100 Words and Sayings Commonly Used in the South

One of the most important aspects of any culture is the language (and I’m not just saying that because I’m a linguist). To truly understand the people of any culture, you must first understand the language. With this being said, my first post in this series is dedicated to the sweet and slow language of the south.

To help provide organization and a more comprehensive flow, I have divided my list of 100 in to 9 categories: Time, Direction, Complements and Manners, Exclamations, Nouns, Adjectives, Anger, Insults, and Phrases. Under each word or phrase is a definition. Some of these definitions are simple, while others give a complete word history/etymology. The linguist nerd in me could not control herself! If you have any other words or phrases to add to my list, or any comments/alternate definitions, be sure to comment bellow! Language is a beautiful thing.

Time

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1. Slow as molasses

to move or function in a slow sloth like way, esp. compared to cooking molasses in a slow cooker

2. Fixin’ to

one is about to do something or it is in the process of being done

3. Hold your horses

Hold on; be patient

4. Be back directly

Shortly, pretty soon, before long; adequate description of living on Southern time

5. Cotton pickin’ minute

A cotton picking minute would last the exact amount of time it took the regular person to pick a basket of cotton. This is approximately 1.31 minutes per person; used in conversation as an intensifier; adds emphasis

6. Sit a spell

come and sit down for a little bit

7. Take your own sweet time

to use as much time as is needed; not rush; can also be used in a tone of exasperation because an individual is not moving fast enough or with purpose  

8. Once in a blue moon

Owing to the rarity of a blue moon, the term “blue moon” is used colloquially to mean a rare event

9. In a month of Sundays

The expression “a month of Sundays” was first used in 1832. It originally meant a long dreary time since games and other kinds of amusement were forbidden on Sundays. Now it is used as a hyperbole to mean a very long time

Direction

10. Over yonder

over there

11. Goin’ to town

 to give something a lot of attention and do something to the full extent or with enthusiasm. Eg. He is really going to town on that hamburger; Can also mean that one is literally doing to town, as in the store (usually Wal-mart) or out to run errands

12. Goin’ to hell in a hand basket

to deteriorate easily and rapidly; beyond hope

Complements and Manners

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13. Precious

describing something cute and/or pathetic; sometimes used with undertones of irony, but more often used in earnest when describing something small and/or adorable; cute

14. Yes M’am/Sir

Used with anyone and everyone, especially people who are more than 5 years older than you or that you are not well acquainted with; can be used an innumerable number of times without being redundant

15. Sug or Sugah

term of endearment that is also an acceptable title for strangers; commonly heard in restaurants when used by the waitress

16. Cute as a button

Adorable, cute, charming, attractive; almost always with the connotation of being small, and therefore extra cute.

17. Bless your heart

 1.phrase used by Southern women to excuse themselves for speaking ill of someone else. i.e “She’s as ugly as a mud-fence, bless her heart.”; 2.an expression of sympathy or pity. i.e.”Well, bless your heart, that must have been terrible!” ; a polite way to respond to flattering but unwanted compliments. i.e. “I think you’re beautiful! Even if you were ugly, I’d STILL think you were beautiful!” recipient: “…bless your heart.”

18. Mind your P’s and Q’s

a term used when you are needed a reminder when to watch your manners; originated from England pubs due to the fact that the pubs sold there beer in pints and quarts.

19. How’s yer mama ‘n them?

a polite way of showing respect and concern for someone’s family; should be used even when one already knows the answer, or especially when you want to find out the answer

20. Say yer prayers/the blessin’

No meals are to begin before blessing the food, and no heads on the pillow before your prayers are said.

Exclamations

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21. Oh, foot!

May also be replaced with “Aww shucks!” or “Aww man!” to show frustration, forgetfulness, or aggitation

22. Heavens to Betsy!

an exclamation of surprise, shock, or fear; but of course, what you would probably like to know is, ‘Who is Betsy?’. I still don’t know.

23. Supper time!

Most frequently used by mama to summon the children and husband to the dinner table, usually followed by the sound of a screen door slamming or pots rattling. Best two words ever.

24. What in the Sam hill…?

Sam Hill was a mercantile store owner who offered a vast and diverse inventory of goods. People began using the term “what in the Sam Hill is that?” to describe something they found odd or unusual, just like the inventory found in Sam Hill’s store. The original Sam Hill Mercantile building still stands on Montezuma Street in Prescott, Arizona, and is listed on the register of Historic Places.

Another possible origin for the phrase “Sam Hill” is the surveyor Samuel W. Hill (1819–1889). Hill allegedly used such foul language that his name became a euphemism for swear words.Whenever friends or neighbors retold his colorful tales in more polite society, they had to tame his unmentionables by substituting the sinless sounding words ‘Sam Hill’.

