Southern Vocabulary: Useful Words

“It’s impossible to explain to a Yankee what `tacky’ is. They simply have no word for it up north, but my God, do they ever need one.”
                                  — from The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy
I think that “tacky” may be universally understood by speakers of American English by now, but there are surely other Southernisms that are at best misunderstood and at worst mocked by non-speakers.  I did not realize myself that some of the words I used regularly were regional until I went away to college and got laughed at for saying them.
“Don’t be so HATEFUL!” my friends would say with an exaggerated drawl.  Well, at least I was in good company.  The word makes frequent appearances in that Southern masterpiece, Gone with the Wind:   “Ashley’s so mean and hateful!” says Scarlett to Melanie at one point.  We were regularly ordered not to be hateful when I was a little girl.  I say it to my little ones all the time.
Another thing parents often say to children in these parts: “Stop acting so ugly.”  I don’t think I need to explain what that means, do I?
I didn’t grow up using a lot of specifically East Tennessee vocabulary.  My mother is only a second generation East Tennessean, and we learned what was “proper” from her.   My father’s family, here for over 200 years, speak very differently.  My Granny would greet us with, “Give Granny some sugar.”  She’d tell me that what I was looking for could be found “over yonder,” and she’d say “I reckon” instead of “I suppose.”
I reckon if I am an East Tennessean there’s no reason I shouldn’t sound like one.  I’ve already decided I want to be “Granny” when I have grandchildren, and I’ve added the very useful helper “fixin’ to” to my vocabulary.  For example, I’m tired, and I’m fixin’ to go to bed now. 🙂


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  1. efloraross says:

    LOL! Fixin’ is classic South! As a former English teacher, I have had a difficult time adjusting (I’m in FL now, grew up in Midwest). My friends from up North all tell me I have an accent now. And I love to use y’all. I also tell my child not to be ugly. 😉

    • lesliesholly says:

      To me there is just something so fitting about these words–so well-suited to the point you want to make. I’m sure other dialects of English have similar useful words, but I don’t know those! And as an English major myself, my philosophy is that written English has one standard, of course, and then there is one sort of speech you use, for example, in job interviews, and another for your every day life. Fixin’ to falls into that last category!!

  2. You’re speaking my language! My father is from western KY and my mother is originally from Savannah so I have a nice blend going on ; ) “Might could” is a great example- as in “We don’t have all the ingredients but I might could make it work anyway.”

    • lesliesholly says:

      Mary Lauren, you read my mind! “Might could” (double modals in linguist-speak) is going to be the topic next time I write about this!
      Do you have family in Savannah? We visited last year and just loved it! My mother’s family is originally from Mobile.

  3. That’s funny – I always knew ‘I reckon’ as a very Aussie thing. Every American I’ve met has commented on how much I say it.

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