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Speaking Southern
by Beth Boswell Jacks

"South Mouth is the most charming of American dialects
- an attempt to 'find and keep the music in American language'
. . . melodious . . . [with] relaxed rhythms."
- Robert Hendrickson, WHISTLIN' DIXIE


    I've always loved Southern expressions. I grew up hearing daily the funny phrases of my mother, a whiz with Dixie-isms. Mama is 88 now and still spouting witty words. We recently took a trip together to a family wedding, and I grabbed the chance to record some of her gems.

    * "Honey," Mama said one day, "I don’t know most of these folks at this wedding from Adam's housecat."

    Well, we Southerners all know what she meant, but for the transplanted Yankee, Mama was simply improving on "I wouldn’t know 'em from Adam's off ox," referring, linguist Robert Hendrickson says, to the "off" ox in the yoke farthest away from the driver. This is a variation of "I wouldn't know him from Adam," which isn't much good, Hendrickson points out, since most of us wouldn't have a bit of trouble recognizing a fellow wandering around in nothing but a fig leaf.

    * "I realize my hair looks terrible," Mama told us before the bridesmaids luncheon, "but all I could do was give it a lick and a promise."

    She brushed her hair quickly, says Hendrickson, and vowed to spend more time in curlers later. An entertaining book called WHY DO WE SAY IT? (Castle Books) contends the "lick" probably comes from the "licking into shape" a mama bear gives her newborn cubs. How sweet is that?

    * Mama's answer to How you feeling this morning? was this: "Fair to middling, and how's your corporosity?"

    Corporosity is an old-fashioned term, Hendrickson writes, for one's body or state of health, probably deriving from corpulence, of which our husky family has plenty. (I can hear my sisters protest -- with good humor, of course -- "Speak for your cotton-pickin' self, blabber mouth.")

    * "My goodness," said Mama, observing the passel of great-grandchildren, "they're darlin', but they sure are full of beans."

    No, she wasn't referring to gaseous, although that wouldn't have been far off the mark. Beans have long been considered energy producers, and believe me, those kids were definitely about as "full of beans" as any chilluns cooped up in a hotel could be.

    * “I’ll swanee, Little Jack is the spittin’ image of his Uncle Jack,” Mama said about her great-grandson, curly-haired Jack Beckham.

    “Spittin’ image?” WHY DO WE SAY IT? explains this expression is a reference to two people so similar one could have been spit from the other’s mouth. Ptooey!

    * “Did you see the tall gal down in the lobby?” Mama asked me. “She was almost naked as a boiled chicken.”

    Self-explanatory, this one. And the gal was.

    * Saving the best for last, Mama declared at the wedding reception that “she hadn’t had such fun since the hogs ate grandma.”

    I’m not touching that. Mama’s the only one with enough snap in her garters to talk about porkies gobbling granny-women . . . and she did have one mighty fine time.

    I’ll go, but I challenge readers to keep the music of Southern Speak flowing. It’s a heritage thing -- a Dixie duty, as one sorry poet put it, “to our latitudes of lovely langour.”

    I don’t know. I believe that last is just about too much sugar for a dime, as Mama would say.


    Editor of USADEEPSOUTH, Beth Boswell Jacks is the author of 3 books (Grit, Guts, and Baseball and Snippets I and II) and is also a weekly columnist for a number of Southern newspapers. Readers and editors may contact her at bethjacks@hotmail.com.
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