I grew up in the South, no, in the Deeeeeep South. I was born and raised in the panhandle of Florida, or lower Alabama, as it is still often called. “My people” lived in the Deep South, literally for generations. Everyone, for generations back, spoke with a profoundly deep southern drawl. They knew nothing else.
I was to turn out differently in many ways. I attended a private school from kindergarten through 12th grade, and almost every teacher I had was a recent “transplant”—a northerner! As a result, I learned to speak 2 languages: English, and Southern English. I will always remember my drama teacher insisting that I not pronounce the letter “l” in words like “walking” and “talking.” I mean, for real, who ever could have known such a thing?!
I then would have to spend the years of my undergraduate, graduate, and post graduate degrees learning to excise my local vernacular from my writing style. You see, I had a vast collection of southern colloquialisms with which I regularly thought and spoke. I had to learn to speak and write with more linguistic precision and less, oh, colorful turn-of-phrase.
After returning to the South after spending 2 years up north completing my doctoral coursework, I vividly recall my utter shock when hearing “May I take your order?” blast, in slow motion, from the loud speaker at the fast food drive-through window. This was the first time I had heard “southern” in two years. At first I thought the person was doing a characature of unspeakably thick southern drawl. No. That’s just really how she spoke. Wow!! Impressive!
Even though I no longer think (at all) like the vast majority of southerners, I must confess, I will always love my deep southern roots. Here is one silly example. This past Spring, when the flowering bush (pictured to the right) bloomed1, I was enchanted by this ever-so-southern fragrance from my childhood. Also, I can, and do, don my southern accent as needed—like putting on a fine Sunday suit. The South is, and always will be, in my blood.
As Steve reads his Aunt Helen’s2 journals, he frequently comes across an expression no longer in common use. Many of the expressions I regarded as southern were in fact more universal expressions of a bygone era. My grandparents and great aunts and great uncles all used her expressions too. The older generation had very colorful idioms that I find astonishingly endearing because they remind me of people I loved dearly, people who all died many, many years ago now.
Perhaps, also, the expressions are endearing because they also remind me of a time when my life was only as complicated as figuring out when I could go out and play instead of wondering if I go to a restaurant frequented by gay people, will I be the victim of the next terrorist massacre3? Times were, in fact, very, very different back just a few decades ago. Oh, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not really sure they were any better. I mean, they certainly weren’t better for black people or for women. They were just different. The young, after all, see the world very differently than the old.
I’ve compiled these expressions I heard frequently from just two generations back, expressions you rarely hear at all today. Feel free to add any colorful turns-of-phrase you recall hearing from generations past.
- Ain’t that just a fine how do you do (referring to something unpleasant)
- A little birdie told me (I know something that’s supposed to be a secret)
- Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes (so good to see you)
- Barking up the wrong tree (wasting your time, talking to the wrong person)
- Bless your heart (an expression of sympathy often fained)
- Born with a sliver spoon in his/her mouth (spoiled or entitled)
- Can’t never could (stop saying you can’t do something and just do it)
- Catawampus (crooked or tilted)
- Chewed our ears off (talked forever)
- Fix his wagon (get even, karma)
- Get on the stick (do it right now, stop “lollygagging”)
- Horse feathers (said in disgust en lou of swearing)
- Knee high to a grasshopper (just a wee thing)
- Knock me over with a feather (shocking, incredulous)
- Like greased lightning (very fast)
- Living in high cotton (well to do)
- Old stompin’ grounds (familiar area formerly frequented)
- Now, make a bee line (hurry up and start)
- Prim and proper (exactly right, just so)
- Rattle his bird cage (shake him up)
- Sittin’ ’round like a bump on a log (lazy)
- Start from scratch (start from the very beginning)
- Straight laced (exactly right, proper)
- Tall drink of water (tall and thin)
- That just takes the cake (shocking or outrageous)
- Too big for his/her britches (thinks too highly of him/herself)
- Turn over a new leaf (reverse course and be good)
- Well, I do declare (suprised, acknowledgment)
- You don’t say (suprised, acknowledgment)