Updated: Dec 13, 2021
I’m learning to slow down and savor Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. It’s a good story that gallops along and then arrests my attention with a striking turn of phrase. Describing her father: “Some days he was just spring-loaded on having a fight.” Referring to a shift in her family's circumstances: “Maybe it's wrong to blame the arrival of Grandma Moore for much of the worst hurt in my family, but she was such a ring-tailed bitch that I do."
I’ve only heard that dazzling zinger once before in Sally Mann’s description of her mother-in-law. “I decided right then and there that she was a ring-tailed yard bitch. The feeling was clearly mutual.”
I don’t quite know what this colorful phrase means - I keep trying to imagine a dog with a ringed tail.
But I'm not alone in wondering. A columnist with The Arkansas Times explores the possible origins and meaning:
An editor overheard referring to “a ring-tailed bitch” was asked to explain where the term came from. He responds: “I think I learned it from my mother, I’m somewhat embarrassed to confess. (And, difficult though my mother could be, I don’t think she fit the category.) I guess the phrase puts me in mind of particularly ferocious cats, the kind that hiss and yowl and claw without provocation. Whether ringed tails are any indicator of cat demeanor, I couldn’t say. I find all cats unpleasant.” I have no other explanation to offer, although bitch is usually applied to female dogs, not female cats. On the other hand, cats are more likely than dogs to have ringed tails.
I was trying to think if I know anyone who might be described as a ring-tailed yard bitch and I don't think I do. The closest example I can think of is a woman I worked with at IHOP in Houston in the early '90s. She was tiny, made of bone and sinew wrapped in sandy-colored skin that matched her sandy hair. So sandy, I have to remind myself that her name was actually Cindy.
She was a bundle of energy - spring-loaded, you might say - and jittery with nicotine-dependence. She told us she'd killed her husband. He used to beat her, so one night, when he was passed out drunk, a fire started in their rented house and she left without waking him. She claimed she'd set the fire, but I didn't quite believe her. I liked her and always thought of her as scrappy, so I don't want to suggest the negative implications of ring-tailed bitch. She did write me a letter after I went back to college to tell me the bus boys all said I was a pinche pendejo for not writing them. I'm not sure I know what that colorful zinger means, either.