E10 To Be Southern
I yearn for a string of lazy afternoons lolly gagging on the front porch of Uncle Ed’s and Aunt Ceni’s farmhouse near Ramer, Tennessee while swinging with a glass of sweet tea in my hand, with nothing to do but watch the butterflies light on one of her flowers, while breathing in the humid earthy air. Swinging was only interrupted to toss horseshoes or play Chinese checkers or listen to Uncle Ed as he played the harmonica and me playing the juice harp or me and my friends playing mumbley peg, coquet, or tossing horseshoes out in the yard.
Oh! how I need to hear the sound of a late-summer rain on their tin roof, and the sweet chorus of crickets and bullfrogs at sunset and to feel the cocooning wrap of their feather bed at night time.
We Southerners were raised to swanee, not swear, but you hardly ever hear that anymore, I swanee you don’t. And how many of you Yankees know the difference between pitching a hissy fit and a conniption fits. Well, you better know the difference for a hissy is less violent and shorter than a conniption, which is longer and where somebody can get hurt.
And you need to know what makes a mess for a meal. Well, all Southern boys know what mess means! It means enough of what ever food it is to make a meal-a mess of fish or a mess of squirrels. And every Southern boy knows that “Gimme some sugar” is not a request for the white, granular sweet substance that sits in a pretty little bowl in the middle of the table. And we don’t say wrestling; we say rastlin.
One of my favorite Southern expressions is ‘ain’t got the sense God gave a billy goat,” which means someone doesn’t have any common sense. If someone asks you how something is going and it’s not terrible, but also not amazing, we say that it’s “fair to middling.”
Have you ever heard, “She’s madder than a wet hen.” Have you ever seen a mad hen? If you haven’t you need to; then you will understand. We don’t say believe or think, we say reckon, such as I reckon I will do it vs I believe I will do it or I think I will do it. And the name for an object we can’t remember, we use “doohicky” or “thingamajig” or “whatchamacallit.” And we are always “hankering” to do something or go somewhere. It means we have a longing or craving for something. And we might use “might could” to do something or its cousin we “usta could” do something.
If one is endowed with buck teeth, we say, “He could eat corn through a picket fence.” If you hear us say, “Take your sweet time,” or “till the cows come home” know that these are not complimentary terms but sarcastic terms, instead it shows that a Southerner is pissed off because it means that you are taking too long or moving along too slow. And the same goes for “slower than molasses in the winter,” if you hear us say that.
And you don’t want us to say, “Hush up,” or “Hush yore mouth,” for that means you are talking too much. If we are shocked, dismayed or bewildered, we say, “For goodness GRACE” or “Lord a mercy.”
“Full as a tick” means your belly is full of food, or “gut wadding” as we call it. If we are going to be somewhere, we say, “if the creek don’t rise,” I will be there. If exhausted, we say, “I am worn slap out.” When we use “as all get out,” that is used to intensify a statement or situation, as in “he is funny as all get out.” If one is being a smart ass or bragging too much or thinking too highly of himselfm we say politely, “He’s too big for his britches.” You will also hear us say, “can’t never could” which we use whenever we like even though we don’t know exactly what we mean.
And please know the difference between supper and dinner. We don’t use the words “supper” and “dinner” interchangeably, that’s not the case in the South. Dinner refers to the midday meal—typically known elsewhere as “lunch.” And in the South, “supper” is the evening meal that ya’ll and others would call “dinner.
When we need to get off the phone after too much of a one-way conversation, we politely say, “Well, let me let you go.” If you hear us say, “I’ll tell you what,” that means we are pissed off and don’t agree with what you are saying. One of my favorites is “piddling”, which we use to mean something small or trivial, like “I got a piddling raise at work today.” The word “plumb” we use a lot to mean completely or totally, like he is “pump dumb,” or “I am plump tired from work.” “High on the hog,” means that someone is doing well for themselves and enjoys plenty of comforts and luxuries.
