For all the regional tensions in American politics, have you ever stopped to think what a boring country this would be without the South?
I was moved to this observation by an almost comically obtuse article on a website called businessinsider.com entitled “13 Southern Sayings That the Rest of America Won’t Understand.” Purporting to explain a list of “the most ridiculous Southern sayings” supposedly bewildering to persons outside the region, it mainly revealed its authors’ cultural naivete.
For example, is there a native speaker of English anywhere that doesn’t grasp the meaning of “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?” Nor is the phrase, coined by the 18th-century Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, a Southernism at all. Swift had a way of putting things succinctly.
A city guy, my father inherited his store of agricultural metaphors directly from rural Ireland. Indeed, many colloquial expressions — “mad as a wet hen,” is another — are more rustic than Southern in origin. The authors of the Business Insider article appear to think nobody outside the South could possibly have any knowledge of barnyard animals.
But then, many people think that. My Arkansas neighbor likes to talk about his amazement at meeting country boys like himself in the Army — Yankees from Pennsylvania and upstate New York. The expression “rode hard and put up wet” to describe somebody who looks wasted may be a pure Texanism. But the concept is immediately familiar to anybody who knows that horses need to be walked and groomed after hard exercise.
That said, there’s definitely something different about the way Southerners use language, although it’s in danger of disappearing as the nation becomes more suburbanized. Exactly how to characterize it is a tougher question.
As a kid growing up in New Jersey, I first heard the siren song of the South on AM radio. Popular music back then had grown formulaic and polite — all Patti Page and Perry Como. But not on WNJR in Newark, a station whose rhyming DJs played artists like B.B. King, Jimmy Reed and Little Willie John — blues singers with origins in the Deep South and wit and emotional directness unmatched in the Top 40. “Well you ain’t so big,” Jimmy Reed sang, “You just tall, that’s all.”
Elsewhere on the dial, my basketball jock friends and I started following the great Jerry West’s college career on WWVA out of Wheeling, W. Va. “Zeke from Cabin Creek.” After the games, they’d play straight-up country music: Don Gibson, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and the immortal Hank Williams.
Somewhere in there, I picked up a taste for bluegrass. On our second date, the Arkansas girl I eventually married and I went to see Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys at a high school auditorium in Nelson County, Va. It was incredible, like hearing Eric Clapton at a corner bar.
Anyway, I wouldn’t say it was how the Arkansas girl talked, but that was definitely part of it. She’d ask for a “pin” when she wanted something to write with. A city girl from Little Rock, she sounded like Huckleberry Finn to me.
Prices were “high as a cat’s back.” She’d refuse a second helping on the grounds that she was “full as a tick.” She’d libel her own posterior as “too much ham for the sack.”
Certain expressions were pure Arkansas. To spill something was to “tump it over.” Something misaligned or out of place was “womperjawed.” Like the best slang, no translation was ever required.
Her mother’s deadliest insult was “country-come-to-town,” to signify, well, a redneck buffoon.
I do think there’s an innate wisdom and modesty in reminding ourselves how close we are to nature, and how like the animals. That simplicity’s the soul of Southern wit.
Alas, defunct metaphors wither into cliches. Saying somebody’s “kicking up their heels” doesn’t convey much to somebody who’s never seen a herd of cows turned into a new pasture. To observe that somebody’s “grinning like a mule eating briars” merely sounds affected if there’s nary a mule for three counties around.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at email@example.com.)