My parents were poor – Dad was California poor; Mom was Kentucky poor. Dad wanted more and became self-educated, a man always learning, always expecting us kids to do the same. Mom was okay with her Kentucky roots – as they say, she was never “puttin’ on airs” but was content with who she was. So, on top of that dual-culture upbringing, I got to live in the Midwest, the South, the North, and Germany to boot. Being in a military family, I was always around people from everywhere. My language became a blend of regions and dialects, and I was able to pick and choose how I spoke.
And then I came to Tennessee. Now, Yankees think all Southerners speak the same, but we know that ain’t true. (It is so bad this Yankee spellchecker will not let me use ain’t, but I will anyway.) If you are from here, you know that language is not Southern, or even Tennessean. It’s all local. So, come along with me as I share my observations of living in, and adapting to, local culture as expressed in colloquialisms, or those words and phrases we use to actually talk to one another, without puttin’ on airs.
All of You
“All of you” is likely the correct way to address a small group of people. It has become common to say “You guys” almost anywhere in the country. Of course, I’ve heard “you-all” my whole life, and even folks from up North will say “y’all” but mostly because it’s easy. I figured that y’all was the correct way, conversationally, to refer to a group of people, whether it was y’all’s family, friends, state, or beliefs.
And then it got weird.
Me: “Hey Jimmy, y’all coming to the church homecoming?” Jimmy: “I believe so. Are y’uns?”
I came to understand that it was from “you-ones” and was a direct replacement for y’all, except it seemed to be more of a Soddy thing than a Daisy thing. It could be worse though – I hear up in New Jersey they say “youse.” I mean, WTH? No wonder we can’t get along.
Let’s Go Shopping
When I was a teen working at Woolco in Virginia, one of my jobs was to gather up the shopping carts from the parking lot. I had always called them shopping carts, or just carts for short. Until I ended up further South and they became buggies. Now, in my past a buggy was something you put a baby in, not your groceries. Of course, you can put your baby in the shopping cart, either the handy little seat with seatbelt, or in the cart itself, or hanging off the front, which is typical at my local Walmart. So maybe it is a buggy after all.
My daughter was up visiting with a friend, who was British by way of Canada. She was telling a story about going shopping and putting her groceries in the trolly. Which I thought was something you rode on in San Francisco. She did not mention where they put their babies. But I suspect it’s in a pram.
Left or Right?
An amazing innovation in transportation was the addition of the turn indicator. All you had to do was flip the column-mounted lever down for left and up for right, and all your fellow travelers would know which way you intended to turn – because the exterior flashing (or blinking) lights would indicate or signal your intentions.
I guess that’s how they became “blinkers” down here – they make little lights blink. It’s common for my wife to say: “Hey, he didn’t even have his blinker on” when some bad driver cuts in front. But maybe that’s the problem – the lights don’t blink just to be blinking, they are indicating your intentions. Which, and you know I’m right, a large number of drivers don’t do. Maybe they don’t realize that modern turn signals have been around since at least 1925, and all cars have them standard. Or, as my Dad used to yell in frustration, “Didn’t that model Buick come with turn signals?”
Or maybe they are just out of blinker fluid.
My mom used to get dressed up, with pearls and heels, and go to Tupperware parties. Those parties were a social highlight to middle class families in the 1960s. Our house was full of Tupperware cups, saltshakers, lettuce keepers, bowls – you name it. All made from those familiar pastel shades of translucent plastic
But then came the butter bowl.
You know the ones I’m talking about. Go into any old-school Southern fridge and you’ll find butter bowls and Cool-Whip containers, except there ain’t (I just added ain’t to the Word dictionary) any butter, or Cool Whip in them. Oh, you’ll find plenty of mashed potatoes, fried okra, leftover corn, probably some Ambrosia. Never butter, because the butter bowls are actually re-purposed margarine tubs. I can get behind this bit of colloquialism – it’s a great way to put those plastic tubs to use. And besides, Tupperware parties are all virtual now, no pearls or heels required.
The Water Hose
As kids, we all drank out of the hose outside. Mainly, because we weren’t allowed inside except for lunchtime. And here’s a weird twist on slang – usually it’s a way to shorten, or make more readily understandable, an idea or thing. But the first time I heard “hose-pipe” I was confused, not enlightened. I mean, a hose is self-explanatory. Why add a pipe?
But wait, it gets worse. The hose-pipe is attached to the hose-bib. You know, that thing you turn to make water come out of the hose. I think it’s called a spigot or faucet everywhere else on Earth. And, actually, the hose-bib does indeed have a pipe attached to the water supply.
