What’s the Scuttlebutt? Meanings of Old-Timey Sayings We Still Use Today

(Part 1 in a series about Old-Timey sayings)

My Grandparents owned and lived on a working dairy farm outside of Wooster, Ohio. My brothers and I loved to visit as summer days at Grandma’s always meant playing in the hayloft and chasing after the barn cats who lurked around the milk room until someone put out a pan of milk for them.

Grandma was a short, sturdy woman, jolly even. I knew she’d once been Amish, or so the story went but, though she was full of amusing anecdotes and always quick with some pearl of wisdom to light heartedly scold my brothers and I, that was one story she never would fully tell.

I loved her sayings though. They were, as far as I was concerned (at least back then) far better than any that came from my Mother.

Mad as a hatter.

One of my favorites was mad as a hatter. Nine year old me had absolutely no idea what a hatter was. I was a big fan of Alice in Wonderland, though, so I thought it must have something to do with the goofy men you might meet in the forest and have tea with.

Of course, what mad as a hatter actually refers to is the effects of mercury poisoning, one of which is insanity. Mercury was used in the manufacture of felt hats and hatters, or milliners, often ended up suffering from excessive exposure to it.

Dressed to the nines.

Grandma loved the phrase dressed to the nines. I don’t know what got into Lois, she’d say, but there she was, dressed to the nines at the church picnic, causing all sorts of hubbabaloo. Or, Mrs. Meriweather was always dressed to the nines, even when she went to the grocery store. I ran into her once in the produce aisle and she was wearing a hat and white gloves and everything!

Custom men’s suits took nine yards of fabric to make and were much more expensive than a suit that might not have matching pants or a vest. Dressing to the nines means looking like you purchased the best, the suit that took a full nine yards to make.

Which segues into the related expression of the whole nine yards.

The whole nine yards.

There are two explanations for this one. Some people say it refers to that fancy suit that took nine yards of matching fabric to make and implies a person went all out. Other historians say that it means to try one’s best as in going the whole nine yards. WWII pilots were given a nine-yard chain of ammunition so, when a pilot used all of it, he gave the whole nine yards.

Don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes.

Grandma was overly concerned with people pulling the wool over our eyes. She cautioned against it at most every opportunity, especially once I was older and navigating the social mine fields of high school and college, steady boyfriends, and first jobs.

Apparently, back in the day when rich bigwigs still wore, well, big wigs, street thugs would pull the wig (or wool) down over their victim’s eyes to confuse him.

Mind your Ps and Qs.

My brothers and I were always being told to mind our Ps and Qs, especially when we were out in public or going to a party or other social event. I thought it had something to do with eating all your vegetables as I took Ps to mean peas.

What it really refers to is to keep track of how many pints and quarts you’ve consumed at the tavern so you didn’t end up drunk in a bar fight or jail.

I’m pretty certain Grandma didn’t know the true origin of that one.

Let the cat out of the bag.

When it came to presents or news of some exciting excursion she was going to take us on, my Grandma never could keep a secret. “I can’t help it,” she’d say, “I’ve got to let the cat out of the bag.”

We always knew that what was coming next was going to be something cool like going to the state fair to ride a roller coaster or into town for ice cream, or a new box of LEGOS that she’d been unable to resist buying.

Dishonest farmers used to put a cat or some other such animal in a tied bag in an attempt to sell and pass it off as a young pig. Keeping the cat in the bag meant keeping the the buyer in the dark.

Cat got your tongue.

Grandma said this one a lot, usually directed at me when she asked me where or what my older brother was up to and I didn’t want to say because I wasn’t, under any circumstances, a tattletale.

This is another one that historians say has two possible sources, both of them with a pretty high ew factor. The first is that it refers to a whip used by the English navy called a cat-o-nine-tails. Victims of the whip were left speechless because of the pain.

The second refers to cutting out the tongues of liars and blasphemers and feeding them to cats, something that was apparently done in days of yore.


Grandma always wanted to know the scuttlebutt or, if she already knew it, she was always willing to share it.

So, she’d say, the scuttlebutt is…

A scuttlebutt was similar to a water fountain and was where a ship’s crew would get their drinking water. Sailors would gather around the scuttlebutt to hear the latest gossip, just like offices employees today who convene around the water cooler and swap stories.

Grandma is in her nineties now and lives in a wonderful assisted living home. The nurses tell me she’s always asking everyone for the scuttlebutt and that’s she’s known as the person who knows things.

Whenever I call or show up for a visit, the first thing out of her mouth is, “So Dearie, tell me, what’s the scuttlebutt.”