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Thursday, October 27, 2016

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, 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.”

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  • sigrid28

    Kudos to Gene Lyons, who keeps the “National Memo” interesting. The most fun is living among the folks who give parlance to colorful American phrases as he has, but second best is browsing through the “Dictionary of American Regional English,” Vol. 1-6 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985-2013), soon to be available online as–not to be confused with its predecessor now available under the handle The nice part about the book version is the joy of browsing through it and using its index to discover phrases introduced and popularized where you grew up. I suspect that Gene Lyons will be pleased to learn that his Arkansas kinfolk have not curbed the entire market on misogynistic slang, which has quite a provenance everywhere you look in the USA.

    You know WHERE a term originated. Now, do you want to find out WHEN a word was first came into use? For that, look to the Oxford English Dictionary, which besides defining a word cites its first use in English (in what work and by whom) and, where appropriate, gives similar examples to show how its usage has changed over the centuries.

    • Gene Lyons

      There’s nothing misogynistic about “tittin’ around.” Unless you’re the kind of person who thinks it’s rude to notice that boys and girls are different.

      • sigrid28

        Give me a break. Authors put last in a piece the idea they hope their readers will come away with. You had a wide range of choices available to you–and you picked this one.

        • Gene Lyons

          Yeah, because it’s funny.

          • sigrid28

            It’s insulting and it’s boring, actually just rather lazy, compared to what you might have done with this article, considering what is available in the “Dictionary of American Regional English.” I think this particular example is just as lame as the examples you complain of in the Business Insider’s “13 Southern Sayings That the Rest of America Won’t Understand.”

          • Gene Lyons

            Bless your heart.

          • Ann Snyder

            LOL! One of my favorite types of insults is the Southernism of saying, “Bless your heart, you (insert really nasty insult of your choice).” I’ve started using it here in the Pacific Northwest. There’s just something disarming about blessing someone before hitting them on the chin. And, of course, sometimes you can just say, “Bless your heart,” and everyone knows it’s an insult. I see you’ve picked up that wonderful skill! (Still laughing!)

          • sigrid28

            I see I was right again. Insulting.

          • Gene Lyons

            Thanks a lot, Ann. Until you butted in, Prof. Sigrid didn’t know her leg was being pulled.

          • sigrid28

            Gee whiz. And I thought all misogynistic anti-intellectuals were Republicans! Wrong again.

  • disqus_ivSI3ByGmh

    Hey, I looked up that website link, and let me tell you, this Yankee was damn familiar with and has used most of those “Southern sayings” for decades!

  • Stuart

    Are you sure you’re not really Molly Ivins?

  • charleo1

    What about the hen pecked husband, that counted his chickens before they were hatched? Or, the girl that once set her cap for him, then got a bee in her bonnet? Some folks said, he must have got above his raisin’. Like his Pa, two peas in a pod, neither will ever amount to a hill of beans!

  • Liberalism is Nonsense

    Liberty is an adaptation to our own ignorance regarding much of the knowledge we make use of each day and the uncertainty associated with future events and circumstances.

  • Ann Snyder

    My Texas cousin described crossing the mountains as leavin’ the steeps and hittin’ the flats. My Pennsylvania Dutch cousin, who wanted more room on a bench, told the person next to her to rootch over. I love localisms.

  • Liberalism is Nonsense

    Since progress depends upon discovery of the previously unknown, all we can truly understand about it are the principles which enable it.

  • Igor Shafarevich

    Even with free enterprise, the liberty school recognizes that there are certain basic functions, such as law enforcement, which governments can perform more effectively than the private sector.

  • Liberalism Is Nonsense

    Even if poverty is now relative rather than absolute, it is no less bitter when unsatisfied wants are iPhones instead of water and food.