10 Southern words and phrases explained

August 19, 2023
2 mins read
2 women sitting on brown wooden chair

Diving deep into the linguistic intricacies of the American South reveals a treasure trove of historical connections. A significant number of Southern sayings have roots in Old English, a testament to the lasting bond between early English settlers and the evolving American South. Let’s explore some classic Southern expressions.

While some uninformed among us may see Southern colloquialisms as signs of ignorance, those of us who live here know that our colloquialisms often have deep roots in history or at least make our language more colorful.

Over yonder

Example: “The grocery store? It’s just over yonder past the church.”

Meaning: A non-specific distance away, usually farther than immediate proximity.

Origins: This phrase has its roots in Old English “geond”, which described something being at a distance or afar. Over time, as Old English gave way to Middle and then Modern English, the term was colloquialized in the South to mean “over there.”

Carry

Example: “Can you carry me to the airport tomorrow?”

Meaning: To take or escort someone somewhere.

Origins: While today’s English predominantly uses “carry” in the context of physically holding an object, this Southern usage goes back to Middle English, where “carry” denoted guidance or leadership, akin to “carry forth” or “carry on.”

Fixing to

Example: “I’m fixing to go to the store. Need anything?”

Meaning: Preparing or intending to do something.

Origins: While the exact origins are somewhat cloudy, it’s believed that “fixing” in this context originates from the idea of “setting things in order” before embarking on a task.

Directly

Example: “I’ll be there directly, just finishing up here.”

Meaning: In a short while or soon.

Origins: With roots in Middle English, “directly” was often used to indicate a straightforward progression or sequence in time, which has since taken on the meaning of “shortly” in the South.

Bless your heart

Example: “You thought I’d forget your birthday? Oh, bless your heart!”

Meaning: A versatile expression, it can be genuine sympathy or a polite way to call someone naive or foolish.

Origins: The South, with its deep Christian roots, often incorporates religious language into daily speech. Blessings are a way of bestowing favor or protection, and in this context, it becomes a tender, if sometimes condescending, expression.

Cattywampus

Example: “Your hat’s all cattywampus! Let me fix it for you.”

Meaning: Crooked, askew, or awry.

Origins: This fun term likely evolved from a combination of “cater”, from the Old French “quatre” (four), implying something diagonal or askew, and “wampus”, an old term suggesting distortion.

Cut on/off

Example: “Could you cut on the lights in the living room?”

Meaning: To turn something on or off.

Origins: This phrase evolved from the action of physically cutting connections, like those of early electrical circuits. Over time, it transitioned into general use for turning devices on or off.

Rode hard and put up wet

Example: “After that 14-hour shift, he looked like he’d been rode hard and put up wet.”

Meaning: Appearing worn out or exhausted.

Origins: This phrase finds its roots in equestrian culture. A horse that’s ridden hard and not properly cared for afterwards (not allowed to cool down and still sweaty) can suffer. This phrase metaphorically applies the same neglect to a person’s appearance or state.

Full as a tick

Example: “After Thanksgiving dinner, I was full as a tick!”

Meaning: Extremely full, especially after eating.

Origins: The imagery here is vividly Southern. Ticks, after feeding, can swell up to many times their original size, making for an apt comparison after a hefty meal.

Lick

Example: “I don’t have a lick of sugar left for this tea.”

Meaning: A tiny amount or none at all.

Origins: The term likely originates from the minimal substance one might obtain from a single lick of something, representing a small quantity.

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