We had only been living in the South a few months when I attended my daughter’s 2nd grade open house night. I nonchalantly gazed around the room at the colorful bulletin boards, requisite hamster cages, cozy reading corner and personalized cubbies, when my ears suddenly perked up. Had I really heard the teacher say, “In language arts we’re fixin’ to read…” and moments later tell us what field trips the class might could take during the year? I glanced at the other parents in the room, all of whom were smiling and nodding at the teacher like bobblehead dolls. I was the only one whose eyebrows had shot up to my hairline in complete surprise at what the teacher had just uttered.
Over the next 20 years I put all four of my children through South Carolina public schools and tolerated plenty of wonderful educators teach them in Southernspeak. I never corrected their teachers or friends – that would be rude and unkind. But I made damn sure my kids never spoke a word of it. I can even say with pride that my children don’t have Southern accents, not even the two who were born here. I have nothing against Southern accents. Some of my best friends have Southern accents. I just like mine better.
I’ll admit that I cringe inside every time I hear anyone say might could. Again, it would be rude to show my disdain, so I force myself not to squint or curl my lip in pain. I believe might could is a case of double Southernspeak. Or maybe the speaker is just overcompensating when in doubt. I don’t know where, how, why or when this phrase, or its cousin used to could, came about. All I know is that severe penalties should be meted out to anyone using them. There is nothing charming about anything you might could do even if you used to could. Are you also cringing now, too?
I find many Southern colloquialisms amusing and even charming. A favorite of mine is fell out. It’s obvious that the air conditioner in the photo on the left fell out of a window. But in Southernspeak, fell out means to have fainted, as in “Betty Jo fell out when she heard that her escort for the debutante ball had eloped with Melba Mae Carter.”
Another favorite of mine is cutting out or cutting on. Southerners cut out the lights. When it’s dark, they cut the lights on. Up North, we don’t use scissors or knives to turn light switches on and off. Actually, I don’t think they’re used for that purpose anywhere, not even down South. I have also heard Southerners use the word cut as a type of punishment meted out to disobedient children, as in “I’m gonna cut your tail if you don’t behave.” Ouch.
Northerners also have their share of language idiosyncrasies. Western Pennsylvanians drink pop (pronounced pawp). Down South it’s called coke, no matter the brand or flavor. Pennsylvanians also fish and swim in the crick. Everyone else in the country knows a crick is actually a pain in the neck resulting from sleeping in an odd position all night. My mother is from Western Pennsylvania, and I’m proud to say she speaks lovely Mid-Atlantic East Coast English. She can, however, revert to her native tongue when she visits family back home. I ignore her when she does that.
There’s no doubt I’ll be focusing on other Southernisms in future posts. It’s impossible to try to cover them all at once. What are your favorite and/or least favorite regional colloquialisms? Please share them with me in the comments section below or post them on the Carolina Yankee Facebook page. You can also let me know of other topics you’d like to see covered in the future here. And follow me on Twitter!