As I begin to write out this piece, I’m sitting in a tiny, square sandwich shop called, Bob’s Sandwiches. It’s located on a side street in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and I have never eaten here. I’ve passed by it a time or two, and there used to be a geocache on the property that I wasn’t able to find, but I’m told it’s a piece of Brookhaven history that needs to be experienced. We’ll see. I travel to Brookhaven every six to eight weeks for work, and I was recently told I’m pronouncing it wrong. I say, BROOK’- haven, but apparently, the locals pronounce it, br’k-HAY’-ven. Being corrected sent my mind into a dive as I thought of other words that are pronounced differently, based on your region, which then set me to thinking about phraseology, and I came up with some doozies that separate we southerners from the rest of creation. So sit back a spell and enjoy it, because I’m Michael Blackston, and this is lesson in the dialect that some say amounts to butter rolling off the tongue in my Funny Messy Life ... or as some folks around here say, LYFE.
The English language is said to be one of the hardest to master because there are so many variations of meaning that can come from the same spelling of a word. That’s called a HOMOGRAPH. Then you’ve got HETERONYMS, which are a type of homograph that are also spelled the same and have different meanings, but sound different. Some words can be both homographs and heteronyms if they sound the same, and are spelled the same, but have different meanings. And then there are WHATTHECRAPHS, which are all of the above, but you say them like a southerner.
Okay, Bob’s Sandwiches just served me my burger and DADGUM! (Which is a southern way of saying, “Well, slap ya grandmama, that’s good!”)
That’s a fine place to start - the word dadgum. Dadgum is distinctly southern, but it can serve to express emotion in a myriad of ways. If you find unexpected joy in something such as a beautiful lady passing by, or the first bite of a delicious large burger with ketchup, mayo, and extra cheese, you can get your delight across to anyone in earshot by exclaiming, DADGUM!
On the contrary, you can use the same word to express disappointment. If you’re waiting at a red light and the last car you need to go by so you can make a left turn has nothing better to do than let their vehicle glide down the road at the default speed in drive without putting their foot on the pedal, you might have to let your emotions be known. Daaaaad-gum it! Because they caused you to miss your chance to turn.
Of course, there are the classics. You say To-MAY’-toe, or To-MAH’-toe ... we say MAY’-ter.
All my life, I’ve spent time around fishermen. I usually went for largemouth bass when I tried, unsuccessfully, to angle, but some folks like to sit on the bank of a river and try for a smaller pan fish called, Bream. We pronounce it BRIM in my circles, but I could throw a rock blindfolded and hit somebody who will pronounce it, BREE’-yum. That’s just our southern accent, though. There’s another popular fish - a hybrid between a largemouth bass and a bream - that I’ve always called a Crappie, pronounced the same way you pronounce a typical critique of Star Wars, episodes 1-3. But the other day, I was in a conversation with a customer in Alabama, and when we started talking about fishing, I mentioned Crappie. She said, “You mean, CRAH’-ppie.”
“No, I meant crappie.”
She shook her head, “No, it’s pronounced, CRAH’-ppie. Not crappy, like you’d say it if you were describing Auburn’s football program”.
I told her where I’m from, we say CRAP’-pie.
She screamed, “Roll Tide!” and stormed out.
Dialects have been responsible for changing the pronunciation of words for years, though. The thing that makes a southerner’s words roll off the tongue like melted butter off a biscuit is the use of particular phraseology that is unique to areas below the Mason/Dixon line. There are a ton of them. I’ll list some of my personal favorites, and try to give the best explanation I can as to how they originated.
I’m not the first person to point these out either, so I’m going to try to visit some of the less cliche’ phrases, like Bless your heart, and Y’all come back, now. Instead, let’s tackle some of the more colorful turns of phrase in the catalogue of the Deep South.
1. If the Good Lord’s willin’ and the creek don’t rise.
When I started the research for this, I realized right away that this whole process might be a rabbit hole I didn’t want to go down. You say this to somebody when you’ve been invited to a family reunion that’s three months down the road, or a gospel singing at your neighbor’s church tomorrow night, when your neighbor is a Methodist, and you’re a Baptist. It basically tells someone, I’ll try to make time, but I got a lot to do. It doesn’t always mean you’ll find a way for the Good Lord not to be willin’, or that you’ll go tear up the beaver dam in the creek behind your house, just so you’ll have an excuse, but sometimes it does. I’ve always seen it as a put off that’s less obvious than if you said, “If the wife don’t mind me leavin’ my underwear on the floor, and basement don’t need cleanin’ out.”
2. Madder’n a old wet hen.
To my understanding, this originates from egg farmers who used to dunk their hens in cold water if they got aggressive about people messing with their eggs. Apparently, being dunked in cold water makes a hen super mad, hence the phrase. Someone gets linked to this phrase when they’ve just had it and they ain’t having no more of it! A more current version of this kind of recognition might be along the lines of, Settle down, Karen!
3. The pot calling the kettle black
If you think about them for a minute, most of this terminology will make sense. This one means, You done gone and accused me of the same thing you’re doin’! You’re a hypocrite, .... preacher! On the stove, a pot gets the same char the kettle does, so why in tarnation would the pot have the sheer audacity to point out the blackness on the kettle’s butt, when it’s got some wiping to do of its own?
4. In tarnation!
My wife and I have spent several car rides discussing the origins of this gem. We believe it likely derives from the southern ability butcher multiple words in a sentence, then squish them together into one phrase. In other words, What’ntarnation?! could have originally been, “What in the entire nation?”
5. Well, ain’t you precious?
Sorry. It’s not a compliment. That reply comes right after you just told me the way something ought to be done because it’s the way you did it back home. Then you came here and thought, I’ll teach Billy Bob the right way to do things. Or maybe you told your grandmother her peach cobbler was a little too sweet. Nine times out of ten, hearing this means you’re one breath away from somebody jerking a knot in your head.
6. I’m about to jerk a knot in your head!
You just said the wrong thing after being told you were precious, and through some sweet, southern grace and mercy, you’ve been given once last chance. Think very carefully about what you do, or say, next. It could mean the difference between living a full and happy life, or finding yourself ...
7. Deader’n a door nail.
This means dead. Not just a little dead, but really, seriously, dead. Scholars think the use of the word “door nail” could be referring to the large nails on medieval doors. Versions of this term have been used as far back as the 1300s, and some semblance of it was mentioned in the writings of Shakespeare. I doubt your granny will care where it came from though. Poor mouth her cobbler one more time, and you’ll become acquainted with it fast.
I just love the south. We pride ourselves on the way we talk, though I’m not crazy about listening to someone who speaks inarticulately because they think it makes them sound tough. My wife and I have worked hard to raise our children to speak clearly, but to also take pride in their heritage. We don’t use double-negatives, but we do embrace a few unconventional contractions, and we ain’t never gonna stop.
And if that bothers, you, well … bless your heart.
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