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The Town Crier: Southern slang | lifestyles

Southerners have a rightly earned reputation for funny tales and sayings.

A few months ago, one of my Facebook buddies posted a couple of old sayings and asked others to pitch in their favorites. As usual for that subject there was a good, colorful mix and, as usual, there were a lot we all know.

Shortly after that I came across an old copy of the Atlanta Sunday paper (they used to deliver it here in Dalton on Sunday mornings) and it had a series of articles on Southern sayings.

When you look at this literary sideshow, most of which have come from common folks rather than formally educated novelists, you see we’re a pretty funny and creative group of people.

I’ve seen videos on the internet where a Southerner has used a local expression and the person from another part of the country that heard it had no idea what the saying meant. A lot of the sayings are pretty self-explanatory but I would be curious about where some of them originally came from.

Some of the sayings are crude, some are insulting, some are wise, but almost all are amusing. And I’d be willing to bet that many of them came over from Scotland, Ireland and West Africa where many of the Southern ancestors came from.

Country rather than Southern

A lot of the ones you still hear today are actually “country” rather than just Southern, meaning they come from the countryside and farms rather than a city setting. You can find sayings like that in many places where people and farm animals and fields interact. Surely milk isn’t as sweet when the cow eats onions in Japan or Austria as sure as in Murray County.

Southern conversation in many cases isn’t quiet like other parts of the country’s conversations. There they talk about a subject, maybe agreeing, maybe debating different points. But here in the South if you’ll pay attention to how the conversation goes it frequently turns into people telling one story after another. Someone will be talking about something and the other person will say “that reminds me of…” and launch into a story that may or may not have much to do with the original subject.

I think that’s one reason why Southerners get up to go and say goodbye in the house and an hour later they’re still talking in the driveway next to the car, while petting the dog.

My grandmother had a couple of expressions she would use that weren’t really a wisp of wisdom, but more like an expletive suitable for a Sunday school teacher. She would say things like “I swan,” which I assume was a replacement for “I swear” since she was taught never to swear. She would also say “they law.” You would use it in a place you might say “you don’t say” but I’m not sure where it came from or what it meant originally. She would also say things like “I’ll make you get your own switch” but there’s nothing humorous or amusing about that!

Threats are always handy. Ones I’ve personally been on the wrong end of include “I’ll jerk a knot in your tail” or “I’ll knock you into next week” or “I’ll snatch you bald-headed.” Of course any of these can have variations so you might hear “I’ll knock you bald-headed” or some other take on it.

Goat Man threats

One of the worst ones I had as a little kid was pretty local to one stretch of the South, mainly along Highway 41, and that had to do with the Goat Man. If you don’t know who that is, I’ve written about him before and his story is on the internet, but he was a real person that came through Dalton a couple of times a year decades ago. He had goats with him and you smelled him before you saw him.

The expression that got my little 4- or 5-year-old attention was something along the lines of “If you don’t get in that bathtub right now I’m going to give you to the Goat Man.”

Of course when I was a little older I considered it a viable option. Traveling around the countryside town to town and never having to take a bath had its attractions.

I’ve heard variations on “stepping in high cotton,” meaning walking around in good times. If the cotton’s high you’re going to make some money. The flip side of that coin is “a tough row to hoe,” which indicates a tough patch to get through, like a row in the garden that’s all grown up and needs to have the weeds hoed out.

I think we’ve all heard “flopping around like a chicken with its head chopped off.” I’ve not seen that personally but have talked to those who have and it’s apparently based on fact. I’ve heard “dumber than a stump” and “meaner than a (striped) snake” and I get both of those. There’s not many stumps in big cities but they do have plenty of hammers, so “sack of hammers” will work about anywhere.

The South is like its own nation with different parts, landscapes, foods and accents, so expressions can change depending where you are. Near Brunswick or in Florida, an alligator may come into play in an expression: “Her skin de ella is as smooth as a gator’s!” If you live near a stream, “Lord willing and if the creek don’t rise,” which is particularly funny for me since my grandparents had to put off their wedding in East Tennessee because the creek rose! And to get really specific, on the east side of Atlanta someone said, “He’s so old he remembers when Stone Mountain was just a rock!”

With the farms, forests and swamps abounding, there are plenty of sayings that use animals to get the point across.

“Sleep with the dogs, wake up with fleas,” “Smiling like a ‘possum with a mouthful of briers” and “He’s as crooked as a dog’s hind leg” are a few that illustrate a point by making a mind-picture with animals . Then there’s the “nervous as a cat on a porch full of rocking chairs,” “that old hound won’t hunt no more” and one I like because I have a pile of boards down at the corner of my property, “clumsy as a cow on a board pile.” You think a cow’s clumsy, you should see me up on top looking for a 2-by-4 to use for a project. And a newer one that seems a perfect fit for Dalton: “As confused as a cow on Astroturf.”

humor included

As I was reading through the lists of Southern sayings, several I had never heard before made me laugh. There were “If brains were leather he couldn’t saddle a flea,” “He’s so lazy he wouldn’t work at a pie factory as a taster” and “She’s so skinny she has to run around in the shower to get wet. ” Others I laughed at were “He’s such a foul-up, he could mess up a one-car funeral,” and one I heard a variation on in North Carolina, “I’ll slap you naked and hide your clothes!” If that’s not a threat I don’t know what it is.

Some of these are funny because there’s frequently some truth to them: “It’s as cold as a mother-in-law’s kiss”, “If I was any happier I’d have to be twins” and “I feel as left out as the third verse of a Baptist hymn.”

The folks that gathered these sayings together got some pretty odd ones in here. One that just makes me shake my head was “I haven’t had this much fun since the hogs ate my brother.” I don’t know whether to laugh or put that one in a horror movie. The one about being confused goes “I feel like a blind pig in a meat house” and makes some sense. I had never heard a dance called “a belly rubbing” until these sayings, nor had I heard the expression “I’m so sick I’d have to get better to die” but I have said, “I was so sick I wanted to die but was so sick I was afraid I would.”

Continuing on the bad luck track there was “If it was raining soup I’d be outside without a spoon!’

And if you don’t get better, here’s this bit of wisdom for the ages: “There’s no need for pockets on a dead man’s coat.” For marriages, there’s the bad news, “She drove her ducks to a bad market,” and the slightly better news, “Married the first time for the tingle, married the second time for the jingle.”

I hope you’ve picked up a few new useful Southern sayings here. Don’t hesitate to use them as we all have to do our job to keep the South unique.

And of course, don’t hesitate to make up your own since us Southerners are supposed to be witty and creative.

Next week the Town Crier will be back “faster than a hyster driver with his last roll of carpet.”


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