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What is a whirling dervish, anyway?

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Recently while listening to a conversation between some people in a restaurant I overheard someone use the term “whirling dervish.”

Boy, that’s one I had not heard in a mighty long time, probably when I was about 10 years old and was called a whirling dervish by my mother.

She probably called me that hundreds of times, and I don’t remember ever hearing anyone else except her use the term.

Although I never actually knew the meaning of whirling dervish, nor did I much care, the curiosity factor kicked in after hearing it this time. I decided it was a good excuse to look it up, yet in doing so, I probably learned more than I needed to know.

I found that the dance of the whirling dervishes, also known as the sema, originated in the 13th century near Turkey. It was performed by semazens (whirlers) who belong to the Mevlevi sect of the Sufi. Sufism is the Islamic practice of attempting to achieve divine knowledge and love though a personal relationship with God. It is said that the classification of Sufi comes from the wool cloaks they wore since in Arabic “suf” means wool, but of course, everyone knows that.

“The dance is sometimes interpreted as everything spinning around the sun, but most commonly is thought of as a re-enactment of death and resurrection.” I realized by this point I had likely bitten off more than I could chew.

Still, reading further, I learned that according to the online Urban Dictionary, an informal resource for slang, a whirling dervish today is a “person whose behavior resembles a rapid, spinning object. These actions are often spastic fidgeting and incessant babbling and are irritating and annoying, often exhausting other people in the immediate vicinity.”

Maybe that describes in a nutshell what I must have been like in my mother’s eyes. The big question coming out of this entire matter was how in the world my mother came up with such a term as whirling dervish.

My mother also had many other phrases she used often, some borrowed and some of her own design. They are listed below and hopefully you will find them familiar as things your elders may also have said:

• “Just like a broken record”

• “For crying out loud”

• “Hold your horses”

• “Pitch a fit”

• “Well, I started to say,” etc. Anytime someone told her anything she would say this, as if the idea or thought also belonged to her.

• “Running around like a chicken with its head cut off” and “Like a bull in a china shop,” both of which are vaguely familiar to whirling dervish.

• “If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that,” etc.

• “If it had been a snake it would have bit you”

• “Mean as a snake”

• My mother usually described foods of substance like meats, potatoes, casseroles, etc. as “stick-to-your-ribs food.”

• “Old as Methuselah” (The biblical figure reputed to have lived to be 969 years old).

• “I’m so hungry I could eat a raw dog running.”

• “I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket”

• “Fair to middlin. ” While my mother did use this term occasionally, it more often came more from my daddy

• “Scared the living daylights out of me” or, even better, “I’m going to beat the living daylights out of you if you do that again.”

• “Tight as Dick’s hatband” was another of those terms I never got around to researching fully and still do not know its actual meaning.

• “Mad as fire, “hot as fire,” “hot as blue blazes,” “about to bust a gut,” “full as a tick, “tight as a tick,” “slow as Christmas” and “slow as molasses”and “sick as a dog.”

So as not to cheat my grandmother, I am also listing some things she used to say such as “Come sit with me a spell,” “I’ll be there directly,” “Well, I declare,” or, for extra emphasis “I do declare,” “Gimme some sugar” and “What in tarnation are you doing?”

Another of my mother’s favorite terms used to describe cold weather was “cold as a well-digger’s tail in Iowa,” always one of my favorites. I’ve never heard this one used on the Weather Channel, although it would be great to hear Jim Cantore use it just one time.

Keith Barnes is a reporter and columnist for the Johnstonian News. Email him at