Tuesday, December 9, 2008

South Speak by Augusta Scattergood

Not long ago I read a rant by a writer, possibly a book reviewer himself, most likely on a blog advising us how to write. He was pontificating about overused words. Words he wanted banished from the pens of critics. As someone who often reviews books, I read it carefully. I can’t remember much about that list except that one of my favorite words showed up as persona non grata: Quirky. I love quirky books and I love the sound of that word. Maybe it’s because so many characters in Southern novels are downright quirky.

So when I read Southern funny guy Roy Blount Jr.’s new book, ALPHABET JUICE, I glommed right onto his take on quirky. He suspects the word was born following the “union of ‘quick’ and something more pejorative, perhaps ‘jerk.’” Fascinating? Definitely.

If you happen to be a word junky like I am.

Blount calls himself a hyperlexic. Now that’s something to aspire to. The book’s subtitle says it all: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof: Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Pits, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory.


Sometimes as a writer, I linger too long over words, worrying that I haven’t followed the advice of Mark Twain in a quote attributed to him: The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Now I’ve seen lightning (In fact, I’m told I live in the lighting capital of the country. A place that named its hockey team the Tampa Bay Lightning) and I love lightning bugs. And, believe me, there’s a big big difference.

But what about mosey, a good ole’ southern word if there ever was one, and stroll? How about saunter? How do we choose? We’d better choose carefully, even if the difference isn’t as pronounced as those lightning bugs.

Southern writers are at a word advantage, I’m sure of it. We just have more words to tell you what we want to say. My friend Beth Jacks maintains a website at USADeepSouth.com. There you’ll find what she calls Southern Speak, an exhaustive list of southern words and phrases her readers tap into, add to and comment on. Words long gone from most tongues, like corporosity and nary. Fixing to (that one’s not so long gone where I come from!). Swaney. And a whole host of food words nobody outside the South might recognize, including my favorite road food: Nabs (We Southerners know that’s not somebody grabbing you).

My own list of Southern Speak is endless, even after I’ve lived in the north most of my grown-up life. Words swirl around me like those Sunday dinner-time stories of my childhood. Maybe that’s why I’m partial to something else Roy Blount wrote:

"My goal in life is to make some tiny headway toward lifting from Southerners some tiny bit of the burden of having to prove [to Northerners] that we are being tongue-in-cheek."

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve learned to say what I mean, what I want to say anyhow, even when it flies right over the heads of those Yankees. Thank you, Roy Blount, for making me appreciate the spirit and energy of the words I grew up loving.

Augusta Scattergood is a contributing writer for Skirt! Magazine and Delta Magazine. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the St. Petersburg Times, and Mississippi Magazine as well as the USADeepsouth and Children’s Literature websites. She’s hard at work on two middle-grade kids’ books with her critique groups who, sadly, do not serve snickerdoodles.
Visit her blog at


The Pulpwood Queen said...

Two of my favorite East Texas words are tump and stob. Yes, they are in the American Heritage Dictionary under East Texas slang and I noticed too that everybody says things in threes when I moved here some 20+ years ago. "That boat ride was fun, fun, fun!" or "Give your memaw a kiss, kiss, kiss!" Makes me smile everytime.
I loved your blog and it just made me realize how much I collected words and phrases too. So as my mother used to always say, "I hope to shout!" that we celebrate our southern and colorful language even more. Think how about how our favorite southern novels would be without the colorful language. Scarlett wouldn't have been near as interesting.
Tiara wearing and Book sharing,
Kathy L. Patrick
The Pulpwood Queen

Rhonda Leigh Jones said...

Southern idioms can be wonderful too. When I was small, if my mama told me she was going to jerk a knot in my tail, I knew that meant a spanking. Southern language is so gloriously colorful. Thanks for posting this!

Anonymous said...

I like this one: I'm going to paint your back door red. Ouch!

Augusta Scattergood said...

I sure know about stobs! We used to be real careful about those when we were fishing on the lake. And my mama jerked knots on my head. I think I like tails better-never could figure the head part out.
Thanks for the comments.

Janet Guyton said...

Why is it that Yankees just cannot seem to understand that "y'all" is NEVER said to just one person? (Well, technically, it can be SPOKEN to a single person--but at least one other individual is implied.) For us, it is the second person plural of "you".
And why do so many Northerners think we pronounce the name of our favorite nut "pee-can"(the latter syllable rhyming with "fan")? I have never heard a real Southerner say anything but "puh-CAHN".