Today this phrase is most commonly used to express surprise, or incredulity.

25. I suwanne!

the Southern Hospitality vernacular phrase for “I Swear” because Mama and the preacher always taught that swearing is bad.

26. What in tarnation…?

“Tarnation,” which dates back to the late 18th century, is an interesting example of this generation of euphemisms because it’s actually two euphemisms rolled into one word. The root of “tarnation” is “darnation,” a euphemistic modification of the word “damnation,” which at that time was considered unfit for polite conversation. “Darnation” became “tarnation” by being associated in popular speech with “tarnal,” an aphetic, or clipped, form of “eternal.” So essentially it meant “eternal damnation”, however, today it is simply an exclamation of irritation or surprise used as an intensifier.

27. Well, I’ll be.

An exclamation or utterance of surprise or shock that could be followed by any number of adjectival or noun descriptions.

28. Up and at ’em!

A contraction and conflation of two orders Get Up! (meaning ‘stand and prepare’) and Get At Them! (meaning ‘attack them’). Basically get out of bed and start moving.

Nouns

29. y’all

A contraction best illustrated in this picture form:

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And just don’t even thing about saying ‘you guys’.

30. Buggy

a shopping cart

31. Dohickey/whatchamacallit/thingymabob/thingamajigger

A perfectly acceptable replacement noun that is used when the correct name is forgotten or overlooked

32. Gizzard

A clever coverup word that can be used to describe any part of the human anatomy, especially the heart or throat.

33. Clodhopper

It all started with the word clod which originally meant the coagulation of anything liquid such as a ‘clot of blood.’ In the early 15th century it came to mean a coherent mass or lump of any solid matter, e.g. a clod of earth, clay, loam, etc. Soon after the word began to be used figuratively as a person (1595) and also as a dull person (1579) or more specifically a thickhead, blockhead, clodpoll/clodpole (1601), clodpate (1636).

The first recorded use of clodhopper was as a ‘plowman’ (1690), one who hopped over clods, perhaps with an allusion to the ‘grasshopper.’ The sense of lumpish stupidity was built into the word from the earlier ‘clod’ meanings, but a 1698 dictionary still defined it only as ‘ploughman.’ The first unambiguous usage to mean a country bumpkin wasn’t recorded until 1824.

The usage meaning ‘large heavy shoe’ appeared in 1836 (a 20th century synonym is shit-kickers, which in the 1960s also became a synonym for both the ‘clodhopper’ bumpkin and the fool.

Today the most common usage describes big, over-sized boots or shoes that make clunky noises on the floor when you are walking.

34. Coke

Used for any and every carbonated beverage. Dr. Pepper and Sprite included.

Adjectives

35. Suits your fancy

Another way of saying “do whatever pleases you,” or “do as you please”, however these two have come to have a more sarcastic ring to them, so instead we say, “whatever suits your fancy”, or “as you like.” not to be confused with fancy the adjective, which means elaborate or richly decorated, or even elegant.

36. Happier than a dead pig in the sunshine

Blissfully ignorant; without a care in the world

37. Wound tighter than a clock

The average span the clock kept time was 7 days. If the spring was wound up too tight it would break, but if you didn’t wind it up enough the clock would stop. It was a careful balance. This phrase describes a person who is frazzled and stressed beyond healthy or normal levels.

38. Like white on rice

The expression ‘white on rice’ is so old no one knows where it comes from. It’s mainly used to say that someone or something sticks so close to you that they’re like the white color on rice. Inseparable; in very close proximity; following closely. Modern use has added some romantic connotation to the saying by using it for relations between Asians and Caucasians.

39. Proud as a peacock

Proud and conceited to the point of showing off, the same way a male peacock does when spreading its feathers to attract other peacocks.

40. Sick as a dawg

“Sick as a dog,” which means “extremely sick” and dates back to at least the 17th century, is also not so much negative as it is simply descriptive. Term used to describe being incredably under the weather, which generally includes nausea and vomiting.

41. Don’t hold water

Something that is not logical, defensible, or valid, usually pertaining to a statement or an argument

42. Knee high to a bullfrog/grasshopper/duck

It generally is used when explaining age or age differences. Examples of how it is used “I’ve know you (or insert a name) since you were knee high to a bullfrog.” Or, “Honey, I’ve been running this office since you were knee high to a grasshopper.”

