15 Phrases Only a True Southerner Would Understand

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Southerners have a language for everything from passive insults to giving general directions. While some phrases and idioms might sound familiar if you’re from the Midwest or some Northern states, you’ll undoubtedly hear them daily once you pass the Mason-Dixon line that marks the cultural border between Northern and Southern states. 

Living in the South means you move a little slower when the heat of the day hits; you appreciate air conditioning and anyone who cooks, so you don’t have to. But when it comes to speaking the language of the South, it takes a little getting used to.

My husband and his family are native to central Florida and have beautiful accents that make words sound odd to me. My Michigan accent sounds funny, especially to my Southern-born and raised children, who often poke fun at me. For anyone who wasn’t born here or hasn’t lived in the South for some time, these words and phrases can be hard to decipher. Here’s a guide to help you the next time you wander South of Mason-Dixon.

1. Yonder

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There are several versions of this saying. “Right Yonder” or “Over Yonder” are the two most common examples of a word that means “over there.”  If a Southerner is trying to tell you the general direction something is in or where something is at, they’ll likely say “Right yonder” or “Over yonder” and point with a finger to help guide you.

2. ‘Til the Cows Come Home

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While this phrase is not specific to the South, it refers to eternity, meaning something will last or go on into eternity. Another version of this is “When pigs fly.” People often use it when conversing with children to exaggerate how long something will take to finish.

3. Y’all

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In Michigan, most people will say “you guys” when referring to a group of people. Being a proper Southerner, however, my husband uses “Y’all.” Thankfully, it is an appropriate contraction of the words you and all. We use it most often when talking to our mix of children.

4. It Doesn’t Amount to a Hill of Beans

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This phrase conveys that something isn’t worth your time or effort. It became popular around 1863 as a way of explaining when an idea or activity wasn’t worth the investment because before beans became a commodity, they were so prevalent that even a “hill” of them wasn’t worth much.

5. Bless Your Heart

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This phrase is one of my favorite Southern expressions because it can be a passive insult or a meaningful compliment. As an insult, it means that you’re dim in the mental acuity department. As a compliment, it means that whoever is saying it appreciated that you thought of them.

6. Fixin’ To

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When I was a sophomore in college, I met a couple of girls from Texas, and it was the first time I ever heard the phrase “Fixin’ to.” This phrase can mean anything you’re planning to do in the future. However, it usually refers to something you’re hoping to do.

7. Pretty as the Day Is Long

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This phrase has many versions; you can substitute anything for “pretty.” “Funny, sober, irritating, etc,” if it’s an adjective, it’ll likely work. It generally means that whatever descriptor you choose, there is much of it.

8. Heavens to Betsy

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I never figured out who “Betsy” is supposed to be, but people usually say this phrase in a moment of shock or great surprise. If someone startled you on purpose or even on accident, you might say, “Heavens to Betsy, you scared me.”

9. Madder Than a Wet Hen

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I’m not sure how this phrase came to be, as I’ve seen wet hens, and they don’t seem particularly angry. I also have heard “Madder than a hornet;” this version seems much more apt as I have seen a mad hornet.

10. Katty-Corner

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Where I’m from, we say “kitty-corner” to denote something that is diagonal from something else. My husband says katty-corner, and he is “as Southern as the day is long.” Whichever you say, it all means the same!

11. Shopping Buggy

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Many people around the United States use a shopping cart to make a grocery run. In the South, they use a buggy or shopping buggy. You can also refer to strollers as a buggy. Regardless of what it’s called, it makes shopping much easier.

12. Reckon

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Whenever you’re talking to someone born in the South, and you ask them if they suppose something, they’ll tell you they “reckon.” For example, “I reckon we ought to get going before the meeting starts without us.”

13. Slower Than Molasses

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If you’ve ever tried to pour out molasses when it’s cold, you’ll know just how insulting this phrase is. There are different versions, like “Slower than molasses in winter” or “Slower than molasses on a cold day,” but the insult is the same. Whoever is saying it either finds you mentally dim or physically lazy.

14. Scarce as Hen’s Teeth

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Considering hens don’t have teeth, the meaning of this phrase is rather apparent. “Scare as hen’s teeth” refers to something limited in quantity and even harder to find — perhaps even impossible.

15. Chitlins

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This word is as Southern as Southern gets. This snack food is fried pig intestines and is very popular among native Southerners. Chitlins, or more accurately, Chitterlings, were often cooked immediately upon the slaughter of a pig because they wouldn’t keep well. Usually fried after thoroughly cleaning and stewing, you can serve them with apple cider vinegar and hot sauce. While some thought of them as a “poor” people’s food, they are now considered a delicacy. If intestines don’t sound appetizing, you can also try “cracklin’,” which is fried pig ears.

Listen and Learn

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If the South comes off as a bit slow, it’s because the immense heat of summer slows everything down. It’s better to savor the experience that way. Make no mistake, though, Southerners are not dim or lazy. Knowing when to take it easy and when to work hard is the life of anyone growing up in the South because the heat can do you in down here.

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