Slang City Mail

Click here to get this free weekly newsletter delivered to your e-mailbox! Want to see more? Go back to All the Words main page.

August 11, 2005
Slang of the Week: white lightning (noun phrase)
illegally made whiskey

Mike told the police that the large copper kettle in the woods behind his house was a modern sculpture, but they arrested him when they found jars of white lightning in his garage.

Celebrity quote:
Well the G-men, T-men, revenuers too
Looking for the place where he made his brew
They were looking, trying to book him
But my pappy kept on cooking
Ooh white lightning.
-J. P. Richardson, from his song White Lightning

In the new Dukes of Hazzard movie, cousins Bo and Luke Duke spend some time delivering white lightning for Uncle Jesse and trying to stay out of trouble with the law. The movie, based on the 1970s TV show (which was itself based on the 1975 movie Moonrunners), opened recently to mostly bad reviews. My favorite came from Pete Vonder Haar of Film Threat: “And who can forget Jessica Simpson? You will, if you’re lucky.”

Richardson’s song, which was a hit for country singer George Jones, explains one of the most popular reasons for making white lightning, also known as moonshine. By distilling the alcohol secretly, his father could avoid taxation, as long as he could hide from the G-men (old fashioned slang for FBI agents) and T-men (special investigators for the Treasury Department.) Even today, the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is sometimes called in to find moonshiners’ hidden factories, especially in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

On a side note, while Richardson was also responsible for writing the song Chantilly Lace, the most famous song connected to him is one that he neither wrote nor performed. Don McLean’s American Pie tells the story of February 3, 1959, the day that Richardson (better known as the Big Bopper), Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash.