Family Talk, Southern Style

I have established that Southern speak is its own form of English. Where else does your mama look at you and say something like “well, honey, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”.  I submit to you, no where.

Now imagine not just one Southern mother in a room but several.  Then imagine that they are all related.  Then add in their husbands, children, and grandchildren.  This is like a festival of sayings, slang, and general entertainment.

I was recently home for an extended visit due to the death of my beloved Auntie O. In the South when death occurs many visits and countless food deliveries follow. Luckily, my family loves to eat and there are plenty of us to do it. I have 13 first cousins ranging in age from 6 to 58, 14 second cousins, and 5 third cousins with one on the way.  These are just the cousins in my immediately family – on my father’s side they go on forever. In fact, there is one holler in town where I am related to everyone in it.  These 33 cousins are just the beginning. And, I know that this is not the proper legal designation for cousins – no need for some smart wills and estates lawyers to correct me here.  Of all those family members at least 29 were present at this sad occasion. In one house. Amongst the crowd were three lawyers, three physicians assistants, three nurses, five teachers, two ultrasound technicians, a speech language pathologist, nurse practitioner, a pilot, and a “hell of an engineer” as my Daddy says.

Below are some random comments that I overheard throughout one evening (please note that there is no way for me to put all these into context).  This will give you a taste of a close Southern family in all its glory.  Enjoy!

“I reckon we can tie a chain to it an pull it out?”

“That was the time we got that VW Beetle stuck in Bath County during the snow storm, that is what they are talking about.”

“We lived at the good end of the bottom, on the other side of the restaurant.”

“What is that (referring to a cousin’s tattoo)?”

“Donald slept in the Rambler that whole summer.”

“You were a happy baby, you just did not sleep.”

“Am I related to all these people?”

“Which one is your Dad?”

“Are you all still talking about the dogs?”

“Don’t give away my pickled beets.”

“Does he [vegetarian cousin] know that those green beans were made with fatback?”

“No, but I can’t wait to tell him.”

“She knew how to boss.”

“She hid the chicken and dumplings.”

“She made me give her a dip . . . the color drained out of her face . . . then she was laid out on the front porch throwing up.”

“This is no place for someone with a headache.”

“I can’t tell you I love you enough.”

“I can’t listen enough.”


77 thoughts on “Family Talk, Southern Style

  1. Pingback: Instapundit » Blog Archive » FAMILY TALK, southern style….

  2. I’m in South Carolina.
    Someone recently told me, about my newborn son “You can’t deny that baby”.
    I was thinking, “Deny him? Why would I want to deny him anything? He can have all the milk he likes”, before it hit me. . .
    She was saying he looks just like me, and therefore I can’t pull a “John Edwards” and deny that I’m the FATHER.
    Good stuff!

  3. Thank you so much for referring to us as Southerners. Last month someone from Louisiana called people from our area “Damn Yankees.” The only thing I could say was, “Hasn’t she heard me speak?” I love our culture and I’m so proud of being a resident of Southwest Virginia.

    I am a professional person, but I still use the words ain’t and yonder. Colloquialisms are a way of life for us. You’re absolutely right, we have our own language. Sometimes, people like to put down or belittle what they don’t understand. But our people, Southwest Virginians, are not the uneducated fools that the media so often portrays. In fact, out of my first cousins, four of us have doctorate degrees. Heck, I haven’t even had a Mountain Dew since college.

    And, I will forever be amused at anyone who chooses to refer to me as a Yankee.

    I hope all is well with you and I’m sorry for your loss.

  4. SG, you know that I was brought up in the same place as you and that I now live in South Carolina; sometimes I leave folks scratching their heads with the things I say. It tickles me to no end! My own children, who have never lived in our beloved mountains, know that it is the height of insult to hear this Momma say of someone out and about “Lord, they act like they’ve never been off the head of the holler!” They also know what “a pone of bread” is , that greens come in “a mess”, that we don’t eat “brown beans” or “pintos”; we eat “soup beans”. They know that they have all been “dug out of your Daddy’s rear end” (a compliment from their paternal uncle, of course). They also know to be on the look out if Momma is “about to snatch a knot in your tail” and that their Papaw always carried his purchases “in a poke”. They know where “yonder” is, have been “plumb tuckered out” and have their hearts blessed on a regular basis. One of my favorite memories is when my Mammaw and Aunts would be getting up to leave from a visit to our house and Daddy would say “Whyn’t yuns stay a spell?” and Mammaw would say “Yuns go with us.” as she walked out the door. Thanks for bringing those to the front of my brain today!

