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Library Happenings – Researching the origins of an unusual phrase

By Angie Georgeff

I tend to think of Valentine’s Day as the unofficial last day of winter. Although we still have another month of winter ahead of us, our thoughts have already turned to spring. Today several members of our staff are spending the day in Sevierville at the Summer Reading Conference getting ideas we can implement during June and July. Gardeners are already planning flower and vegetable beds and those who watch HGTV throughout the winter are itching to begin home improvement projects. My front porch needs some attention, so I am ready to start looking for paint swatches. Oddly enough, this conjures up a picture of my mother on an especially bad hair day.

When I was a little girl – many, many years ago – my mother would describe her appearance on bad hair days as looking “like a pet haint.” She never used the word “haint” in any other context and her own definition when I asked her was nebulous, to say the least. Consequently, I came to understand it as someone or something that was not looking its best.

Since Mama lived in Johnson City when she was young, and no other family, friends or neighbors ever used the phrase that I recall, I suspect my mother added “pet haint” to her vocabulary during a summer visit to her grandparents in Hawkins County. It must have tickled her fancy, since she employed it to describe her hair at its most unruly for the remainder of her life.

Only many years later did I learn that haint (think haunt) was another word for ghost, which coincidentally happens to be someone or something that is not looking its best. As I’m typing these paragraphs, the word is underlined with a telltale red squiggle. It is alerting me to check my spelling, so evidently I was not alone in my ignorance of the term. Either that, or perhaps there’s a mischief-minded haint haunting my computer. The library is said to harbor 36 ghosts, but I have never encountered one – even late at night.

Haint Blue

If you type “haint” into a search engine, you’re likely to come up with the definition and more than fifty shades of blue, but relatively few other results. “Haint blue” is the traditional color of Southern porch ceilings, particularly those in the South Carolina Low Country. The blue ceilings, door frames and window sills found there were said to ward off stinging insects as well as evil spirits. 

Now that I come to think of it, I have never had a problem with bees or wasps on my front porch, which does have a blue ceiling. Nor have I seen a ghost, so I can’t say that it doesn’t work.  While I may alter the shade, I think I’ll leave my porch ceiling blue. I really don’t want my own pet haint.