S is for Southern

A Brief Guide to Southernisms

The first rule: Include canines

Photo: Andrew Hyslop

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the G&G book S Is for Southern: A Guide to the South, from Absinthe to Zydeco. A compendium of Southern life and culture, the book contains nearly five hundred entries spanning every letter of the alphabet.

Southern colloquialisms are multifarious and, in fact, possibly infinite. That’s what Pee-paw used to say, anyway. These colloquialisms are sometimes called Southernisms, but that word—Southernism—is itself somewhat colloquial. Anyway, there are a ton of them. Animals appear in a lot of them, but most concern dogs in some form or fashion. For example:

“That dog won’t hunt.”

“That’s a hard dog to keep on the porch.”

“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.”

“Run with the big dogs or stay on the porch.”

“Happy as a tick on a fat dog.”

Et cetera. Expressions like these don’t come out of nowhere; they’re most often reflections of the culture from which they arise. In the case of dogs, it’s clear that dogs are integral to the South and the character of its people. Is it even possible to be Southern and not have a dog—or many dogs, probably? Not really. If you don’t have dogs, if you don’t love dogs, you’re either deathly allergic or you’ve come from somewhere else and are just pretending to be Southern, probably to meet women or get out of the cold.

There are other animals commonly referred to in Southernisms as well, though, including but not limited to cats, turtles, gators, birds, possums, and skunks. “If you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, you know it didn’t get there all by itself.” President Clinton said that once and I’ve been saying it ever since. There are no wombats, kookaburras, or marmosets in any Southernism, period. Nature—trees, for instance—is important and makes a number of appearances, as in “lit up like a Christmas tree.” And then there are those that mention both dogs and trees in a single Southernism. “It’s so hot I saw two trees fighting over a dog,” for instance.

Language evolves. Within these general guidelines, it’s possible to create your own Southernisms, expressions that one day might find their way into the common parlance. Here are a few I’ve made up myself:

“Lonely as a pine tree in a parking lot.”

“Funny as a three-legged dog in a horse race.”

“Sweeter than a lollipop at an ant convention.”

Try it yourself. There’s an art to it, and it helps to have a Pee-paw who knows whereof he speaks. Regardless, start slowly, and be sensitive to meaning and cultural appropriateness. For instance, an expression like “That cat won’t hunt”—just. Won’t. Hunt.

S Is for Southern is available at Amazon, FieldshopIndieBoundand in bookstores everywhere.