My informant told me about two new expressions that I had never heard before: “scarcer than hensteeth” and “some days you get the chickens and some days you get the feathers.” She says her father still uses these phrases to this day, but they derive from the early 1900s. She has heard her father use them since she was really little, but her father said they were sayings his great-grandfather had said (my informant’s great-great grandfather) and it just “passed down the line.” Surprisingly, her great-great grandfather who was from Nebraska didn’t own a chicken farm, but instead a corn farm that apparently had a lot of chickens.
As told by her grandfather and father, the first expression – “scarcer than hensteeth” – was a Great Depression metaphor. She explained the meaning: “Obviously hen don’t have teeth, so if you have anything less than that you’re screwed. For example, if a conversation was like… ‘How’s the money going?’ And you respond, ‘Scarcer than hensteeth,’ it basically means you don’t have shit.” Oftentimes, she still uses the phrase “just to make a point.” She also said that even though the phrase is just shy than a century years old, people still understand the point she tries to make.
The second expression – “Some days you get the chickens and some days you get the feathers” – deals with a gambling type of situation, which could most definitely be directed toward situations like with farming. To take the phrase literally, it means that some days you go hungry, while other days you can have your fill. She related this saying to: “sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you.” Recently, though, she had a conversation with her father about the expression and a new outlook was presented. She said that she also noticed a more positive spin; that either day, it doesn’t matter if you got the chicken or the feathers, “you end up getting the filling for a pillow.” In other words, you make use of what you wind up with in the end.
These expressions have been such a part of my informant’s upbringing that she tries to integrate them into everyday conversation whenever she can. She is very in touch with her family history and in an effort to someday impart these historical familial idioms on to her children, she tries to maintain them in conversation. These sayings may have just been popular during the time period of her great-great grandfather, but the fact that she, her father, grandfather and great-grandfather have continually used them through their lives illustrates a vocal transaction that can survive generations. The fact that they have actively tried to preserve these expressions shows a type of folklore that can be limited to family.