Colder than a well diggers ass or colder than a witch’s titty in a brass bra or hotter than a fox in a forest fire or busy as a one legged man at an ass kickin’ contest, you will hear us Southerners say a lot.
And if you ask us’ ens for directions, there are some thangs you will need to know. You will need to know what we mean when we say “pert’ near,” “right close,” “over yonder,” “down yonder” and “a right far piece.” As for time, you will need to know how long “directly” is, as in “I’m fixin’ to go to town, be back directly.” And we never just do something; we are always fixin’ to do something, and we are always “wonderin’,’’ as in “I was wonderin’ if you would help me with my bible lesson.”
Furthermore, we say “what in the Sam Hill,” instead of “what in the hell,” like what in what in the Sam Hill are you doing. And if thangs are going or moving along to fast, we say, “Hold your horses.” Till the cows come home” is another way to say “forever” in the South as “You can keep arguing till the cows come home, but I won’t change my mind.” It means that something is probably going to take a long time.” It doesn’t amount to a hill of beans” means that something isn’t worth much. A mild exclamation of surprise used in the South is “Heavens to Betsy!”
What about, “You don’t know shit from shinola,” or “You can put that where the sun don’t shine,” or “He ain’t got a pot to piss in.”
“He ain’t right” means a person is afflicted which is a word we use a lot also with both meaning that someone’s head is not quite right or someone is goofy. “Well, ain’t that nice,” is usually used to mean just the opposite.
“Are you out of your pea pickin mind? “Let’s go jukin” for dancing. ‘Darn tooting” means we will do something for sure or with certainty. If we are putting our jeans, underwear, or pants on, that means we are putting on our drawers. Puttin’ on the dog means taking things to a high level or going all out. That dog won’t hunt means an idea or plan that isn’t going to work.
If we says that someone is “just playin’ possum” it means that we think the person is faking it. When a possum—as in the animal—feels as though it is in danger, it typically pretends to be dead in order to trick their predators. To describe something that is incredibly unusual, we say that it’s “as scarce as hen’s teeth.”
Clyde Edgerton once said, “Because I was born in the South, I’m a Southerner. If I had been born in the North, the West, or the Central Plains, I would be just a human being.” Marshall Frady said, “The Southerner always tended to believe with his blood rather than his intellect.” In fact, one of the most singular characteristics of a Southern native was, and is, their readiness to take offense at any reflection on their veracity or personal honor. He who ventured to cast a doubt on either was liable to be called upon in an instant to withdraw it. If not, there was sure to be a scene or duel. The glory of being a native Southerner consisted in being brave, truth-telling and reverent toward women. And Southern women saw no contradiction in mixing strength with gentleness.
Brother Dave Gardner said, “The South may not always be right, but by God it’s never wrong! I love everything about the South; I even love hate.” Southerners have a genius for psychological alchemy. If something intolerable simply cannot be changed, driven away or shot, they will not only tolerate it but take pride in it as well,” said Florence King.
General Sherman remarked, “The young blood of the South-sons of planters, lawyers about towns, good billiard players and sportsmen-had men who never did any work and never will. War suits them. They are splendid riders, first rate shots and utterly reckless. These men must all be killed or employed by us before we can hope for peace.” “In the South, the War Between the States is what A.D. is elsewhere; they date from it,” said Mark Twain. “The South is a region that history has happened to,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and William Faulkner remarked, “The past is not dead. It isn’t even past.”
The fascination with the South is a nostalgia for a place that isn’t as busy or as caught up in the latest gimmicks or fad nor caught up with stress of business affairs in the concrete and asphalt jungles of city life. The feeling of belonging doesn’t exist anywhere bigger and better than in the South. In no other place in this country are family, heritage, religion, food, race, and hunting more entwined. These are what has shaped our region, along with being the only region to have been defeated in war and therefore to feel somehow inferior to other parts of the country.