43. Too big for yer britches

metaphoric idiom that alludes to becoming so “swollen” with conceit that one’s pants no longer fit. It first appeared in print in An Account of Col. Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East, 1835, written by Davy Crockett. Crockett writes:

“I myself was one of the first to fire a gun under Andrew Jackson. I helped to give him all his glory. But I liked him well once: but when a man gets too big for his breeches, I say Good bye.” 

44. Hotter than hell/hades

Considering that Hades was the Greek underworld (or Hell), it stands to reason that the term comes from equating Hell with hotness. Southerners probably replace “Hell” with “Hades” to avoid cussing.

45. Hog wild

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, it means to become crazy with excitement, as in The crowd went hog wild as soon as the band began to play Why this expression should allude to the craziness of hogs is no longer known. [Colloquial; c.1900]

46. Playin’ possum

Originating from the behaviour of the Virginia opossum, which feigns death when threatened. First documented 1822 as to feign death; to remain quiet and still to escape attention or remain undetected; to lay low. Later it took on a less dramatic connotation, meaning to feign sleep, illness, etc. Today it has mostly come to mean to dissemble or to feign ignorance; to disguise or conceal something in order to deceive.

47. Deader than a door nail

Utterly and completely dead, either literally or figuratively. This phrase could come from a standard term in carpentry. If you hammer a nail through a piece of timber and then flatten the end over on the inside so it can’t be removed again (a technique called clinching), the nail is said to be dead, because you can’t use it again. Doornails would very probably have been subjected to this treatment to give extra strength in the years before screws were available. So they were dead because they’d been clinched.

48. Plumb tuckered out

The actual derivation of this phrase is quite prosaic. ‘Tucker’ is a colloquial New England word, coined in the early 19th century, meaning ‘to tire’ or ‘to become weary’. ‘Tuckered out’ is just a straightforward use of that. ‘Plumb’ is just an intensifier. In other words, to be extremely or abnormally tired, usually due to physical exertion or activity.

50. Tickled pink

Delighted; The concept of enjoyment great enough to make the recipient glow with pleasure

Anger

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51. Hissy Fit

A temperamental outburst; a tantrum. The allusion in this expression may be to the hissing and spluttering of such an outburst, or it may simply be a contraction of ‘hysterical’. The term originated in the USA in the mid 20th century and is first recorded in a 1934 edition of American Speech:

“Hissy is probably provincial slang. I have heard it for eight or ten years. He threw a hissy or He had a hissy means that a person in question was very disturbed and very angry.”

52. Conniption fit

Anger or panic expressed verbally loudly and with overt bodily gestures. While the origin remains uncertain, it is perhaps related to corruption, which was used in a sense of “anger” from 1799, or from Eng. dialectal canapshus “ill-tempered, captious,” probably a corruption of captious.

**The difference between a Hissy Fit and a Conniption fit is that a Hissy fit involves immature behavior and pouting, whereas a Conniption fit can involve genuine anger, panick, or violence.

53. Madder than a wet hen

This American expression, which possibly originated in the Appalachian Mountains, refers to the tempestuous temper of chickens that might accidentally find themselves in water. According to some accounts, chickens get extremely angry if they have to try to swim or fly out of water, since they do neither of these things well.

54. Gettin’ on my last nerve

A hyperbole to convey irritation and to emphasize that someone or something has pushed you to your limit.

55. Slap you silly

A hyperbole frequently employed as a threat to imply frustration with someone.

56. Hold your horses

A common idiom to mean “hold on” or wait. The phrase is believed to have originated in the United States of America in the 19th century and is historically related to horse riding, or driving a horse-drawn vehicle.

57. Fit to be tied

Angry and agitated, to the point of needing a restraint; this refers to the early practice of bounding uncontrollable, mentally ill and dangerous people into strait-jackets in mental asylums. Today the term is more mild, simply meaning angered or irritated.

58. Don’t get your feathers ruffled

To make annoyed or upset, based on the idea of a bird whose feathers are not smooth because of fear or excitement.

59. Jerk a knot in your tail

Usually said to an unruly child to ensure them that trouble was coming if they didn’t straightn’ up and fly right, or stop misbehaving.

60. Go outside and get me a switch

Whenever a child needed a spanking, often as not the person doing the spanking would tell the child to “Go get me a switch!” with a switch being a relative thin tree branch or something like it. Of course we kids would bring back some tiny and frail little tendril to lessen the pain on our backsides so parents started adding to it, “and it better be a good one or I’ll go pick it! And you don’t want me picking it!”

61. Gonna get a lickin’

A lick, as with a belt or a paddle, makes kind of a smacking sound – thus ‘licking’. Equivalent to getting a switching.

62. Hush up

The word hush apparently originated as an onomatopoeia, which means that a word sounds like what it intends to convey. Hush up means that you better be quiet or stop talking immediately.

