This is kind of a long and trivial story, but if you stick with it, it will be worth it. To me. Probably not to you.
On Facebook this past week, I had the following (excerpted) conversation with my mom, my cousin, and a friend:
Zina: I saw one of Dean’s facebook notices and just told him he’s got 83 people waiting to be approved as friends. He said, “It would be disingenuous to approve them, because then they’d have the expectation that I’d correspond with them.”
Betsy [my mom]: Oh that Dean, he’s a caution.
Rachel: Tell him he’s thinking too much and to go ahead and just approve us already. We’re thinking no such thing. (At least I’m not.) People really don’t expect that much out of Facebook, lol.
Daniel [my cousin]: Not sure how to take this as I’ve been accepted as one of Dean’s friends and have had no correspondence.
Zina:Maybe he’s saying he’s learned his lesson about how if he accepts people as friends he’ll just disappoint them. I guess it’s better to outright Facebook-reject them in the first place?
Daniel: No worries. I wasn’t being all that serious. Besides, Dean’s work with the ICPMs is crucial to national security. I wouldn’t want him to waste time on FB correspondence.
A couple of days later at dinner Dean and I had a conversation that went something like this:
Me: “So on Facebook I told people how you have 83 friends waiting to be approved. My mom said you’re a caution.”
Dean: “What does that mean?”
Me: “That you’re kind of mischievous or naughty, I think. Or maybe funny. Actually I guess I don’t know what it means. It’s something that grandmas and old ladies say about little kids–they’ll slap their knees and say, ‘Oh, that kid, he’s a caution.’ You’ve never heard an old lady say that? I’m almost positive I’ve heard my Grandma Marie say it. Anyway, then cousin Dan was being kind of codependent for your sake–joking that you’re too busy doing important things like making water rockets to waste time on Facebook. But I don’t agree that making rockets is more important. It’s just a choice.”
Dean: “Well, when I make my water rocket that can launch a person [yes this is really his current project] then everyone will like me more.”
Me: “They already like you, they just want you to show you like them back by adding them on Facebook. But instead of spending time on relationships, you’re working on your legacy.”
Mabel was describing her afternoon with her friend J. This friend doesn’t have younger siblings, but she kept telling Mabel that Mabel didn’t know the right way to care for Hazel. The friend was wrapping Hazel up snugly in a blanket, or trying to make Hazel sit quietly and not touch the stuffed animals that she and Mabel were playing with. Some of these things would make Hazel cry, and then the friend would say that Hazel hadn’t had a long enough nap and was cranky.
After Mabel told us about this, I said, “That J. She’s a caution.”
Dean said, “If you’re going to start using that phrase, you should find out what it means.”
So I just looked it up (link is here). According to an 1874 slang dictionary, “‘He’s a caution’ is said of an obdurate or argumentative man.”
In case you miss it in the comments, my mom found a slightly more current definition, which was the one she was intending: ““An amusing or surprising person or thing.” http://www.thefreedictionary.com/caution
(This also shows that my first guess was pretty close.)