But nostalgia’s never about what really was. It’s an idealized something. The movies, magazines and other media have depicted the “idealized South.” What they have sold us (and are selling us) is the perception of graciousness so exemplified by Southern Living magazine, that the South has a particular approach to decor, to food, to the way we interact with people, to the way our women get all gussied up. In a sense, although true, it puts the best South forward, a place that’s polite, moral, benevolent, respectful, gracious, and well-bred.
It is only in the South that graciousness is personified, that the South has a particular approach to decor, to food, to the way we interact with people, to the way our women get all gussied up—a place that’s polite and benevolent and respectful—where we say, “yes sir” or “no ma’am” and the use of them is not optional.
However, through all these tangled thickets of Southern chivalry, there was one figure that the South was most known for and who stood for everything that was pure—spiritually, culturally, racially, and sexually. That was the graceful Southern Belle, and she was a great comfort to the Southern gentleman. Southern Belles were polite, respectful, smart, but they musn’t seem to be—that was Scarlett O’Hara’s big mistake. They were tough on the inside but soft on the outside and spoke in a low voice and kept their legs demurely crossed, and dressed in clothes that were tastefully seductive, and could charm the skin off a rattle snake and the Southern Belle always stayed gussied up and had a warm, enchanting, and inviting air about them. When they went out, they were dressed up to date on the latest fashions and their face was painted, never going out without makeup and adorned with jewelry. It’s always about looking pretty and maintaining a social standard.
Southern women’s loyalty, whether rich or poor, laid with God, their husband, and their families, but it was also tacitly expected that they were to keep up with the latest fashions of the time to the best of their ability. The presence of southern women and the graceful air that supposedly surrounded them was felt in the entire South and became one of its defining characteristics. By and large, southern belles are daddy’s girls. Being daddy’s girl from an early age, she feels very much like the reigning queen of the known universe. and she radiates it. She can’t help it.
But there is another side to the South, which has been neglected. Because of the media, one would think that everyone who lived in the South was a blue-blood plantation owner with a multitude of slaves; that we lolled away our afternoons on the veranda of our plantation home sipping sweet tea, mint julep or southern whiskey while the slaves were out picking cotton; that the leisure to practice a gracious lifestyle was every Southerner’s birthright. But that is not the South that my family knew or the vast majority of the families in the South knew. What they knew was poverty, disease, and a hardscrabble lifestyle. My daddy and his family were hog and cattle traders; he and momma lived in the country seventy miles east of Memphis on a dirt road between Ramer and Chewalla, Tennessee, famous Chickasaw Indian hunting grounds. Their shotgun house stood at a dead-end road next to Mose Baxter, a black man. No other houses were on the road then. Crops of corn were farmed which was used to feed the hogs and cattle that he traded for. The hogs that they killed for their own personal consumption ran loose so they also feasted upon acorns; they were at the top of the prime meat list. When a half-feral hog was killed, it was shared with Mose’s family and vice versa.
Hog killing required considerable planning and preparation. The farmer’s almanac was consulted to pick a cold day. Since daddy depended on the smokehouse for nourishment the whole year, meat spoilage was a major catastrophe which literally threatened the survival of our family.
Hogs were a low-maintenance animal and convenient food source for Southerners. In the pre-Civil War period, Southerners ate, on average, five pounds of pork for every one pound of beef. Hogs ran loose to root in the forest and caught when food supply became low. These semi-wild hogs were tougher and stringier than modern hogs but were convenient and a popular food source. Every part of the hog was utilized, from the hoofs to the snout, and everything under the skin was consumed including chitlings and yes we eat chiltings. In the South, we sing “Hush, Little Baby” to our children and teach them the joys of eating black-eyed peas with hog gowls on New Years day.
Hog slaughtering became a time for celebration, and the neighbors would be invited to share in the bounty. The traditional Southern barbecue grew out of these gatherings. At the end of the colonial period, the practice of holding neighborhood barbecues was well-established. Plantation owners regularly held large and festive barbecues, with the barbecuing being done by the black slaves. Even the poor whites had their barbecue parties. Barbecue was the one sole food which bound together the taste of both the people of the plantation house and the poorest occupants of the countryside, black and white.
