A recent editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about scientific types saying there’s no such thing as bobwhite quails (they’re wrong; they will forever be bobwhites, scientists be damned) brought back pleasant memories of childhood.
Our house was next to the property on which the Dayton Community Building sat (and still does), and in the ditch between us, bobwhites could often be spotted. I never knew just where the nest was, but enjoyed listening to their calls to each other and watching the chicks run. Many a summer afternoon was spent watching them.
But more than the bird and its call, I started thinking about words that instantly take me home—the ones that make me feel as if the people I grew up with are right here. For me, that would be words that are hard to say without sounding Southern, and, as far as I’m concerned, “bobwhite” is one of them. It doesn’t mean the word has to be Southern in origin. One of my all-time favorites, “persnickety,” is believed to be of Scots origin, but danged if you don’t sound Southern when you say it.
I asked my newsroom colleagues for their favorite words and phrases, and I was not disappointed—even the nawtheners couldn’t resist. What word nerd can?
The phrase that popped up the most was “fixin’ to,” and I’ve yet to hear anyone sound anything but Southern when saying it. Feature writer extraordinaire Eric Harrison (one of our former nawtheners) said, “First time I heard that, I replied, ‘Why, is it broken?’”
Maybe it was, having been tumped, possibly by one of my brothers. (Eric was also confused by the use of “ink pen” before he realized it was to distinguish it from a “straight pin” since they’re pronounced the same here.)
A wit in my high school would often tell people he was “repairing to” do something when someone else said “fixin’ to.” Surprisingly, he was not related to the coach who, having been lectured about misusing “good” and “well,” told the host as he left a faculty party, “I had a well time.”
There’s a vast store of snarkasm in my little section of western Arkansas. Shocking, I know. (That coach, by the way, also had a name impossible to say without sounding Southern: Bob Hattabaugh. There are a lot of names like that there.)
Other words will definitely identify you as Southern most of the time, even those little ones like “the” … that is, when followed by words like “Walmart” and “pot.” (“I don’t know what’s worse, him being on the pot or the oxy he got at the Walmart.”) Of course, if you add an “s” to the end of a store’s name (Walmarts), that’ll do it too. Say “might could” or “might should” and yes, you will be thought of as Southern, just as you would be after uttering “skeeter” or “whistle-britches” (one of my nicknames from a great-uncle and a few more of the elders from our church).
Feelin’ poorly? You might be “all stove up,” or about “give out,” “whupped,” “plumb wore out,” or “eat up” with some disease (possibly the sugar diabeetus). We used to have a neighbor who’d say he’d do about one or two “licks” a day with a hammer on the barn he was working on. I laughed then, but now I wonder how he managed the energy for even one lick … I’m lucky to be able to get half a lick in some days.
Greeting someone? Ask ’em, “Whatcha know good?” (If nothing else, it’ll confuse non-Southerners and amuse you.) Of course, you have to show some hospitality, so you might as well treat ’em to a mess of whatever’s ripe out yonder in the garden (purple-hulls should be just about ready by now; my mom’s are) and whatever you can fit in the buggy down at the IGA or the Piggly-Wiggly. If the young’uns have been acting up, tell ’em they’ll be getting a bundle of switches for Christmas. And remember, nothing good comes from too much piddlin’ around.
Wait … you gettin’ scared? You’re sweatin’ like a sinner in church and more nervous than a long-tail cat in a room full of rockin’ chairs. I may have to come up there and give you a piece of my mind. You just bug the fire outta me. I mean, I love you to death, but Lord, you make me wanna snatch you bald. Oh, sorry, I see you already got started on that.
If you didn’t know already, Southerners are just a treasure trove of wordy fun. And more than a little gumption.
Our outdoors columnist, Bryan Hendricks, was filled up with goodies, including “I tell you what,” and “Do what now?” He also offered up a story: “Years ago, while doing a magazine piece, I blew up on an NRA lawyer in Denver that finally pushed too far. I started with, ‘Let me tell you something, hoss …’ and suddenly I was channeling the spirit of my late father. It was his voice, his intonation, everything. It was as Southern as it got.”
Profanity, he added, “is definitely a Southern art. When a Northerner cusses, it sounds vulgar and filthy and mean. When a Southerner cusses, it’s almost lyrical.”
Which is one reason so many non-Southern people don’t know they’re probably being disrespected when they hear, “Well, bless your little pea-pickin’ heart.” Sure, sometimes we actually mean it, but the intonation for someone we like is completely different. We’re enigmas.
Southerners generally have been raised to be gracious, so for many of us, even saying “heck” in polite company is beyond the pale. But sometimes we get pushed too far and pitch a hissy fit and just have to let loose a stream of “dadgummit,” “crud muffin,” “Christamungus,” and “son of a biscuit” (my family always added “eater” to the end of that one). If we break out “sugar honey iced tea,” run. But I reckon it might already be too late. Been nice knowin’ all y’all.
Still … sounds just like home to me.
All we need is my late Texas-born grandma to spout off a certain one-syllable cuss word, but with seven syllables while Grandpa asks us if we’re eatin’ up his groceries. Ahhhhh …