  5. From Baton Rouge….

    “Since god was in short pants” is one of my favorites.

    “Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.”

    “No better than you’d expect her/him to be.”

    “Turn left where the widder Jones used to live.”

    “Nervous like a long tail cat near a rocking chair.”

    “Busier than a three legged dog in a chicken coop”

    And I had an “Uncle Brother” – he had seven younger sisters – I found out at his funeral that his real name was Vince.


    PS – What I really really miss is my old fat aunts who could COOK. Lordy.

  6. Oh, you left out the best one! Few Yankees understand this, but when a Southern woman says “Oh, honey, bless your heart”, the only appropriate response is to run for your life. It’s OVER.

    My mama was born and raised in New Orleans, a mardi gras queen. Daddy came from the coalfields of southwestern Pennsylvania. I’m a hybrid if ever there was one. I loved visiting my mom’s family where EVERYONE referred to me as “Miss Pamela”.

    I’ve been in Virginia for more than 20 years. I marinate in it and I love it.

    • Thanks Pam! You are right, “bless your heart” is a classic. I say it ALL THE TIME! People in Indiana giggle at me when I do it, knowing that something negative is probably going to follow it. I am also to partial to “love his/her heart”. Enjoy Virginia, I miss it dearly. Thanks for commenting, please come visit again. SG

      • While my Mama and family says “bless your heart” I use the phrase that I heard John Duffy say: “Bless your heart…..and other vital organs!”

      • Being from north of the Mason Dixon line, I still got to hear many of the blessed lines, as I’m in a Navy town. The one that got me, though, was bless your heart. Heard a comedian from the south explain it this way: Bless your heart is code for, you’re an idiot. Always seems to fit.

      • Matthew – I say bless your heart or love his/her heart at least 5 times a week. And it usually prefaces some negative comment, which could be “he/she is an idiot”. We try to say it lovingly! Thanks for commenting and coming by for a visit. Hurry back. SG

  7. “I have established that Southern speak is its own form of English. Where else does your mama look at you and say something like “well, honey, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”. I submit to you, no where.”
    You’ll hear that English in rural parts of umm, England.

  8. Sorry for your loss but thank you for the priceless bits of family conversation. My deceased Southern grandmother’s birthday is the 23rd and I miss her and her sayings. Two come to mind:
    “Bless her heart, anything she puts on looks like two cents.” and “Darlin’, don’t worry too much about the dinner. If things don’t go well in the kitchen just make the cocktail hour longer.”

  9. If you have wet-looking, slicked back hair, they’ll say, “You look like the little boy that the calf went over.” (Meaning, licked all over.)

    If you are acting crazy, they’ll say, “You need to be bored for a hollow-horn.” (Pronounced “holla-horn,” this refers to the problem of a steer or other horned farm animal getting an infection under/in their horn, causing pressure, causing the animal to get ornery and act crazy. The solution is to drill a hole in the horn to let the fluid out and release the pressure.)

    If you are acting crazy in a low-class and petty kind of way, they’ll say, “Quit actin’ like a Dutton.” (The Duttons were a family of no-account folk who did hired labor on my great-grandfather’s farm in Hart County, Georgia. They lived in not one, but three shacks near the farm. When the woman got mad at her husband (?), she’d hurl kitchenware at him until all the crockery was busted to smithereens, and the man would stomp off and live in one of the other shacks for a piece — that means a month or so. Then they’d make it up and either she’d move in with him or he with her, until the next fight, a week later. They lived apart more than together.)

  10. Very fun! I’m a Nashville native, and I have friends in Alabama that call me a yankee! LOL
    The Southern vernacular is a wonderful thing! Though I’ve noticed, sadly, due to the dilution of the native population w/ non-southerners in recent years, the number of proper speakers of “southern” is alarmingly low… and catch myself on occasion fussin’ at my son (a 10th grader) because of his habbit of saying “you guys”?!?

    Oh, and one my mom says… if you ask her how she’s doing, she’ll answer, “I’m in high cotton”.

