Southernisms & Country Sayings


It’s not a secret that the part of the US known as the South has its own peculiar accent.  In actual fact there are probably as many variations on the Southern accent as there are farms & small towns in this particular part of our country.  As someone who loves linguistics & studying various accents, it annoys the heck out of me when TV shows & movies try to do Southern accents & almost invariably get them completely wrong.  map of the south

Anyway, it’s come to my attention lately that we do indeed have some unusual phrases, or “Southernisms” as I like to call them, here in the South.  If you Google this topic, you’ll find all manner of odd things that might make you question our sanity if you aren’t from this part of the world, so today I thought it would be amusing to create a list of some of the phrases I heard often as a child growing up in a very rural area in Virginia.  A few of these I still find myself saying today, & I’ve definitely been questioned as to their meaning by some of my friends & coworkers who are not originally from the South.  Southern passport

A common theme you’ll notice with these phrases is that many of them are rooted in the farming history that is so prevalent in the South. A few of these may not be uniquely Southern, but some of them definitely are.

  • Making a mountain out of a molehill
    • Making a big deal out of nothing
    • “She didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, dear. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”
  • Don’t amount to a hill of beans
    • Doesn’t amount to anything significant
    • Quite often this is used in a similar context as the first phrase, as in: “I don’t know what you’re so upset about. It don’t amount to a hill of beans anyway.”hill of beans
  • Laid an egg
    • Laughed really hard
    • “That movie was so funny that I laid an egg.”
  • Living high on the hog
    • Having a wealthy person’s lifestyle (sometimes by living beyond your means)
    • “Ever since she moved to the city she’s been living high on the hog.”
  • The devil’s beating his wife
    • Raining when the sun is shining
    • “Well, we might get a rainbow tonight. The devil’s beating his wife again.”devil beating his wife
  • Living in high cotton
    • Same as living high on the hog
  • Pitching a hissy fit
    • Throwing a tantrum
    • “You can pitch a hissy fit all you want, but I’m not buying you any toys today!”
  • Running around like a chicken with its head cut off
    • Running around or generally acting crazy, often because you have too much to do at once
    • “Getting ready for that wedding last weekend, I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”
  • Going all around Robinhood’s barn
    • Taking the long route, could be geographically or metaphorically
    • “Whenever I drive with my uncle Luther, we always go all around Robinhood’s barn to get anywhere.”  [This is 100% true, by the way. :)]
  • As the crow flies
    • Going in a straight line
    • “It’s only 20 miles to the city as the crow flies, but with the mountains what they are around here, the roads don’t exactly run straight.”
  • Gets my goat
    • Makes you really angry, irritated, or annoyed
    • “It really gets my goat when people talk about me behind my back.”goat
  • Over yonder
    • Over there somewhere, could be across the room or upstairs or down the street or half way around the world.  My Granny used to say this all the time, so I always think of her whenever I hear this phrase.
    • “I think I left my book over yonder, dear. Can you go look for it?”
  • Can’t carry a tune in a bucket
    • Can’t sing at all
    • “I don’t know why he wants to join the choir. He can’t carry a tune in a bucket.”
  • His/her elevator don’t go all the way to the top
    • A “nice” way of saying someone isn’t very smart
    • “I guess we shouldn’t be too hard on her. Her elevator don’t go all the way to the top, ya know.”
  • Sweating like a whore in church
    • Sweating a lot, particularly may be used to describe a situation in which a person knows they are guilty
    • “When the teacher asked who had stuck the tack in her chair, Billy started sweating like a whore in church.”whore in church
  • As dumb as a bag of rocks
    • Pretty self-explanatory, this one just means someone is dumb
    • “Poor Ted, he’s as dumb as a bag of rocks.”
  • Don’t know his ass from a hole in the ground
    • Also used to describe someone who isn’t very smart, particularly someone who is very oblivious
    • “I don’t know why we expected him to understand what was going on.  He don’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.”
  • Madder than a wet hen
    • Very angry
    • “When I told Wanda I’d accidentally broken her favorite china dish, she was madder than a wet hen.”
  • Bless her/your heart!
    • Basically this little phrase absolves the speaker of guilt for saying something negative or derogatory about someone else. It might also be used as a passive-aggressive response to someone who says something you don’t find very intelligent or useful.
