Let's talk about kits, kettles and Coastisms

July 12, 2014 


A kit of fish, not a kettle of fish?

Well, maybe both.

"Let us put you up a kit of mullet roe and salt mullet for winter," the Campeche Fish Company of Gulfport advertised in this newspaper in 1914.

The ad caught my eye because of the word "kit."

I suspected I knew what it meant but I pulled out some reference books.

The once British word surfaced in the 14th century as the name of a small wooden tub or bucket for holding fish.

The three-­letter word eventually made it to the Mississippi Coast, which adapted it to the local seafood vernacular, thus its use in the 100-­year-­old advertisement.

I can also hear my mother humming the words from the old World War I marching song that became re­popularized in her World War II era:

"Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag,

"And smile, smile, smile ..."

By the early war years of the 20th century, the word "kit" had a commonplace use that had nothing to do with fish, at least in non­coastal regions. Kit became a haversack, grip, traveling bag or something to carry things.

A similar change has occurred with "kettle of fish," which has an original meaning similar to kit.

But in modern times, a kettle of fish has moved from being a container of finned critters to, in urban lingo, an expression to indicate an awkward, difficult, or bad situation, or a muddled mess.

"Oh, that's a fine kettle of fish" does not mean a nice catch of flounder.

All this is to segue into my request to the word­wise denizens of the Mississippi Coast.

Each region has a unique way with words, or colloquialisms, and I hope you will submit a word or phrase likely only heard in our region. Let's call it a Coastism.

One of my favorite Coastisms is "mess of shrimp," which I never heard until moving here as a kid. "Mess" indicates a lot of food and a style of eating that doesn't necessarily include a proper knife and fork. If you are invited over by a neighbor for a mess of shrimp, crabs, crawfish or fish, expect newspapers spread on the table with a heap of seafood in the center.

So what is your favorite Coastism?

The shrimp boat captain I crewed for during the summers of high school and college had an expression that I occasionally use, "fine as kind." The first time I heard it, I didn't have to ask what it meant because, at least to me, it was self-explanatory. As the morning sun was rising, Captain H.R. would look out over the water and declare, "It's fine as kind out there." Anyone who asked how he was doing, his pat answer was, "I'm fine as kind."

Research on this expression uncovers a variation, "finest kind," used in the same way and with the same meaning, such as "I've never been better" or "I can't complain" or "Good enough!" I can't declare "fine as kind" a Coastism, but I've not yet heard it elsewhere. "Mess" is a definite candidate.

Our brains are a muddle of wonderful words that dance and mix and make language worth contemplating. So this is your assignment, should you accept the challenge: Snail mail or email me a Coastism candidate and explain its use. It can be a single word or an expression.

I'll compile them for one of these Sunday missives, adding a few that you've already sent in recent months. Together, I suspect, we can make a fine kit of Coastisms.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald and writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535­-4567.

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