By Joe Rector
I’ve been teaching Robert Frost to one of my classes of late. He is my favorite poet because his word pictures conjure up images that are familiar to readers and that help them to understand his work. A search through my vocabulary has recalled some of the most popular expressions that we in the south use. They don’t create pictures like Frost’s poems nor do they make sense to Yankees, but we who live south of the Mason-Dixon Line couldn’t communicate as effectively without them.
One phrases that has always bothered me is, “Don’t be ugly.” I never figured that any of us had a say-so in whether or not our looks offended others. The good lord made us with the features that we have, and short of plastic surgery, we’re stuck with them. However, this “ugly” describes our behavior. It’s the opposite of kind or considerate. I never use the word in that way and just don’t much get it. Besides, it’s not something that should be used around young children with fragile self-images.
“Do what” is a staple of our language around here. Its meanings are many. Some folks use it as a request for clarification, usually when they haven’t clearly understood what has been said. At other times, those words are used in a more negative way. If a child sasses his parents, the father might ask, “Do what?” That means he wants to know if the child has lost his mind to say such a thing. It also can be used to give the child an opportunity to rephrase his statement to avoid the punishment that might pour down on him.
Residents of the south are busy all the time. We have a never-ending list of things to do in our lives. Sometimes, others ask us when we will begin work on a project. Our reply begins with “I’m fix’n to.” Now, that answer lets the questioner know that at some point the chore will be completed. “Fix’n to” could mean the work will begin immediately, or it could mean that in the near future it will be addressed. Vagueness is the essential quality for the phrase and gives the speaker plenty of wiggle room.
Another often-used phrase is “over yonder.” We folks in the south use it in giving directions. “Go over yonder to the second barn and turn down that road for a spell, and you’ll find what you’re looking for.” Do what? Yonder can be any distance from a few feet to many miles. A poor soul from the north might receive such directions and still be unable to begin moving; “yonder” doesn’t register in a northern mind in any way.
One of our most often used phrases is “Bless his heart.” It begins or ends a sentence. What falls before or after it is a pronouncement on the shortcomings of a person. For example, “Bless his heart. He doesn’t have sense enough to get in out of the rain.” Another one is, “He’s as dumb as a box of rocks. Bless his heart.” With the use of those three words, we feel free to expound on the faults of others, and we expect others to see that our criticisms are innocent because we’ve prefaced them with “Bless your heart.”
I’m sure that plenty of expressions are used to the north of us and that we would never understand them. Most of us down here only visit those places; on the other hand, plenty of residence in cold weather territories come down here and stay. Let’s hope that new arrivals to the south quickly learn our ways of expressions. If not, they might forever be confused in their conversations with country folks.