  11. I kept reading, and reading…. and wondered when you would get to the “Southern” stuff. My rural Kansas family must have a Southerner in it that I didn’t know about, because this is pretty much how we talk, too! And in Kansas City where I live now? Not so much. These folks use really bland speech. I loved your post!

  12. Heh, I’m from Missouri (ee, not ah) but I’m a Southern boy at heart and by breeding (I’ve got relatives spread along the Gulf Coast from Galveston to Mobile). I eat my grits the right way (with butter & salt not butter & sugar), and my idea of a full breakfast includes biscuits and gravy, beans, grits, eggs, and some form of dead animal (preferably chicken fried), that said the “damn yankees” comment tickled me.

    My fiance and her family are from the Chicagoland area and got no end of amusement from my preference for saying y’all and all y’all (which, as I explained, was the proper plural usage of y’all), or the sheer number of sayings I had for things (most popular were ‘If I was you, Julius, which incidentally I am…’ used to preface a bit of helpful advice, and ‘That’s about as useless as tits on a boar hog.’ a saying I’m sure needs no explanation) so imagine my amusement when we went down to Arkansas for Thanksgiving and ran into folks who insisted I sounded just like a Northerner and figured out my fiance must be Canadian or sumthin’. Near as I can figure, it’s all a matter of perspective,

    Anyhoo, I just figured I ought to share. All y’all take care now!

    • Robert – I actually said “useless as a tit on a boar hog” tonight at dinner. The dream is still alive! All y’all is also one of my favorites, for sure. Thanks for commenting and please come back and visit again soon. SG

  13. I tell everyone that I speak Southeastern colloquial English. I’m from rural North Carolina. I’ve heard expressions like, “Beauty may be skin deep but ugly cuts clear to the bone” and “Beauty fades but ugly holds its on” and “That man would tell a lie if the truth made a better story”

  14. My sister looked at my son, then looked at my wife and said, “You just laid there didn’t you?” when she saw the baby. I guess that was a subtle way of saying the boy looked like me….


    • Subsunk – this is a great one. Crass yet charming. Very Southern. I often say “you can’t deny that one, can you?” when I see a kid that looks just like a parent, but now that kind of seems pedestrian. Thanks for sharing – come back and see me. SG

    • That made me laugh.

      When someone comments upon how much my Sister’s children look like my Brother-in-law, she sighs “All I gave ’em was birth”. Nuff said 😉

  15. At a recent gathering of some of my distant relatives, distant, not by distance, but by choice on my part, I overheard one of them say, “Could y’all wait until i put on my eatin clothes?”

    And no I did not misspell eating, that is the way that it was pronounced, “eatin”.

    What can you do, they’re relatives, it’s illegal to hunt them, well at least in these parts.

  16. That American colloquialisms are a good thing – that anybody’s colloquialisms are a good thing – is plainer ‘an a cow pissin’ on a flat rock. You’re a national treasure for reminding us of that, darlin’.

  17. Everyone pretty much knowws where the South begins on three of its sides, but where on the western side has always been sorta mushy (Texas, but….). Well, I will nominate ‘along I35, between the Rio Grande and Red rivers’. It follows the Balcones Fault through central Texas, splits Austin (appropriately enough; see a red/blue political map of the 254 counties) and San Antonio (the most racially mixed and least concerned about it city in the USA), and throws the ranching Olde West to the ‘hill country’ side of the road and the Olde South farming country to the ‘piney woods’ other.

    Well, now y’all know, even if you didn’t know before that you didn’t know, and were not overly worried about it anyway. I appreciate your time!

  18. Nothing but Southerners at my mom’s recent funeral. There was the tried and true, “Bless your heart.” (Sometimes upgraded to, “Bless your lil’ ole’ pea pickin’ heart.”)

    Grandkids who were acting up at who told they were gonna “git a whupping,” while commenting about those some “youngins,” “Ain’t she a pistol?”

    • Ray – Bless your heart is certainly a classic! I say it and “love his/her heart” all the time and, of course, I got my share of whuppings, and love my sister’s youngins to death. Thanks for coming by and commenting. Come back, ya hear! SG

  19. It is insidious. For a real disconnect live in a major Southern speaking city, meet a second or third generation Asian teenager and here her or him Y’all, Howdy, and such.

