Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Southernisms, Or: English as Your Second Language

Apropos of what I don't know, but The Business Insider has just come up with a list of 13 Southern sayings the rest of America won't understand, and I feel the need to weigh in, since articles like this give the impression that Southerners all talk alike. We don't. Southern, like any other language, has its regional idiosyncracies and variations. Feel free to peruse the full list, but for the benefit of future historians of the language, here are my footnotes.

"He could eat corn through a picket fence." This is one of the many reasons I love the South; where else on earth would you ever find such a concise and colorful description of a person with buck teeth? Says it all, doesn't it? Similarly, "grinning like a jackass eating briars" pretty much sums up the kind of phony smile you often see on the faces of TV preachers and politicians. I propose further that Southerners have the ability to come up with these gems on a moment's notice, a case in point being the time when I was a kid standing on a street in California watching the world go by with my dad, waiting for my mom to finish some shopping, and he said, "Lookit that girl. She's so knock-kneed her knees gotta signal to pass." You can't acquire this facility; I think it has to be genetic. Or something in the water (which, in my dad's case, would have been Gadsden, Alabama water.)

"You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear." Honestly, I had no idea this was a Southern expression; I thought everybody knew it. I will admit that I used it the other day with my 16-year-old daughter, Maryland born and bred, and she looked at me like I had just put my panties on my head.

"He looked as drunk at Cooter Brown" and "I'm finer than frog hair split four ways." Just to emphasize that Southerners do not all go to secret meetings where we are given lists of expressions to memorize, these are two I've never heard. However, my grandmother used to say, when asked "How are you?" (supposedly the antecedent for the frog hair remark), "I'm large as life and twice as natural." I don't know what that means, but I've been saying it all my life.

"She's as happy as a dead pig in sunshine." The version I always heard left out the "dead," and I am wondering if the reporter of this piece either mis-heard or somebody was having a little fun at his expense. Because in my experience, a dead pig is not happy; a dead pig is pork chops.

"He thinks the sun comes up just to hear him crow." Nope, never heard that particular one, either; the version I grew up hearing was the description of some blowhard as "a rooster taking credit for the dawn."

"Catawampus." If this is a Southernism, then it is one that English-speaking people everywhere need. "The bow on the back of your dress is a little off-center" and "The bed looks wrong against that wall" and any number of other remarks could be more concisely rendered thusly: "That thing is all catawampus." I hope the OED folks are paying attention.

1 comment:

  1. When my ex-husband and I lived in New Orleans, we used to go to a place called Cooter Brown's that served oysters, cheese fries (my first encounter with this particular form of health food!) and many different kinds of beer. I always thought "Cooter Brown" was just a made-up bar name, like P.J. McGillicutty's or whatever.

    Also, though it's not as colorfully idiomatic, I'd like to hear someone explain "might could."