My great-grandmother was pure Appalachian. She smoked filterless Lucky Strike cigarettes, could cook better than anyone, had a downhome remedy for just about anything and somehow managed to raise five kids on a coal miner’s wages.
However, it wasn’t her propensity to light up those Lucky Strikes in the church foyer on her way out the door each Sunday morning that garnered her the most attention among outsiders; it was her use of a phrase seldom heard today, “by God.”
To be clear, my mother, a God-fearing Baptist woman, never allowed my sister or me to use this phrase, citing Exodus 20.7, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.”
But “Mamaw”, as we affectionately called my dad’s grandmother, saw nothing wrong with this most West Virginian of phrases.
“By God, it’s dinner time…”
“By God, I was sick…”
Even, “By God, that was a good church service…” were all terms I have heard this long-gone woman state.
Apparently, my grandmother wasn’t alone in her use of this term. I once heard a story of a West Virginian who had moved to Georgia in hopes of finding better employment.
Instead, he only found himself in scores of conversations that went much like the following:
“Where are you from?”
“Charleston, West Virginia,” he would reply.
“Oh really! That’s cool, because I have family who live in Virginia Beach and Richmond.”
Becoming frustrated by the reality that so many people did not even realize West Virginia and Virginia have been divorced since the days of the American Civil War, he eventually cracked. “Not Virginia, I’m from WEST, by God, Virginia!”
The saying stuck and the Mountain State has forever been known by this unofficial title.
But what does this phrase mean?
As you well know, the people of Appalachia are known for having emphatic and very colorful speech and this particular term is no different.
The term “By God” actually has two meanings: First, it means that it is the will, or desire, of God. Thus, West “by God” Virginia, means that West Virginia was and is the will of God.
Secondly, the phrase also is an oath to emphasize the veracity of an associated statement, “I swear by God that…”
Though I still can’t bring myself to use the term personally, thanks to my mother’s preaching throughout all of my childhood, each time I hear the phrase, I immediately find myself in the living room of my great-grandmother’s house in yesteryear, Appalachia.
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