Mountain Talk: “Meaner Than a Striped Snake”

Photo: Coal miner's child in grade school. Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky. Sept. 1946
Photo: Coal miner’s child in grade school. Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky. Sept. 1946

I was a seven-year-old boy, living in a singlewide trailer on a 300-acre black angus farm in the middle of absolute nowhere, Virginia. Looking back, it makes me laugh as I recall how many new school years began with one of my broken appendages carefully sealed by a protective cast — a testament to the fact that the summers of my childhood were lived. Truly lived, in a manner that few kids now days are lucky enough to know.

Whether I was harassing my sister, chasing an overgrown cow through the front yard or repeating one of the four-letter words I had heard the men use while working in the barn or hayfield, my mountain granny seemed to find herself uttering a single expression that near perfectly summed up the childish version of me, “Boy, you’re meaner than a striped snaked.”

In order to fully appreciate what she said, you’d have to hear it as she said it: Not the boring, one syllable “striped”, but she would draw the word out into two distinct and very plain syllables — “stripe-ed snake” with a major emphasis being placed on the “ed” part of stripe-ed snake!

Though I have since learned how important snakes are to our ecosystem and come to appreciate their beauty… at least from a distance, back in those days there was nothing more terrifying on the farm than coming across a snake — and naturally, a “stripe-ed snake” was even the more frightening.

I grew up hearing this phrase not only from my granny, but on rare occasions from the grandmothers of my classmates who were also blessed to have boys as rotten as garter snakes as well as from some of the older teachers.

It was not until I briefly moved away for a few years that I came to realize that not every American community understands this saying or repeats it.  The first time I found myself using this term while in the Southwest Desert it was met with blank stares and confusion.

If you’ve never heard of this expression, it’s probably safe to say that you didn’t grow up in Central Appalachia and you have certainly missed out on an awesome expression — so here are two tips on when and how to use it:

1.) Pronunciation is everything — If you don’t say “stripe-ed” snake, don’t waste your time trying… the two syllables really gives this saying its Appalachian power!

2.) Context is everything — Hitler and Joseph Stalin were not “meaner than stripe-ed snakes”, they were just pure evil.  This term is actually one of endearment often used for mischievous children who are “a handful” but still loveable.

So here’s to the sons and daughters of the mountains and American Southland who grew up tough as a pine knot and meaner than a stripe-ed snake… the world, in my opinion, is a lot better off with you in it!

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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