SENSE AND NONSENSE: Y'all just come on down to the house and we'll talk Southern.
By Lynda Hollenbeck
As a product of the South — and a lifelong resident — I can attest to the fact that there’s a Southern expression for practically everything.
I can’t explain why we Southern folk turn our talk in a different manner. I just know that we do.
Recently, I became aware of this anew in a conversation with co-worker Maribeth Bueche, a native of Colorado. The language acquired in her midwestern upbringing didn’t encompass a lot of words and phrases that are common to those us who have never lived above the Mason-Dixon Line.
For example, while in the newsroom, in talking about someone, I posed the question, “Isn’t he kin to ------- ?”
Maribeth found that amusing. She’s never used the word “kin” to describe a familial relationship, she said.
“You mean you don’t call them your kinfolk?” I asked.
“Nope,” she said. “They’re my relatives.”
OK, I get that. I have relatives, too, but the ones who really count are my kinfolk. Can’t explain it any better than that.
I didn’t bring up “kith and kin,” but I should have. And for anyone who doesn’t know, that would be friends and relatives.
Maribeth was asked by another co-worker if she ever said “over yonder” in reference to a location.
Of course not, she said. “I’d say it’s over there,” she informed us.
Southern language is, for lack of a better way to describe it, full of nuance. It’s warmer, more picturesque, more colorful, almost musical.
When a Southerner gets angry, he doesn’t just get mad. He gets a burr in his saddle; or she has a hissy fit. (I’ve been known to have one of the latter myself.)
Someone really busy might be “busier than a one-armed paper hanger.” I can’t account for the political correctness of that, but I’ve heard it all my life.
About monetary strife, someone might be “too poor to pay attention” or “too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash.”
I need to ask Maribeth if she knows what “whitewash” means. Actually, I never understood why someone people occasionally would whitewash trees; it made them look really awful. Maybe there was some therapeutic/environmental reason, but I’ve never known what it was.
“She could make a preacher cuss” is another comment Southerners fling about.
And “that dog won’t hunt,” meaning something just isn’t right.
Southern folk will quickly point out the stupidity in others with such comments as:
“The porch light’s on, but no one’s home.”
“He hasn’t got the sense God gave a goose.” (That was a regular in my mother’s vocabulary.)
Threats are often bandied about by the Southern tongue, though in most cases the intended prey is safe. But some of these might be:
“I’m gonna jerk a knot in your tail.”
“You better watch out or I’ll clean your clock.”
Descriptive phrases are commonplace among those who espouse the tongue of the South. Examples are:
“He smelled bad enough to gag a maggot.”
(When one of my sons was about 4, he tried to say this, but it came out “gag a magnet.” He couldn’t understand why his siblings laughed at him.)
Then one I’ve certainly never said, but heard: “It smelled bad enough to knock a dog off a gut wagon.” (Now that’s a really bad odor.)
Speed is another area that doesn’t escape the Southern language. For example:
“She was slower than a Sunday afternoon.”
“She won’t get around to it for a month of Sundays.”
“They were off like a herd of turtles.”
Appearances also don’t get overlooked by Southerners. Examples are:
“He looks like 39 miles of bad road.”
“She looks like she’s been rode hard and put up wet.” (The grammar in that one disturbs me, but it certainly conveys a graphic picture.)
About the appetite:
“I’m full as a tick.”
Admonitions from a parent:
“If you don’t stop that crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.”
“Don’t you make eyes at me, boy!”
And the appearance, particularly regarding weight:
“She’s so skinny you can’t even see her shadow.”
“Hotter than blue blazes.”
And some generally good expressions that serve one well at times:
“Bless his pea-pickin’ little heart.”
“He’s about as handy as a back pocket on a shirt.”
“If you can’t run with the big dogs, just stay under the porch.”
“If you can’t stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen.”
“He was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”
“He couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.”
“Dumb as a box of rocks.”
I need to ask Maribeth about this, but I doubt if she’s ever used the word “tump.” You don’t have to explain it to any Southerner; it’s a cross between turn over and dump. “I’m gonna tump that wheel barrow over and get the dirt out.”
Before I get done with this, I’m gonna have to ask Maribeth if she’s ever had any pot liquor. Bet she never heard of it.
Lynda Hollenbeck is senior editor of The Saline Courier.