63. Fine and Dandy

Usually used to indicate the exact opposite, that in fact, everything is NOT fine.

64. Pinch a plug out of you

 A hyperbole used to describe what mothers would do to their children should they be caught squirming or misbehaving in church. Also can be used to describe a bug bite or a sting – something painful that removed a significant portion of flesh.

65. Quit yer bellyachin’

Stop complaining.

66. Quit bein’ ugly

Stop misbehaving. Pretty is as Pretty does.

67. Flew off the handle

Meaning to loose self control, especially in a fit of rage. It alludes to the uncontrolled way a loose axe-head flies off from its handle.

68. Cut that out

Stop it. Whatever it is you’re doing.

69. Raisin’ cane

Cain was the first murderer according to scriptural accounts in the Bible.  The transitive verb ‘to raise’ has been used since at least the 14th century to mean ‘to conjure up; to cause a spirit to appear by means of incantations’. Therefore, if you make trouble you are raising, that is, conjuring up, the accursed spirit of Cain. This is similar to several phrases that allude to calling-up or ‘raising’ the Devil. There’s ‘raise the Devil’ of course and also ‘raise hob’ and ‘raise hell’.

 

Insults

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70. Like a bull in a china shop

A way to express a metaphorical clumsiness; By the way, the only recorded incident I know of in which a bull was deliberately introduced into a china shop was one engineered by the famous American publicist and press agent Jim Moran, who in January 1940 led a bull through a New York City china shop as a publicity stunt. The bull didn’t damage anything, but some china was broken when a bystander backed into a table while getting out of the way.

71. Stinks to high heavens

If something ‘stinks’, it smells bad. ‘High heaven’ refers to the clouds up in the sky. The idea here is that something is so bad, either to the nose or to the mind, that even the angels who live way up in the clouds are offended.

72. you ain’t right

This phrase doesn’t refer to being correct, as it may appear, but rather refers to someone being mentally off-balanced.

73. Ragamuffin

Dirty and disreputable; unkempt.

74. High as a kite

Someone who is high, or mentally unstable

75. Your face is gonna freeze like that

If you make an ugly face, it might freeze that way forever. So cheer up, buttercup!

76. You weren’t raised in a barn!

Meaning that you better use your manners, shut the door, and don’t act too rambunctious.

77. Little miss priss

Used to describe a girl or young lady who likes to priss, look at herself in the mirror, is very girly, or has a high opinion of herself

78. Not the sharpest tool in the shed

He’s not the brightest crayon in the box. His mind could use a little bit of a tune-up.

80. Can’t carry a tune in a bucket with a lid on it

You can carry many things in a bucket, so if it’s said someone can’t even carry it in a bucket is a harsh way of saying they are totally unable to carry a tune.

81. Ding-dong

A person lacking in common sense, which often results in foolish decisions.

82. If it had been a snake, it’d a bit you

It’s been right in front of your face the whole time, but you never noticed it.

83. Lyin’ like a dawg on a rug

A pun, which basically is a nicer way to call someone a liar.

Phrases

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84. Ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie

Used to let someone know that they have said something very true or profound. An example would be, “Ole Joe just came by and said that if the price of gas goes up any more, there will be a lot less people at the next tractor pull. He ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie!”

85. Slap yer mama

No, this is not a ‘your mom’ joke. It means you’ve just tasted food so good it’ll make you want to slap your mama (hyperbole). It can also mean the opposite, as in the food is so terrible or sour, that you can’t think of a more extreme reaction. For the record, I don’t suggest slapping your mama. Ever.

86. Sweatin’ like a sinner in church

To sweat excessively, to the point of discomfort.

87. Hug yer neck

To give someone a hug, which is pretty much just around the neck if they are seated. But regardless of their posture, if your Granny or long lost relative tells you to “get over here so I can hug yer neck”, you’d better go.

88. Gimme some sugar

This should be expected in addition to the neck-hugging. This means to give someone a kiss, usually on the cheek, as a greeting. As a child you learn to dread this phrase, because you come to associate it with the sloppy wet things that you have to wipe off your face.

89. Barkin’ up the wrong tree

Originating with the practice of using Coon dogs to hunt, when they mistakenly begin barking where they thing their prey is hiding at the base of a wrong tree. The earliest known printed citation is in James Kirke Paulding’s Westward Ho!, 1832.

The phrase must have caught on in the USA quickly after Hall’s book. It appeared in several American newspapers throughout the 1830s; for example, this piece from the Gettysburg newspaper The Adams Sentinel, March 1834:

“Gineral you are barkin’ up the wrong tree this time, for I jest see that rackoon jump to the next tree, and afore this he is a mile off in the woods.”

