Who was Cooter Brown? The history behind Southern phrases

October 29, 20110 Comments

Where did “He was drunker than Cooter Brown come from?”

Cooter Brown is a name used in metaphors and similes for drunkenness, mostly in the southern United States. Cooter Brown supposedly lived on the line which divided the North and South during the American Civil War, making him eligible for military draft by either side. He had family on both sides of the line, so he did not want to fight in the war. He decided to get drunk and stay drunk for the duration of the war so that he would be seen as useless for military purposes and would not be drafted. Ever since, colloquial and proverbial ratings of drunkenness have been benchmarked against the legendary drinker: “as drunk as Cooter Brown” or “drunker than Cooter Brown.”

However, this report lacks authentication. A more authoritative source offers the following:

It has not been determined whether or not Cooter Brown was a historical person.

<strong>Deader than Kelsey’s Nuts</strong>

I’m told it’s an expression that former  US President Richard Nixon was rather fond of using. Like other  Americans before and since, he meant by it that something was  unquestionably and permanently defunct. You might hear somebody say “The  battery’s deader than Kelsey’s nuts”, or “His chances of surviving the  election are deader than Kelsey’s nuts”.

That takes care of the meaning, but who or what was Kelsey and what was  so special about those nuts? He turns out to have been a real person,  John Kelsey, one of the pioneers of car manufacture in the USA. With the  encouragement of Henry Ford, he set up the Kelsey Wheel Company in  1910. By 1913 this was based in Windsor, Ontario, just across the river  from Detroit. To start with, he manufactured the wooden wheels that were  then state of the art, but later moved into making wire-spoke wheels  and later steel wheels. As Kelsey-Hayes Canada Ltd, the company still  exists.

The saying refers to the proverbially secure attachment provided by the  nuts and bolts on the wheels that Kelsey’s company made. In the view of  the public, nothing could be fixed more tightly. And the obvious  anatomical innuendoes in those nuts made the saying just a little  naughty. Though some examples are recorded from the 1930s, the phrase  began to become more widely known in the 1950s. Early on, it appeared as  “tighter than Kelsey’s nuts” to mean a person who was stingy or mean,  and is also recorded in the form “as safe as Kelsey’s nuts”, meaning  very safe.

By the early 1960s, it had evolved away from these fairly obvious  formations to the imaginative and metaphorical phrase still used today.  It would appear to have been a close parallel to — perhaps borrowed from  — the much older <a href=”http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-dea1.htm”><em>as dead as a doornail</em>.</a>

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