For all the regional tensions in American politics, have you ever stopped to think what a boring country this would be without the South? Also without black people, of course, which may be another way of saying the same thing. Would there be any music at all?
I was moved to this observation by an almost comically obtuse article on a website called BusinessInsider.com, entitled “13 Southern Sayings That the Rest of America Won’t Understand.” Purporting to explain a list of “the most ridiculous Southern sayings” supposedly bewildering to persons outside the region, it mainly revealed its authors’ cultural naiveté.
For example, is there a native speaker of English anywhere that doesn’t grasp the meaning of “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?” Nor is the phrase, coined by the 18th century Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, a Southernism at all. Swift had a way of putting things succinctly.
There’s also nothing particularly “Southern” about phrases like “useless as tits on a bull”—used often by my New Jersey father to describe my lack of facility with hand tools.
“Only female dairy cows produce milk,” the authors solemnly inform us. “Male cows are called bulls. And even if you could ‘milk anything with nipples,’ bulls tend to be rather ornery.”
You get the feeling they had to look it up.
A city guy, my father inherited his store of agricultural metaphors directly from rural Ireland. Indeed, many colloquial expressions—“mad as a wet hen,” is another—are more rustic than Southern in origin. The authors of the Business Insider article appear to think nobody outside the South could possibly have any knowledge of barnyard animals.
But then many people think that. My Arkansas neighbor likes to talk about his amazement at meeting country boys like himself in the Army — Yankees from Pennsylvania and upstate New York. The expression “rode hard and put up wet” to describe somebody who looks wasted may be a pure Texanism. But the concept is immediately familiar to anybody who knows that horses need to be walked and groomed after hard exercise.
That said, there’s definitely something different about the way Southerners use language, although it’s in danger of disappearing as the nation becomes more suburbanized. Exactly how to characterize it is a tougher question.
As a kid growing up in New Jersey, I first heard the siren song of the South on AM radio. Popular music back then had grown formulaic and polite—all Patti Page and Perry Como. But not on WNJR in Newark, a station whose rhyming DJs played artists like B.B. King, Jimmy Reed and Little Willie John—blues singers with origins in the Deep South, with wit and emotional directness unmatched in the Top 40. “Well you ain’t so big,” Jimmy Reed sang “You just tall, that’s all.”