So I was scrolling through Facebook the other day and saw yet another “guide” to understanding expressions commonly used in the South. And yet again, I was offended by the tone of the author. I intended to include examples here but to be honest, I’m loathe to repeat them.
You see, my mother is Southern and my father, well, is not. He never really developed a true Southern drawl. Then I went to visit him in Seattle when I was sixteen and my accent was brutally mocked by his new step-son and basically anyone else within ear shot. Some comments were merely ignorant, “Are you from Texas?” (not all Southern accents are the same, y’all. In fact, a true Southerner can tell where you’re from, sometimes down to the city, after hearing only a sentence or two). So I spent the next few years practicing and doing my best to “lose” my Southern drawl.
Thank the Lord I failed.
But I did manage to control it some. Then, in my mid-thirties, my own new family ventured up to the Northern states and again, I did my best to hide what I had been taught to be ashamed of – and then it happened. I discovered that the way other regions talk is, well, boring. They lacked the skill necessary to pull off effective comparisons that draw up vivid images in the listener’s mind. The South might have some unusual expressions, but they are nothing less than highly effective imagery.
Being “Southern” is more than a location, or a specific way of speaking. When I think of “being Southern” I think of the smell of honeysuckle, sweet tea, hazy afternoons, front porches, drinking from a water hose, catching lightning bugs, and trees heavy with magnolia blossoms. We might use a lot of imagery when we speak here in the South, but it’s part of who we are. And from a writer’s perspective, giving a character even one or two of these expressions is a sure fire way to add unwritten details in the mind of the reader. And those unwritten details can make your characters come alive in the minds of your readers in a powerful way.
So here you go. A list of Southern expressions that I’ve either heard or used myself. Without judgment. Without shame. All I ask is that you do your best to see the beauty, or at least the accuracy, in the images these expressions create. This is nowhere near an exhaustive list (not even close). Please, grab yourself a cold glass of tea and feel free to add your favorites in the comments! (Note: derisive comments will be deleted.)
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Walkin’ in high cotton – Cotton was an important part of Southern economy and “everyone” knew that taller bushes were both easier to harvest and provided more yield. Thus, it’s only obvious that if you’re “walkin’ in high cotton” you’re feeling particularly optimistic about the immediate future. This phrase was (and is) so popular that it even inspired a song by Alabama.
Gettin’ too big for your britches! – This is not a reference to the size of someone’s posterior. It’s meant to say someone is too full of themselves or thinks they’re somehow “more” than what they are. This one is often used with children who backtalk their elders (personal experience here).
Nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockin’ chairs! – This is but one example of beautiful Southern imagery. Imagine a cat with a particularly long tail in a room full of rocking chairs (in motion, of course). It wouldn’t take long for that poor cat to become extremely anxious. Can you see it? Yep, that’s what this phrase is referring to. That’s all. No big mystery.
Cain’t never could! – Again, very self-explanatory. This is the Southern version of the moral of the story in The Little Engine that Could. No one ever accomplished a thing by saying they “cain’t.”
My eyeballs are floatin! – More Southern imagery here (and I’m known to say this one often). A person who claims their eyeballs are floating needs to visit your restroom facilities, quickly.
Hold your horses! – Slow down, wait a minute, give me a second…that’s all we’re sayin’ here.
Madder than an ol’ wet hen! – The history on this one is kinda funny. Laying hens (meaning hens that lay eggs) can get moody when not allowed to sit on their eggs. In turn, they can get pretty peevish when Mr. Farmer comes to scoot them off their newly laid eggs. To remedy this, farmers would dunk such hormonal hens in cold water to “snap” them out of it. Now, imagine that. A hormonal hen freshly dunked in exceptionally cold water. That mad, is all we’re saying. Imagery.
That poor child could eat corn through a picket fence! – A rather vivid description of someone who missed a much needed appointment with an orthodontist.
Bless your heart! – This phrase is a double edged sword. It can be used to express one’s sincere dismay upon hearing unfortunate news but if we suspect you, well, “might not be playin’ with a full deck,” we might see fit to “bless your heart.” This phrase is particularly damning if we say, “Well bless his little pea pickin’ heart.” Yeah, that one is in no way a sincere blessing of any kind.
Rode hard and put up wet! – Get your mind out of the gutter. This phrase refers to proper equestrian care. Horses sweat when they’ve been ridden at a fast run. They must have time to cool down so that the sweat evaporates from their coats and then rubbed or brushed down before being put up in their stalls for the night. To not provide this care is to put a horse up wet. Imagine what a horse would look and act like if it were “rode hard and put up wet” regularly? In the same way, a person who appears to have lived a rough life is often said to have been “rode hard and put up wet.”
About as useful as teats on a boar! – (Sometimes said as, “About as useful as teats on a bull!”) Again, Southerners think this is pretty self-explanatory, but while reading all those “higher than a cat’s butt” articles on Southern expressions, I noticed pretty quickly that “teat” was misspelled as “tit” – and I think that’s where the confusion comes in. “Tit” is the slang term for a woman’s breast when being referred to in a sexual manner. “Teat” is the correct term for the part of the body where milk ducts discharge milk – and it just so happens it can be pronounced /teet/ or /tit/. This phrase is in no way a sexual reference. Now, I ask you, how useful are teats on a male pig or a male cow? (A boar? A bull?) Yep, that’s how useful we’re saying someone is when we use this phrase.
Drunk as Cooter Brown – Southerners are still comparing their level of intoxication to that of the famed Cooter Brown, who was supposedly inebriated for the entire Civil War. Now, to be fair, many of us today don’t really know who Cooter Brown was – we just grew up with the saying. But we do know that to say that you’re “drunk as Cooter Brown” indicates that even one more drink might necessitate a trip to the local emergency room.
Now this is a relatively short list. But I want to hear from fellow Southerners. What phrases did you grow up with here in the South?