  20. Here from Instapundit. Dad’s from the Missouri Ozarks; Mom’s from Alabama. I loved this post! My favorite saying among my people for something tawdry we don’t wish to discuss: “Let’s leave that dog sleepin’ under the porch.”


  21. Whoo-boy, this made me giggle. I hafta tell ya, I think it may be more a ‘rural’ way of talking than just strictly southern (altho my paternal granma lived in MO ’til she was 6 or so). I grew up in western Nebraska. Maternal family in no way could be considered ‘southern’ (from eastern Nebr.), but not long before she passed while talking about someone, mom said that exact thing about sow’s ear/silk purse. I STILL catch cr@p from my darlin’ hubby occasionally about speech patterns. For ex., when referring to a chore not yet finished, I’ll say, “That needs done” (washed, put away, etc.). I leave out the “to be” in front of whatever needs, well, doin’! So when I find a dirty shirt, instead of “that needs washING” or “to be washed”, I just say, “that needs washED”. Weird, I know.

    I too have scads of family — as a kid, we had to rent out the upper ‘hall’ of City Hall for family Christmas dinner. Seriously. One of those dinners we only had ‘half’ the family, so went to an aunt’s house, largest around. We were almost gassed (major gas leak made several so ill they had to go home), made a kid so dizzy he fell & got a broken leg, crazy old-maid daughter of said aunt wouldn’t let anyone eat ’til her brother came home from hospital (he was dad of broke-leg kid), and because of the hrs. long wait, 8 people ended up w/food poisoning. Not to mention the drunks, arguing because still awake, or those passed out. All that booze & no food, ya know …

    And oh yes, a cousin & I were sparkin’ for a while. (I am, however, adopted)

    Ain’t family wunnerful? 😉

  22. Well, I swear.That just made my face grin all over and don’t nothing do that in this wicked ol’ world lessen it’s fine and fresh, know what I mean? Bless your heart.

  23. I used the term “crawfishin” the other day as in “well after he spoke to her he started crawfishin” It elicited a strange look. I thought it was a pretty descriptive statement.

  24. I am a native SoDak living in OK for 24 years. I love the South. I consider OK my home now. Lived here longer than any place in my 50 years.

    My opinion?! We in the South pretend to sound like hicks and idiots for a reason. We know all the things we need to know to survive, and hope the yankees stay the heck up North so we won’t have to bottle feed them down here if all heck breaks loose.

    As far as the comments you posted,

    “I reckon we can tie a chain to it an pull it out?”

    I have made that statement, asked that question, a number of times. And the item we were talking about was a bulldozer in a pond!! Ain’t life grand down South!!

  25. I grew up in Western Pennsylvania. All my older rural relatives of Scotch-Irish stock spoke like that — “Lord willin’ and the crick don’t rise” being the usual qualifier to any statement about future intentions, for example. My wife is from Yorkshire in England. One day shortly after we were married I used the expression “no flies on him” referring to somebody. She stared and said “the only place I’ve ever heard that expression is in Yorkshire.” We kept track after that and found that there were many western Pennsylvanianisms that seem to have come from northern England. Given that the Scotch-Irish originally came form the English-Scottish border area, that makes sense.

    • You may want to look into the McKee family. The came here pre-revolution, from Scotland, fought for william of Orange. Landed in what is now Pittsburgh. Their story is told in the book and movie “Centennial’ written by James Michener. Alexander was the patriarch. His son, Thomas married into the Shawnee nation. Her Shawnee name was Tecumsepah, her anglo name Margaret. Their son, Hugh, was Geo. Washington’s liason to the Shawnee nation during the war. McKees Rocks is named in his honor.

      Yes, they were some of my ancestors.

  26. I grew up in western SC and now live in the mountains of NC. There is a world of difference in the language and culture of those places, as close as they are geograpically. The South is composed of many sub- regions, each with an identifiable dialect. My mother was from Charleston, that’s weah Fote Sumptah is, oot ‘n tha hyabah, but ah can’t beah to tawk aboot it in front of thu yankez (or something like that). Where I live now they’s boogers in them hollers an Papaw ‘ull give you a whuppin if you don’t mind yer Maw. I don’t know much about the Gulf coast or the Ozarks, but my wife is from AtLAYanta.

