MAXWELL:  Southern for beginners

11/23/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The romantic South of the professional Southerner with its soft sweet speech of Dixie is false and to some of us distasteful. The romantic South was a literary convention. . . . (But) the speech of our South . . . is oh, so sweet to the ears of a Southerner. . . . Let us preserve it.

_ William Cabell Greet

A few days ago, I had the wondrous experience of hearing Republican Sen. Strom Thurman of South Carolina speak on television.

I say “wondrous” because to hear this grand ole segregationist scalawag “tawk” (a method of speech peculiar to the South despite decades of television and radio) is to take a linguistic tour of the nation’s most inscrutable region.

I am still trying to figure out what the nearly 95-year-old Southerner was saying. His accent was so thick that the words sounded like a foreign language.

Please understand that I am not writing a treatise on Southern dialect, even though such a document would be valuable. Sure, Yankees and others could benefit from knowing, for example, that generations of illiteracy, isolation and a host of other social and cultural forces caused Southerners to speak the way they do.

But a newspaper column is not the appropriate forum for such an exegesis. My goal is less ambitious. While listening to Thurman hold forth (actually, he mumbled) on the Senate floor, I realized that millions of snowbirds are flocking to the South for the winter, and tens of thousands of them will have trouble trying to figure out what the hell we are saying down here.

What follows is an alphabetically arranged primer of words and expressions to help snowbirds navigate the mysterious shoals of Southern dialect. My main source is Steve Mitchell’s book, How To Speak Southern. You will notice, by the way, that black and white Southerners use many of the same terms.

Ah: The organ you see with, and a first-person pronoun. “Ah think Ah’ve got mud in my ah.”

Attair: contraction used (the speaker usually pointing) to indicate a specific item desired. “Pass me attair bowl of griyuts (grits), please.”

Bad off: In desperate need of, also terribly ill. 1. “What you doing with Hustler magazine? Son! You must be bad off.” 2. “Bubba stayed in bed all weekend with a hangover. He’s bad off.”

Break bad: To act violently or outrageously. “That durn Willie broke bad over that ole pickup. His tail now in jail.”

Comin’ up a cloud: An approaching storm. “Ain’t no need to wash the truck. It’s comin’ up a cloud.”

Commite nigh: To come extremely close to. “When Connie Sue saw her ole man hugging that stripper, she commite nigh shootin’ him.”

Cut the fool: To behave in a foolish or goofy manner. “Boy, stop cuttin’ the fool and slop them hogs.”

Done: 1. Finished. “Is that gal done cookin’?” 2. Already. “Has the train done gone?”

Eat up with: An excessive affliction. “Ole Larry’s plain eat up with love.”

Favor: To resemble. “They say when a married couple git ole, they favor each other.”

Fixin: Preparing to. “Ah’m fixin to fry a mess of catfish.”

Go to the bad: To spoil. “Don’t eat them 7-day-old collards. They done gone to the bad.”

Libel: Likely to. “When Earl gits home, he’s libel to be drunk as a skunk.”

Like to: Almost. “When Ah seen the preacher in the car with Sister Louise, Ah like to dropped my beer can.”

Mind: To obey. “Joey, you mind your mama while Ah’m at the tavern.”

Nairn: Not any; not one. “Sorry Ah can’t give you a cigarette. I ain’t got nairn.”

Nome: A kid’s negative reply to a woman’s question. “Tammy-Sue, did you take Jim’s slingshot?” “Nome.”

Play like: To pretend. “Here he comes. Play like yawl don’t see him.”

Prolly: Likely. “Jimmy Carter prolly won’t run for public office again.”

Ratcheer: In a particular spot. “Put that Bud ratcheer on the bar.”

Sorry: Shiftless, lazy. “That mechanic so sorry he won’t lift a wrench to fix his own mama’s pickup.”

Toreckly: Later. “Git on out there and cut the yard. Ah’ll be along toreckly.”

Ugly: Disagreeable, mean or unpleasant. “Ah know you don’t like your brother, but you don’t need to be ugly to him.”

Wore out: Used up, exhausted. “That ole mule is plum wore out.”

Zackly: Precisely. “Ah left that hound dog zackly ratcheer.”

So, if you are a snow bird and plan to mingle ‘mongst good old boys, Crackers, Rednecks and rural black folk, bring along this primer. I must warn you that it might not help in translating Thurmanese _ a piece of work unto itself.