90. I reckon’

I suppose

91. Your ears musta been burnin;

Used when a person you had just been talking about appears unexpectedly. Meaning, ‘you must’ve known we were just talking about you’.

92. Goodness gracious

Meaning ‘Oh my word.’ It is often followed up with a ‘Well bless her heart’ or a ‘Is that right?’.

93. Well I declare

An expression of shock or amazement. Synonymous with 92 mentioned above.

94. Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise

This phrase has two uses: a quick prayer as well as a way to keep from “jinxing” yourself when you state something.

95. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear

A near-proverbial saying passed down by ones grandmother; meaning that it is impossible to make something fine or beautiful out of inferior or substandard material. The idiom is normally used in the negative.

96. Beatin’ around the bush

In bird hunts some of the participants roused the birds by beating the bushes and enabling others, to use a much later phrase, to ‘cut to the chase’ and catch the quarry in nets. So ‘beating around the bush’ was the preamble to the main event, which was the capturing of the birds. In the south it is usually considered polite just to hint at a matter, without making accusations. Females are especially guilty of this trait. When used in a sentence this phrase is basically a way to say “just get to the main point”.

97. Fine as frog’s hair split four ways

Have you ever seen a frog with hair? Exactly. And split that hair into four pieces, and it’s fine indeed.

98. Aggravating as a rock

Used to describe someone or something that the speaker finds especially annoying, irritating, or obnoxious.

99. She would argue with a fence post

She would argue with something even if it didn’t have the brains to answer back; a way to describe someone who likes to argue simply for the mere pleasure of arguing.

100. Nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rockin’ chairs

Someone with frayed nerves, jumpy. The allusion, of course, is to the fact that cats don’t like having their tails tromped upon. Where the phrase originated is unknown.

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18 thoughts on “100 Words and Sayings Commonly Used in the South

  1. These are great Anna! Being from a long line of truly Southern women, here are two more that I remembered. “poor as Job’s turkey” and slicky as owl sh**”.

  2. Reblogged this on My Kentucky Living and commented:
    I just have to share Anna’s post about our cute southernisms. I have a page sort of like this called All y’all. Read these and laugh…or at least smile. I feel sure other locations have their local words and phrases, but are they as colorful? Quiz your non-southern friends to see if they understand southern English.
    Enjoy!
    Sheila

  3. I come from a long line of southern born and raised. Something my mother would say when she lost her temper was “I’m gonna yank every hair out of your head” – although she never did! My dad used to say “Im busier than a one-legged man in a three legged race” although that might have come from being in the Navy!
    I think you should add a list of foods that are distinctly southern – like, grits, fried chicken, okra, green beans, and mash potatoes with pan gravy on Sundays after church, homemade fudge (anybody else remember eating the test fudge – that’s where you pour a tablespoon of the boiling fudge into a cup of cold water to see if it makes a ball; that’s when you know its time to beat in a stick of butter. I had five brothers and sisters and we would fight for those little bits of chocolate that weren’t quite ready). And of course, flour biscuits. Being able to make biscuits and gravy was a right of passage that marked a young girl becoming a young woman in our family. All the women would be in the kitchen watching, talking, and laughing at old stories, to celebrate the turning point. Good times.
    I feel blessed to have been raised to say “yes mam”, and “no mam”, to have been taught integrity and the sacredness of your word. They are the foundation upon which I have found success all my life and on which my children now rely. Thank you for your wonderful post! You definitely got it right as rain!

  4. Great list! I really enjoyed reading it. There are a lot of similarities in these phrases throughout the south. I was born and raised in Tennessee and only when I joined the military did I realize that I had a special way of talking. People didn’t understand what a buggy was or why I said “do what ” when I wanted them to repeat something. Maybe the “white on rice” saying has a different meaning here. You hear “I was in him like white on rice.” Meaning, I whooped him…so to speak.

  5. Save the…….clothes, groceries, etc
    Sha ? Louisiana term for sweetie.
    Get down….going into a store with someone.
    I loved this post! Thanks for the smiles

  6. I was born and raised in New York, but my mother was from Alabama and I’m pleased to discover that I know most of these! Thanks for the memories! What I’m trying to remember now is the polite euphemism for crazy/unstable, usually used for women? Something like ‘delicate, sensitive’ but not those. Anybody know what I mean?

  7. That was a good brush up honey.
    Slow as molasses. That’s a simple one, let’s rethink that. Molasses being thick, pours slowly. ( remember how slow ketchup pours) When it’s cold molasses pretty much doesn’t move.

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