2010-05-06 / Editorial Page

Across The Savannah

Talking Southern Y’all
By TOM POLAND

Folks outside the South occasionally make fun of how we talk, but now and then proof comes along that shows they like how we talk. Remember the Beach Boys “California Girls?” It had this telling line ... “And the Southern girls with the way they talk, they knock me out when I’m down there.” (I imagine some of you have that song in your head now.)

Nothing identifies a region like its language, and a language we have. James Dickey acknowledged this in “The Starry Place Between the Antlers,” an essay that appeared in Esquire magazine in 1981. A Georgian, Dickey wrote about why he liked living in South Carolina, and particularly why he liked the Lowcountry and the way people there talk.

Referring to the walled gardens of Charleston and Savannah, he wrote about how he loved their brick walks, baronial wrought-iron palings, and moss. He wrote, too, about the way folks talk around Charleston. “In the air too there are strange and soft intonations, the extraordinary pronunciation of ordinary words, said this way only here; boat is ‘bow-ut’ and date ‘day-ut.’ “ Bring Ernest Hollings to mind?

The reality is we Southerners have a rich language, not only because of our magnificent accent, but peppered and spiced with colorful sayings that enthrall outsiders though at times it can be a bit undecipherable.

All this Southern talk stuff came about in an unexpected way. Seems we Southerners don’t always know the origin of our expressions. A phone call from my mom planted the seed for this column. Her dad used to refer to a preacher as a “jack-leg” preacher.

“What,” she asked, “does jackleg mean?” I didn’t know either. And so it was I began to recall and research the expressions we Southerners use. A flow of colorful language poured over me, words and expressions like “dreckly,” “fixing,” “foolin’ around,” and “nekkid.” Some of these words arise from our drawl. They add character to our way of talking. Some colorful phrases evolved from everyday observations and common sense. Put them all together and a colorful language comes from our region.

“That boy’s about two bricks shy of a full load” I told a co-worker about a new hire who couldn’t cut the mustard. Wasn’t long before we had to let him go.

“Nekkid as a jaybird.” You’ve heard that. “That girl was nekkid as a jaybird. I mean all she was wearing was her birthday suit.”

And all of us are always fixing to do something. “Hey, I was fixing to feed the dogs. I’ll call you back dreckly.”

It turns out that a jack-leg preacher is a fellow who self-taught himself the ways of the cloth. You can also have a fellow fix your car who’s a jack-leg mechanic. Self taught. That’s an admirable thing, teaching yourself a trade, but I’m sure it has to have its limits.

“Hey, I guess you hear what happened on old man Smith’s farm.”

“No, don’t believe I did.”

“They found a jack-leg skydiver. Found him headfirst in a cornfield about four feet deep. Nothing but his feet sticking out. Nekkid as a jaybird. All that wind from falling so high stripped his clothes off.”

“Well I’ll be.”

“Yep, packed his own parachute, he did, the jack-leg.”

“Well did you hear about old man Steele’s barn?”

“I heard it burnt clear to the ground.”

“Shore did. He tried to save a buck and hired a jack-leg electrician. Ain’t nothing left but cement blocks.”

We have our own way of telling things for sure, and we inherited a way with words. So what if the grammar is all catawampus. Now there’s a rather strange word, “catawampus,” meaning something’s all crooked, unbalanced, out of kilter, and, well, catawampus.

“Don’t sit in that chair, lest you fall, it’s catawampus. Best sit somewhere else.”

Catawampus, by the way, bears no relationship to a wampus cat. That’s a tale for another day.

Some folks refer to the way we talk as being rich with colloquialisms, a fancy word that refers to those ordinary words we use in conversation. Standing alone, they seem out of place, but properly heard in an earnest conversation they make sense.

A friend of mine, a Charlestonian, with one of those blueblood Southern names, “Moultrie,” was down at the International House of Pancakes one night this past winter. His wife had gone to Edisto Island with her girl friends for a “girls’ getaway.” Moultrie was enjoying a “breakfast” dinner of waffles, bacon, grits, and eggs when the couple in the booth behind him caught his ear. They were rehashing the disappointing tale of how their church had lost its preacher a year earlier.

As their story unfolded, it seemed the reverend’s wife was no spring chicken. The word, “dowdy,” came up. Apparently the preacher himself, the jack-leg variety, was a handsome man trapped in a marriage with aforementioned dowdy one. In a story as old as dirt, he started foolin’ around with a woman who was pretty as a speckled pup. The couple referred to her as a younger fellow’s “trophy wife.” She lived per near that jacklegged preacher. Turns out they weren’t exactly two peas in a pod.

Her jilted husband, embarrassed and hurt, so they said, ran around town like a chicken with its head cut off, but things turned around for him. After all, the sun doesn’t shine on the same dog’s tail all the time. The young husband had the last laugh. Turns out his wife, the high-maintenance trophy wife, could make a preacher cuss, and when the reverend caught her with a friend of his, cuss he did. As the story progressed, the reverend was fixing to divorce her when Moultrie, realizing something in the grits wasn’t gravy, paid his bill and left IHOP.

Right here, I’m afraid, is where this tale of woe gets cut short. Moultrie never heard what happened to the jack-leg preacher and the other fellow’s trophy wife.

Ok, nothing’s true about that jackleg preacher story. I don’t even know a fellow by the name of Moultrie. I made it all up, but you knew that. Sometimes a writer had rather climb a tree and tell a lie than stand on flat ground and tell the truth.

So, I’m ending this Southern talk column right now. If you good readers know of some favorite Southern phrases, send them my way. Just don’t take a month of Sundays to do it. I have deadlines to meet.

Email Tom with feedback and ideas for new columns. tompol @earthlink.net

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