When I was writing mysteries set in North Carolina, I found that many intelligent, well-educated people (as all of my readers are) are unfamiliar with even the most common Southern phrases. So in the spirit of hospitality for which the South is known, I’ve put together this list of some of the expressions I use in my books to at least give an introduction to proper speech. At least, it’s proper where I come from.
A lick of sense
Enough common sense to get by, but like my mama says, common sense is as rare as hen’s teeth. If he had a lick of sense, he wouldn’t have married that woman.
Not the same as fixing ribs on a grill and pouring on sauce. Barbecue is a noun, not a verb, and to confuse the issue, every Southern state has its own brand of barbecue. Of course, right-thinking people know that Eastern North Carolina style barbecue is the best. (That’s pulled pork, marinated with a vinegar-based sauce.) The next time you’re in Charlotte, you be sure and stop by Spoon’s Barbecue, and tell Mark Spoon I said hello.
In an English tea cozy, when they start talking about biscuits, what they really mean is a cookie served with hot tea. In a Southern iced tea cozy, a biscuit is a flaky piece of bread you eat with supper, and serve with iced tea. Reach me another biscuit-I want to sop up the rest of this gravy.
Bless her heart or bless his heart
What you add on when you say something that’s not nice, but you don’t mean any harm by it. That Ellie is as plain as a mud fence, bless her heart.
To make a big fuss, especially when there’s no need for it. The way he carried on, you’d have thought it was him having the baby instead of her.
Country come to town
Somebody who doesn’t come down out of the mountains real often, and it shows. Did you see what she was wearing? I’d have been right embarrassed to look like country come to town at my own boy’s wedding. (You may wonder why my book was called Country Comes to Town. That’s not what I called it, but the editor for that book was a New Yorker, and just couldn’t get his head around the phrase. Bless his heart.)
Somebody who’s the spitting image of somebody else. Have you ever noticed that Little Lou doesn’t look a bit like Big Lou, even though he’s a dead ringer for Jim Bob next door?
Getting something ready, or getting ready to do something. I’m fixing to get up off this couch and fix some supper.
Gooder than snuff
Something that’s extra special. If you really want to praise it to high heaven, add, “and not half so dusty.” Mama, that pecan pie was gooder than snuff.
Hug your neck
Hugging somebody’s neck is a gesture of affection. You can hug anybody’s neck if you’re a mind to, but my family generally only hugs the necks of those relative who are closer than a third cousin, twice removed. Maggie May, I am so glad you stopped by. You just come right over here and let me hug your neck.
Putting on airs
Acting high falutin’. I don’t know why that Eula is putting on airs-everybody knows she’s as common as dirt.
Running around like a chicken with its head cut off
Going in every direction at once, all confused and befuddled, like folks act during a dire emergency like Sherman’s men marching toward town or a blue light special at the Kmart. When Dorinda heard that Elvis himself had been seen in town, she started running around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying to get her hair fixed in case he came by the fish camp.
A biscuit sliced down in the middle so you can put a patty of pork sausage inside, which makes an awful good breakfast if you don’t have time for eggs and grits. (You can use country ham or country-fried steak instead of sausage, but then you call it a ham biscuit or a steak biscuit.) Let’s us stop at Hardee’s and pick up a couple of sausage biscuits to take to work.
The same thing as perfume or cologne. You have to be careful not to use too much, or people will think you’re cheap if you’re a woman, or that you’ve got lace on your underdrawers if you’re a man. You wash off some of that smelly-good-em right now. Nobody needs to smell that pretty at church.
Tight as a tick
One of two things: drunk as a skunk or so cheap, he can name every dollar he has by its first name. That Boyd McGowen is as tight as a tick- he bought a whole gallon of Rebel Yell, and didn’t share the first swallow of it. He drank it his own self and got tight as a tick.
Trouble looking for a place to happen
The way my mama described my first boyfriend, and darned if she wasn’t right on the money. There are people who just look like trouble-the only questions are when and where. Peggy could tell the minute she laid eyes on that boy that he was nothing but trouble looking for a place to happen.
What you call somebody who’s been beat with an ugly stick, and a way to describe tacky behavior. Cotton, I told you it’s ugly to spit in the house, and I’m not about to put up with it.
What in the Sam Hill?
I’ve heard that there really was a Sam Hill, but most people use this as a polite way around using the H word. If you substitute it for Sam Hill, a sentence would mean purt near the same thing. My mama never cared for cussing, so I try to stick to Sam Hill. What in the Sam Hill do you think you’re doing? That iced tea is sweet enough.