alabaster Originally, alabaster was a marble used by craftsmen to create beautifully lustered statues; today, alabaster is a granular form of the mineral gypsum, a colorless, white, or yellow mineral. White alabaster is the most highly prized.
bayonet fixed A bayonet is a weapon resembling a short sword or dagger that is attached to the muzzle of a rifle. Shadrack's bayonet is "fixed" — attached to the end of his gun and held forward, ready to stab or thrust into the enemy. During World War I, the U.S. Army used bayonets with 16-inch blades, sharpened along the full-length of the leading edge and along most of the back.
bent spoon black from steady cooking Plum is addicted to heroin; he buys it in solid form and places it on a spoon, which he then puts over a fire in order to melt it into a liquid. Because addicts are usually too shaky to hold the spoon with a pair of pliers until the heroin is liquid and ready for injection, they bend back the spoon handle like a Christmas tree ornament hook and then slip it over the side of a pan in order to keep the spoon steady.
Bert Williams In the late 1800s, Williams was a popular black comedian on the vaudeville circuit; he was the first black entertainer to become a major Broadway attraction.
Bessie Smith (d. 1937) An American singer famous for her jazz and blues singing in the 1920s, she was known as the Empress of the Blues.
bid whist a card game similar to bridge.
big Daughter Elk an important member of the ladies' auxiliary of the Elks, a men's fraternal order.
Big Mamma a southern term for "grandmother."
a bit of a cakewalk, a bit of black bottom, a bit of "messing around" The cakewalk and the black bottom are names of lively dances; messing around is a euphemism for flirting and touching.
Black Draught (pronounced "draft") a heavy salt concoction sold to poor people, who mixed it with molasses and used it as a tonic and laxative.
bottles of milk At that time, milk was delivered to homes in bottles with paper lids and left on doorsteps. Ajax steals the bottles of milk that he gives to Sula from a white family's doorstep.
bottom land The most desirable land that a person can own, true bottom land is rich and fertile and characterized by its dark, loamy texture. In the novel, years of rain and erosion have slowly washed the valuable top soil down from the surrounding hills to the true "bottom," or valley, and created this so-called bottom land, yielding far better crops than what people harvest on the nutrient-poor, hard-to-cultivate soil up in the hills.
Camels wrappers Camels was a popular brand of cigarettes in this era and one of the few brands available.
cane liquor home-brewed liquor made from sugar cane; possibly the cane was barged upriver as a trade item.
catarrh inflammation of the mucous membranes, especially of the nose or throat.
a cat's-head stickpin In southern culinary slang, a cat's-head is a big lumpy biscuit, so BoyBoy's stickpin would probably be large and ostentatious, in bad taste.
chamois a soft leather made from the hide of the chamois, a goat-like antelope native to Europe's mountainous regions.
citified straw hat The reference is to a straw hat worn for purely decorative reasons. Eva might have been able to forgive BoyBoy for having left her with three children to support, but his overly pompous return as a pretentious, quasi-sophisticated "citified" person makes her finally feel inferior enough to be able to hate him thoroughly.
Clabber Girl Baking Powder 1930s baking product with a picture of a white girl with blonde hair on the package.
The closed place in the water spread before them. Morrison uses this phrase repeatedly to refer to death; the phrase recalls Chicken Little's drowning in the river: "The water darkened and closed quickly over the place where Chicken Little sank."
Colored Only This chapter underscores the South's strict adherence to the laws of segregation. When Helene breaks one of these laws by walking through the Whites Only car of the train, she is sternly reprimanded and could have been arrested had she not apologized profusely and flashed a blindly subservient smile.
the colored ward of the hospital Because of strict segregation laws at the time, black patients were separated from white patients in all areas of the hospital, including the emergency room, regardless of the severity of a patient's injuries.
Come, chere Come here, darling.
Comment t'appelle? What's your name?
conjure woman one who deals in the "spirit" world, or the occult, and works with roots to render spells.
copperhead a poisonous North American snake with a reddish-brown body and darker crossbands on its body.
the Courier The reference is to the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most widely circulated black newspapers at that time.
creole In New Orleans, many of the residents are Creole — that is, of mixed black, French and Spanish, and Portuguese ancestry; the Creole language contains a blend of multilingual phrases.
custard custard-colored; a mulatto color. It also means something soft and insubstantial, not firm.
dip-down walk a swagger-like gait, lifting the heels high and rocking for a split second on the balls of the feet before taking the next step; the walk was created by young black males in order to appear sexy and attractive to young women.
direc'lin directly, or right away.
dolesome sorrowful; filled with grief.
dropsy refers to the modern-day medical term "edema," which is the accumulation of water in the body's tissues or in the body cavity, giving the body a sagging look.