    • “Poor Brenda, she’s always sticking her foot in her mouth.  Bless her heart!”bless your heart
  • Don’t count your chickens before they hatch
    • Don’t depend on something before it happens or don’t get your hopes too high about something that is unlikely to happen
    • “I know you’ve got your heart set on playing professional baseball, dear, but you best not count your chickens before they hatch.”
  • Too big for your britches
    • Taking yourself too seriously or acting stuck up or snobby
    • “I know you just won Homecoming Queen, but don’t let yourself get too big for your britches.”
  • Directly (or, as it usually comes out, “dreckly”)
    • Soon, immediately, right now, or in a short amount of time
    • “I’ll come over to see you directly; just gotta finish these beans here.”
    • P.S. When I was a kid I heard this all the time & I knew what it meant, but it took me years to figure out that the word people were actually saying was “directly;” it just wasn’t pronounced that way.
  • Hold your horses
    • To be patient or wait for something
    • “Just hold your horses & stop asking when we’ll get there.”
  • I’ve got a mind to . . .
    • To desire to do something
    • “I’ve got a mind to go to town tonight & get my weekly shopping done.”
  • Scarce as hen’s teeth
    • So rare that it probably doesn’t exist
    • “A girl as pretty as that & smart & kind-hearted too . . . Well, that’s as scarce as hen’s teeth.”hens teeth
  • Well, I reckon . . .
    • To suppose or guess
    • “Can you rake up some leaves with me today, Joe?”
      “Yeah, I reckon I can do that.”
  • A wild goose chase
    • Looking for something that doesn’t exist
    • “In order to get her out of our hair so we could plan her surprise party, I sent her out on a wild goose chase.”
  • All get out
    • To the utmost degree or the best
    • “She’s as smart as all get out.”
  • Like white on rice
    • To stick close to something or someone
    • “As soon as she comes to town, he’ll be all over her like white on rice.”
  • Beat around the bush
    • To not say something directly, often to avoid hurting someone’s feelings
    • “Don’t beat around the bush.  Does the dress make me look fat or not?”pilates
  • A bee in her bonnet
    • To have an obsession over something, particularly to the point that it makes you agitated or irritable
    • “She’s got a real bee in her bonnet about this new school board ruling.”
  • Make water
    • To urinate . . . This is one I heard a lot when I was a nurse in SW Virginia after I graduated from nursing school.
    • “I hate taking these Lasix pills because I have to make water all the time when I’m on them.”
  • Swimmy-headed
    • Dizzy or feeling like you might faint . . . I only heard this one when I was living & working as a nurse in SW Virginia.  I’d never heard it growing up, but somehow when I started to hear patients describing dizziness this way I instantly knew what they meant.
    • “I started to feel all swimmy-headed & the next thing I knew I woke up on the floor with the paramedics standing over me.”southern accent ignorance

To end this post I’d just like to say that yes, I do have a bit of a Southern accent.  It definitely comes out on certain words like time & kind & things like that.  And I definitely say ain’t more than I really should & occasionally throw in a few of these possibly bizarre idioms that you’ve just read about above.  However, I also have an extensive vocabulary thanks to the fact that I’ve always been such a voracious reader, & furthermore ever since high school I have made a concerted effort to speak clearly & succinctly (aka actually enunciate!) so that people can easily understand me even if English isn’t their first language.  One of my college professors once told me I was the most sophisticated person he’d ever met from a small town, & even though some people might take that as a backhanded compliment I’ve always thought it was a rather flattering thing to hear.

In any case, I don’t think I’ll ever be proud of being Southern the way so many people are because I’m far too aware of the many negative things about this part of our country, but I also make no apologies for occasionally sounding like a redneck or a country hick, for lack of a better way to put it.  dimestore cowgirl

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this short exploration into Southern/rural culture.  Feel free to comment with any unique expressions or sayings you’ve heard in your part of the country/world.  I’d love to hear them.

And in final conclusion, check out this song from Kacey Musgraves which includes one of the phrases in this blog post.  I think anyone who’s reading this who, like me, grew up in a small town but left it to explore the world beyond will be able to relate to this song.

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