  27. Being an Arkansan I really enjoyed your post. Since I just ate supper, I’m full as a tick on a hound dog and worthless as chicken poop on a pump handle.

  28. I am from a rural part of Mississippi! I’ve found that it never hurts to be smarter than people think you are, and those of us who speak “Southern” get to experience that pretty often. I’m fixin’ to go wash the supper dishes; y’all have a good evening!

  29. One of the most serious faults of National Public Radio is the godawful uniformity they force on the diction of their announcers – except for a very few quaint hyphenated-American ones. But Paul Brown must have been to the woodshed for months to convert his Tarheel speech into NPR-speak – to our loss.

  30. Grew up in SW Oklahoma of parents born in East Texas, so I’m proudly Southren. I remember being in a restaurant once when a couple of passing Yankees were eating there. As they were leaving, the waitress called out the usual cheery “Y’all come back now, hear?” and those two–both of them dumb as a stump–turned right around and came back!

    I remember a lot of old country sayings, the best one calling a good lawyer “slick as snot on a doorknob.”

  31. Sorry to hear about your Auntie’s passing.

    I lived my entire life in the Los Angeles area before moving to Dallas two years ago. For me, it’s not the sayings – my grandmother was from Oklahoma, so I’d heard a lot of ’em – but the odd pronunciations of city names around here. Palestine: pa less teen’. Waxahachi, which I still can’t remember how to pronounce. Rufe Snow is roof snow; I cannot stop myself from thinking “roofy snow” when I see it. Coppell: ko-pell’. Alvarado: al-vah-ray’-doh. Fort Worth: foat wuth. The other disorienting thing was listening to people talking about driving north or south on I35W or I35E…

    Well, I was fixin’ to tell you a lot more, but it’s dark as three feet down a cow’s throat out here already and we go to bed with the chickens, so I’ll say g’night, y’all. I did enjoy reading all y’all’s sayings. Bless your hearts!

    • Orchidoptera – I had this very conversation with my very Midwestern boss yesterday as we drove through rural Indiana. There are definitely some weird pronunciations out there, particularly city names. Where I am from my favorites are Fries, which is freeze and Dante is daint. Thanks for the comment, please come back and see me soon. SG

  32. From my Grandma (Texas):
    1. “Homely as an old mud fence”
    2. “I liked ta died” … shock, amazement, anger, disgust, joy, all purpose punctuation.
    3. ” Ricky, you gotta grunt?”
    4. ” Sh*t or get off the pot”
    4. “I erpd and I erpd and then I erpd up stuff I ain’t even et yet…. I liked ta died”
    Miss her … Her home ALWAYS smelled like Navy beans and ham hocks. and cornbread.

    • Rick – Thank you for sharing those quotes from your Grandma. I have never heard some of these, great stuff! In my house “she fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch” and when you are tired you are “kilt” think “I am killed”. Thanks for the comment and come back soon! SG

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  34. My wife, as a teenager in Mississippi, used to get in a hurry and not close the kitchen drawers all the way. Her daddy told her, “girl, you got pull, but no push”. She never left one open after that.

  35. I’m sad when I think of all the sayings and accents that we are losing because tv is making us so generic! I miss my Grandmother saying “commenced” meaning “began”. I do still love it when my aunt says she’s “as fat as a town dog” and it makes my heart melt when my uncle ends phone conversations with this 52 year old woman with “be a pretty girl” Thanks for this post. It made me chuckle and also a little teary missing grandparents and parents!

  36. I am very impressed with your summary, but must tell you that the dialog is not exclusive to the South. Many of the expressions, and the ambience you describe about your unfortunate southern funeral process occur every day in Pennsylvania (at least the part twenty miles outside of Philadelphia). The food, expressions, and reminisences all occur at each of my families funerals, and, thankfully, since all of the departed are quite old become celebratory of their lives, and our unique family and experiences. Thank you for your post, and since it’s “pridnear” 11:00, I need to “do” the wash, as soon as I “hunt up” my dip, and “rid up” the room.

    • Eric – Thank you for sharing. It sounds like Pennsylvania may be a nice place to spend some time! I think that this way of speaking is very much a rural thing in addition to having strong connections to the Southern vernacular. I appreciate the comment and hope you come back and visit again, real soon! SG

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