You guys can drink out of the hose-pipe, but I’m going to go get a pale green Tupperware cup. And y’all be careful, that water might be hot. I sure don’t want y’uns getting burned.
Things Go Better with Coke
Coca-Cola was invented by a Confederate Colonel, John Pemberton. He was looking for a medicinal drink to help with morphine addiction. Obviously, a drink with caffeine and cocaine was the answer. And them Yankees think they’re so smart. Because of that deep Southern tradition (Coke, not cocaine) it does make sense that Coke is generic for any soft drink.
Me: “Hey, would you get me a coke?”
You: “Sure, what kind do you want?”
Me: “What y’all got?”
You: “I got some root beer, Sprite and orange Nehi”
Wait – where’s the Coke?
This is common everywhere. In Northern Virginia there was a small chain of Pop Shoppes. You could get all sorts of generic soda drinks, all flavors, for cheap. But we never called it Pop, so maybe that is why the Pop Shoppe didn’t make it. I believe in Pennsylvania they call it Pop, short for Soda Pop. But what do they know? Most Yankees call it Soda, in my experience. When I lived in Germany, a man delivered coke to our door. It was called Afri-Cola, and it, too, came in many flavors.
But everything is coke around here. Except Pepsi. People walk out of restaurants that serve Pepsi, because that’s not coke. At all.
We’ll Leave the Lights On
The electrification of the Tennessee Valley was a big deal in these parts. One of the WPA projects of the depression era, it brought electricity to all the little towns and bumps in the road. Which meant electric lights, which was a good thing. Lights meant longer days, easy reading, safety, and security. Of course, there were many other electrical products that showed up right behind lights, but lights were what you paid the bill for.
Which is why it’s called a light bill.
It is also why the electricity that you get a light bill for comes on light poles. Now, we had a light put on our pole at the street, so the kids could play outside at night and drink from the hose-pipe or enjoy a coke on a hot summer night, but that’s a separate item on our bill. That’s right, we get a bill for our light. On our light bill.
Charlie the Mailman
Until just recently, our mail carrier was Charlie. Our 5-year-old grandson would hear the rumble of the mail truck’s muffler and say, “Here comes Charlie.” But Charlie retired and we do not know the new guy’s name yet. We call him Speedy, because he doesn’t rumble along but is a bit brisker.
But this colloquialism is new to me. We had new gutters installed during our recent remodel project. And when that truck headed own the street, one of the guys called out: “Here comes the bill man.” Which is perfect – because that’s what you typically used to find in your mailbox. Especially the light bill. Which you better pay, or they’ll cut your lights off.
Is It Broke?
My first Thanksgiving down here was in 1984. We were guests at my mother-in-law’s house, and she made the full Thanksgiving dinner spread, with mashed potatoes, green beans simmered in bacon fat, fried okra (Libby made the best pan-friend okra), stuffing (or dressing – I’m not even going there), and turkey gravy. I love gravy, mainly because I do not like mashed potatoes and that is the best way to make them palatable. And the stuffing/dressing is just waiting to be slathered in gravy, too. As I watched in horror, she started cutting up hard boiled eggs. Into the gravy. I thought to myself – “What kind of family have I married into?”
And then she said: “Fix you a plate.”
I did not know that my plate was broken. As a matter of fact, the only thing I saw broken was that gravy, and it was just fine until the eggs showed up. It turns out that she was merely telling me to help myself to her delicious efforts, which I did, carefully skimming around the hard-boiled eggs.
I’ve since heard that term many times, whether at a Meat & Three (a curious type of eatery in these parts) where you fix you a plate from the wide assortment of local fare. Or at a family gathering if someone couldn’t make it to the meal. In which case, y’all would be implored to fix them a plate to take back to the house, maybe in a butter bowl.
I could go on and on, and I am hoping my readers will share their own examples of common language. And maybe correct me where I am wrong. Because language matters, if we intend to communicate and get along. I am reminded of the Apostle Paul and his view on the subject, this passage taken from a modern English translation, in common language:
“I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!” 1 Corinthians 9:21-24 The Message
I have had the pleasure of living in many cultures and experiencing many colloquialisms. I have blended them all together into my own way of communicating but, after a quarter century in these parts, I’ll have to admit that y’alls language, filled with buggies and blinkers and light bills and cokes and hose pipes, has crept in and become my language. So please don’t take offense – I’m not making fun, I’m being part of the fun. And if you do take offense, well.
Bless your heart.