During the war Here, the reference is to World War II (1941–1945).
earthen slop jar a large-mouthed, enameled container used indoors at night as a toilet.
folded leaves The reference is to the leaves that Helene has to use instead of toilet paper.
foxtails a stole made of several fox tails linked together.
gabardines trousers made out of gabardine, a sturdy fabric of cotton, wool, or twill.
Gabriel Heatter a radio newscaster.
gal a derogatory term for a black woman; it corresponds to the term "boy" for a black man.
Garret . . . Buttercup brand names of oleomargarine, a substitute for real butter.
"Give me that again. Flat out to fit my head." When Hannah asks Eva if she had ever loved her children, Eva is so stunned by the question that she pretends not to understand. She sarcastically asks Hannah to repeat the question in clearer, simpler terms.
Ham's sons The reference is to Ham, one of Noah's sons. According to the biblical story, which is often used to justify the persecution of blacks, Noah drank so much wine that he passed out, naked. His son Ham, which in Hebrew means dark or swarthy, discovered him and called on his two brothers to cover their father. Averting their faces by walking backwards toward their father, Ham's brothers covered Noah's nakedness with a cloak. On waking, Noah cursed his son Ham for having seen him while he was naked — nakedness being synonymous with Adam and Eve's Original Sin, according to the Old Testament — and proclaimed that all of Ham's descendants would be slaves. Thus, when the bargeman refers to Ham's sons, he's denigrating all blacks.
head rag a length of cloth, often matching the fabric of a dress, that is bound and tied around the head.
heifer a young cow; here, it is a cutting, insulting term.
[Helene] joined the most conservative black church During slavery, blacks usually adopted the Baptist church of the slaveholders, infusing their church with Africanisms. After slavery, in an attempt to distance themselves from the spirited, animated black Baptist churches, upwardly mobile blacks sought spiritual refuge in the more refined and quieter Catholic church. Because there isn't a Catholic church in the Bottom, Helene joins the most conservative black church available.
her nature was coming down The reference is to Sula's first menstrual period.
hunkies a disparaging term for a person, especially a laborer from east-central Europe. Here, it includes all white immigrants.
iceman . . . icebox People kept perishable items in a wooden icebox that contained large chunks of ice purchased from an iceman.
Jell-Well a gelatin dessert.
keloid scar an abundance of scar tissue, common to black skin that is injured.
Kentucky Wonders a climbing variety of green beans; the ends of the beans are snapped off by hand and then the beans are snapped in half before cooking. People accustomed to this chore soon acquire speed and proficiency and can snap the pods with rhythmic precision, deftly with one hand.
knickers puffy pants that gather just below the knees, exposing the calves.
Liberty magazine a popular magazine of the 1920s and '30s.
Lindbergh (1902–1974) Nicknamed "Lucky Lindy," Charles Lindbergh was the heroic American aviator who, in 1927, made the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. His golden life was tarnished by the brutal kidnapping and murder of his baby son in 1932.
loam a rich mixture of moist soil, clay, and sand.
marcelling irons irons used to create a hairstyle consisting of a series of even waves put in the hair with a hot curling iron.
meal-fried porgies A porgy is a fish; meal-fried means that the fish is fried with a cornmeal coating in hot lard.
milk-dull eyes eyes dull with age and, quite possibly, with cataracts.
mouth organ a metal harmonica, housing a row of free reeds set back in air holes and played by exhaling or inhaling; mouth organs are often used in folk music and sometimes in country-western music.
mulatto a person of mixed black and white ancestry.
Norma Shearer (d. 1983) A famous actress of the 1930s, she won an Academy Award for best actress in 1930 for The Divorcee.
Nu Nile a hair product used by blacks.
the number was 522 Playing the numbers was a popular gambling activity. People in the Bottom look for "signs" that tell them which lucky number to play.