The South is known for its soul food and barbecue. Regarding barbecue, Memphis proclaims itself to be the “Barbecue Pig Capital of the World.” If you come to Memphis, don’t ask for barbecue beef. You will be looked upon as some kind of freak and you will probably be asked to participate in a duel for insulting our Southern heritage and our pride. Memphis also boasts that it is the “Cotton Capital of the World,” “Home of Rock and Roll,” “Birthplace of the Blues,” and “Hardwood Capital of the World,” but we don’t have time to go into all of that.
Now that you understand, I hope, the significance of pork to a Mid-Southerner let me now tell you about something else which played, and plays, an important role in the life of a Southerner: hunting. We can take great pleasure in knowing that no where on earth did hunting play more of a vital role than in the Mid-South and the South in general. After all, our forefathers were taught by the Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, Cherokees and others. Hunting is a tradition that has been handed down from the Indians to the settlers to us. Like barbecue, hunting was the one ingredient that crossed racial barriers, especially between the blacks and the poor and rich Southern whites.
So being Southern is a state of mind that is imparted at birth. It’s more than loving fried chicken or barbecue, high school and college football, and gospel and country music. It’s being hospitable, being devoted to front porches & sweet tea, and each other. You don’t become Southern–you were born that way,” and you must say ain’t and not use is not or isn’t and by all means you must use “y’all” on a regular basis in speech and in writing, while also using “you-uns” or “we-uns.” And when someone says “Why, bless your heart,” know that that is not a compliment in the South and the phrase has little to do with religion. It means you are an idiot.
In the same vane, be aware that if you hear someone say, “Well aren’t you precious?” it’s probably being said sarcastically. If we have to go to the restroom, we say I am going to see a man about a horse or a dog, one or the other. If I say, “fit to be tied,” means I am angry or upset, or the opposite, if I say, “happier than a pig in slop,” means I am overjoyed. If we use the word tarnation, like what in the tarnation are you doing, that means what in the hell are you doing. And if you have had too much white lightening, we will say, He is drunkener than Cooter Brown.” Who was Cooter Brown? He was an infamous character in Southern lore. Legend tells that he lived on the Mason-Dixon line—the border between the North and South—during the Civil War. To avoid the draft on either side, Cooter decided to stay drunk throughout the entire war, making him ineligible for battle. Inebriated Southerners have measured their drunkenness by him ever since.
In closing, if you are out dining and order tea, know that you will get sweet tea and that if it snows at all, schools and businesses will be closed and that everything we eat is fried, and I don’t need to say anything about grits and that biscuits come with gravy and that our biscuits are buttermilk biscuits and that bread to us is cornbread. And yes we eat collard greens, mustard greens, and turnip greens, and we even love our wild grown green called poke sallet and we don’t say crawfish, they are crawdads or crawdaddies. And please know that Coke to us refers to all soft drinks, so please don’t come down here and order a soda or pop for that is considered an insult.
Please note that we love fried foods, especially fried chicken, and that we always cook in an iron skillet. The national fish in the South is catfish so don’t turn up your nose when we serve you fried catfish cooked in an iron skillet. And please don’t say you are eating banana pudding. It’s nanna puddin’, and icebox pie to us is any dessert prepared in a pie crust that has to be kept refrigerated.
Moving on from food, you’ens might notice that it is common to see young ladies wear dresses to a college football game down here, so get used to it.
Below the Mason Dixon line, we also stress the first half of words, like HO tel, GUI tar and PO lice and we don’t use the “g” at the end of a word so that getting is gettin’ or fixing is fixin’ and any word that ends in “ow” is replaced with “ar,” like instead of window, it is windar.
Furthermore, we Southern boys are not all named Bubba, Junior, nor Earl nor our Southern girls named Sissy or Missy! And, yes, we sometimes marry our cousin.
So that’s it and Y’all! have a good time til I see you’ens again next Tuesday and Bless yore heart for we Southerners haven’t forgot and go to church.