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June 6, 2015

I had lunch with a delightful group of people at a local eatery. In the course of our table talk, one fellow expressed a concern

“My wife and I have lived here for five years now. We really like the South. We have found it to be much friendlier than the North. We are trying to be real Southerners, but people here speak a different language.”

“Just be yourself,” I said. “You’ll probably get some good-natured teasing. Most Southerners would rather know you the way that you are than to have to deal with phoniness. Most folks can spot a fake as quickly as a three-dollar bill.”

“See, that’s what I mean. The Treasury doesn’t print three-dollar bills.

“That’s right. They’re phony, counterfeit. Most people can spot a fake at twenty paces?”

“Twenty paces? How far is that?”

“About 12-gauge shotgun range!”

He laughed.

Later I thought about his dilemma. What is it about our speech that identifies us as Southerners?

Speaking Southern is more than accent or dialect, more than drawl or pace. It is the turning of a phrase. A conversation takes a little longer because we add extra syllables and words to our speech. Instead of saying another, we might say a whole ‘nuther.

Southern language uses frequent comparisons. If the weather is unusually warm we say it is hotter than half of Georgia, hotter than a forty-dollar mule, or hotter than goats in a pepper patch.

In Southern vernacular, character traits are described in word pictures. If a woman is frantic we say she running around like a chicken with her head cut off. A stubborn man would argue with a fence post. A person who has been treated badly or abused looks like they’ve been rode hard and put up wet. An unfortunate fellow got the short end of the stick. An impetuous person goes off half-cocked. An inebriated guest has three sheets in the wind. An upset lady had her feathers ruffled. A person who is snobbish is acting above their raising.

We don’t even bat an eye when these expressions are used. It’s second nature to us. Many of our Southernisms are self-explanatory. Most anybody can figure out that a person who is counting his chickens before they hatch is being overly optimistic. If a husband and wife are like two peas in a pod, they seem well suited for each other.

There are times when we use expressions without even knowing where they came from or exactly what they mean.

I personally have never butchered hogs, but I know that when a fellow hits his thumb with a hammer, he is likely to holler like a stuck pig.

I haven’t done extensive research on the life cycle of raccoons, but I know that when something hasn’t happened in a coon’s age, it has been quite a while since the last occurrence. I do know enough about raccoon hunting to know that when a person is barking up the wrong tree, they are misdirected.

In the South, we even have expressions for those times when we don’t know what to say or we want to avoid saying something rude. Our responses to gossip add nothing to the conversation except to encourage more gossip.

“Aunt Bertha went to the doctor. She’s put on another twelve pounds.”

“Bless her heart!”

“I heard that Cora Lee ran off with a state trooper.”

“You don’t say!”

“Jim Bob lost another job. He’s drinking hard again.”

“Well, I’ll declare.”

We also have expressions that might or might not signal an end to conversation. “Hush your mouth!” and “Shut my mouth!” are examples. We are probably saying good-bye when we say, “Y’all come,” or “What’s your rush?”

When Clare and I lived in Kentucky we had neighbors who hailed from the northern side of the Ohio River. These people had trouble saying goodbye. One night after they had thoroughly worn out their welcome, I said to Clare, “Sugar, we need to go to bed so these folks can go home.”

Clare’s father, Mr. Jack, used to say to guests who needed to leave, “Don’t let the screen door hit you in the back on your way out.”

My in-laws were Mr. Jack and Miz Lib. I would never have called them by their first names. Aunts and uncles are always addressed as such. Even older cousins are referred to as Cud’in Emory or Cud’in Myrtis.

My grandfather served in the Navy for four years. As a matter of respect he addressed most men as Cap’n. He usually addressed women as Lady. Southerners often give veterans the honorary rank of Colonel. Sometimes we call a person Judge just because they seem to have some authority. A grumpy old codger is referred to as, for example, Old Man Snodgrass.

Mama taught me to say Ma’am and Sir to any person older than I was. If I failed to afford that level of respect to my elders, mama would wash my mouth out with yellow Octagon soap. My dad taught me to say a blessing before meals, even in a restaurant or in a fishing boat.

Our Southern way of speaking takes a little longer. We don’t need to expect others to adopt our ways. We all just need to be ourselves.

Mama said, “Be who you is, and not who you ain’t, ‘cause if you is who you ain’t, you ain’t who you is.”

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