face, shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly, and simply said, “barn language”.  She later explained that since they were teens, her parents allowed the children to express themselves, shall we say colorfully, while in the barn for the simple fact that lots of things go wrong, and what work doesn’t go wrong is still usually difficult and likely covered in manure. 

To this day, whenever I share that story with friends or family Michelle still shrugs nonchalantly and says, “You still married me.”  My reply to that comment is always, “I was afraid not to.”

Although I may not have been country, it wasn’t like I grew up in church.  My father literally could not utter an explicative-free sentence.  My mother made it clear to my brother Mike and I, the two youngest and still at-home children that my father’s colorful language came from his years of working at the paper mill.  Apparently, there is also something which must be known as “mill language”. 

I successfully avoided using any “mill language” until one evening at supper while on a camping trip to Boulder Lake – our usual camping destination.  The evening before I had been very successful in catching a nice mess of big bluegills while wading out to waste deep water and then casting even further out.  I was deep into my story of the evening’s biggest catch, when I explained it thusly: “I waded out a step or two deeper and let go a great cast.  It just sailed way in the Sam Hill out ther . . .”  I remember the shocked look on my parent’s faces.  I stopped without finishing the word.  I felt my ears get hot.  I didn’t look at Mike’s face, but I suspect he was smirking.  My mind began to race.  I had heard my father invoke Mr. Hill dozens of times a day for years.  I thought hard.  Did I just swear?  Who is Hill anyway?  Am I in trouble? 

The story of my big bluegill died as quickly as my reputation for being a “good boy”.  After a long and painful pause, the subject got changed.  I’m sure it was because my parents certainly knew that they couldn’t ask me where I had heard such a phrase.  I am also sure that from the shame that I knew was written on my face, and the embarrassment, that I had been duly punished. 

This essay was carefully researched prior to publication.  What I learned from Mr. Google is that Sam Hill is “an American slang euphemism for “the devil” of “hell” personified.  Wikipedia claims that “Sam Hill was a Michigan surveyor in the 1800’s who allegedly used such foul language that his name become a euphemism for swear words.” 

Alas, that enlightenment came too late for me, but perhaps not for you.  Let he who is without barn language cast the first cow chip”.     

His Peace <><

Deacon Dan

Photo by Roger Starnes Sr on Unsplash