Old Dutch Cleanser a widely sold household cleanser in the 1930s.
pariah anyone despised or rejected by others; a social outcast.
peck . . . two bushels A peck is one-fourth of a bushel, or eight quarts; a bushel is four pecks, or thirty-two quarts.
placket V-shaped, overlapping fabric on a blouse, dress, or skirt; the front of a typical rugby shirt has a placket design at the neck.
postcoital after sexual intercourse.
private a noncommissioned soldier in the U.S. Army or U.S. Marine Corps whose rank is below a private first-class.
pulling your nose In an effort to make Nel's nose look narrower, sleeker, and more Anglo, Helene tells her to snap a clothespin on it.
read you a dream interpret a dream.
running across a field in France This is a reference to one of many bloody battlefields in France during World War 1 (1914–1918).
Saffron-colored powder . . . cake of oleo The references are to margarine, a cheap substitute for butter; it was first introduced as a chalk-white pliable substance, with the consistency of lard, that was packaged in a plastic bag with a capsule of reddish-yellow dye. When the capsule was squeezed and broken, it released its colored dye, which spread throughout the white margarine. Kneading the plastic bag resulted in a product that eventually resembled butter.
shotgun house a very narrow house that faces the street, each room opening behind it in a straight line into another room, so that if you fired a shotgun in the front door, the bullet would pass through all of the rooms and exit through the back door.
so shocked by the closed coffin At most funerals in the Bottom, coffins would be open. However, at the funerals of Hannah and Chicken Little, the coffins are closed because of the bodies' mortification. In each case, the closed coffin is mentioned, indicating that a coffin's being closed was not a common occurrence.
So they laid broomsticks across their doors at night and sprinkled salt on porch steps. evidence of superstitions; both counter-measures are believed, by some people, to ward off evil.
Somebody else ran to Dick's Fresh Food and Sundries to call the ambulance. So few people had telephones in their homes that, in emergencies, one had to go to a place of business in order to use the telephone.
spigot a faucet.
Stepin Fetchit the stage name of Lincoln Theodore Perry (1902–1985), a black comedian famous for playing the buffoon.
stepping tall acting cocky and impertinent.
sucked her teeth a disrespectful sound made by children to show disapproval of an adult request.
TB Tuberculosis is an infectious disease caused by the tubercle bacillus bacteria and characterized by fever, night sweats, and a productive cough. Also called "consumption," it was one of the leading causes of death in the United States until the 1940s, when drugs were discovered to combat it.
tea roses roses having a scent resembling tea; they were introduced from China to Europe in 1867. In this country, they have been widely hybridized. The Peace rose is probably the most popular tea rose today.
tetter heads here, teenagers whose heads are pocked with eruptions and itching caused by various skin diseases, such as ringworm, psoriasis, herpes, or impetigo.
Tex Ritter the nickname of Woodward Maurice Ritter (1905–1973), a country-western singer.
"That straw'll tickle your pretty neck to death." Before the advent of home freezers, ice was delivered in an ice wagon. The ice was insulated using straw, which would slow the ice's melting. The ice wagon driver warns Mrs. Jackson not to eat the ice so fervidly lest she choke on a piece of straw that might be clinging to it.
Tillie the Toiler a popular comic strip character.
Van Van, High John the Conqueror, Little John to Chew, Devil's Shoe String, Chinese Wash, Mustard Seed and the Nine Herbs These are all ingredients used by conjurers to create spells and tell fortunes.
a victorious swagger in the legs of white men Armistice Day is celebrated annually in November; in Medallion, even though two years have passed since the end of World War I, this military victory is still foremost in the minds of the town's veterans.
the Victrola a record player, powered by a hand crank.
voile sleeves puffed-out sleeves made from a light, transparent-like fabric.
"we float eggs in a crock of vinegar" Submerging hard-boiled eggs in vinegar is one way of pickling them for future use. Sarcastically, Eva is chiding Hannah: There were no eggs available for eating while Hannah was growing up, let alone any available for pickling.
working roots using roots and rites from the occult to gain mystical powers.
wrecked Dorics Morrison likens the white men hanging about the fronts of train stations to the ruins of Doric columns on Greek temples. The men are silent and unmoving, unfunctional and passive watchers.
yonder over there.
"You gone can them?" Eva asks Hannah if she is planning to can the beans. "Canning" is a term used for the storing of cooked fruits and vegetables in sterilized jars that can be kept indefinitely for future use.