Roy Exum: Some Salt-Water Therapy

Friday, May 2, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Anna Quindlen, a wonderful columnist who some years ago was awarded the Pulitzer Prize as a writer for the New York Times, was at the beach one time when she famously wrote, “I read and walked for miles at night along the beach, writing bad blank verse and searching endlessly for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that that person could be me.”

It is with a similar thought in mind that I inform you I am already well on my way for a dose of “salt-water therapy,” intent on celebrating the first days of May wearing a pair of baggy shorts with my toes in South Carolina sand.

While I am gone, perhaps this is a good time to share a primer I found. A couple of years ago two writers for Business Insider, Christina Sterbenz and Rylan Miller, became very amused with the ways people from the South talk – not so much our accents but in the way we use catchy sayings.

This trait, they explained, is much more fun than the way people in some areas of the country call a soft drink “pop” while others call it a “soda.” (In the South we call everything a “coke,” followed by a lazy “what kind will you have?”)

So here is a list of what the writers believe are 15 classic – or “the most ridiculous” -- Southern sayings and, believe it or not, what each one really means. If it matters, I’ve used them all:

1. “WE’RE LIVING IN HIGH COTTON.”

Cotton has long been a key crop to the South’s economy, so every harvest farmers pray for tall bushes loaded with white fluffy balls in their fields. Tall cotton bushes are easier to pick and yield higher returns. If you’re living “in high cotton,” it means you’re feeling particularly successful or wealthy.

2. “SHE WAS MADDER THAN A WET HEN.”

Hens sometimes enter a phase of “broodiness” — they'll stop at nothing to incubate their eggs and get agitated when farmers try to collect them. Farmers used to dunk hens in cold water to “break” their broodiness. You don’t want to be around a hormonal hen after she’s had an ice bath.

3. “HE COULD EAT CORN THROUGH A PICKET FENCE.”

This describes someone with an unfortunate set of buck teeth. They tend to stick up and outward, like a horse’s teeth. Imagine a horse eating a carrot, and you’ll get the picture.

4. “YOU CAN’T MAKE A SILK PURSE OUT OF A PIG’S EAR.”

A pig’s ear may look soft, pink, and shiny, but you’re not fooling anyone by calling it your new Marc Jacobs bag. A Southerner might say this about her redneck cousin who likes to decorate his house with deer antlers.

5. “YOU LOOK RODE HARD AND PUT UP WET.”

No, this isn’t Southern sexual innuendo. The phrase refers to a key step in horse grooming — when a horse runs fast, it works up a sweat, especially under the saddle. A good rider knows to walk the horse around so it can dry off before going back to the stable. A horse will look sick and tired if you forget this step, much like a person who misses sleep or drinks too much.

6. “HE’S AS DRUNK AS COOTER BROWN.”

Cooter Brown is an infamous character in Southern lore. Legend tells that he lived on the Mason-Dixon line — the border between the North and South — during the Civil War. To avoid the draft on either side, Cooter decided to stay drunk throughout the entire war, making him ineligible for battle. Inebriated Southerners have measured their drunkenness by him ever since.

7. “SHE’S AS HAPPY AS A DEAD PIG IN THE SUNSHINE.”

When a pig dies, presumably in a sty outside, the sun dries out its skin. This effect pulls the pig’s lips back to reveal a toothy “grin,” making it look happy even though it’s dead. This phrase describes a person who’s blissfully ignorant of reality.

8. “SHE’S GOT MORE NERVE THAN CARTER’S GOT LIVER PILLS.”

Carter’s Products started as a pill-peddling company in the latter part of the 19th century. Specifically, Carters repped its “Little Liver Pills” so hard a Southern saying spawned from the omnipresent advertisements. Alas, the Federal Trade Commission forced the drug-group to drop the “liver” portion of the ad, claiming it was deceptive. Carter's “Little Liver Pills” became Carter's “Little Pills” in 1951, but the South doesn't really pay attention to history. The phrase stuck.

9. “I’M FINER THAN FROG HAIR SPLIT FOUR WAYS.”

Southerners mostly use this phrase to answer, “How are you?” Even those below the Mason-Dixon know frogs don't have hair, and the irony means to highlight just how dandy you feel. The phrase reportedly originated in C. Davis’ “Diary of 1865.”

10. “HE THINKS THE SUN COMES UP JUST TO HEAR HIM CROW.”

On farms (not just in the South) roosters usually crow when the sun rises. Their vociferous habit wakes up the house, signaling time to work. An extremely cocky rooster might think the sun rises simply because he crows. Similarly, an extremely cocky man might think the same when he speaks — and also that everyone should listen to him.

11. “THAT’S ABOUT AS USEFUL AS TITS ON A BULL.”

Only female dairy cows produce milk. Male cows are called bulls. And even if you could “milk anything with nipples,” bulls tend to be rather ornery. Good luck with that.

12. “THAT THING IS ALL CATAWAMPUS.”

Catawampus -- adj: askew, awry, cater-cornered. Lexicographers don't really know how it evolved, though. They speculate it's a colloquial perversion of “cater-corner.” Variations include: catawampous, cattywampus, catty wonkus. The South isn't really big on details.

13. “HE’S GOT ENOUGH MONEY TO BURN A WET MULE.”

In 1929, then-Governor of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, nicknamed “The Kingfish,” tried to enact a five-cent tax on each barrel of refined oil to fund welfare programs. Naturally, Standard Oil threw a hissy fit and tried to impeach him on some fairly erroneous charges (including attending a drunken party with a stripper.) But Long, a good ole' boy, fought back. He reportedly said the company had offered legislators as much as $25,000 for their votes to kick him out of office — what he called “enough money to burn a wet mule.” We Northerners may not know what that means, but at least we know where it comes from.

BONUS – “BLESS YOUR HEART.”

Almost everyone knows Southern women drop this phrase constantly. But it might not mean what you think it means. In reality, the phrase has little to do with religion and more to do with a passive-aggressive way to call you an idiot. Depending on your inflection, saying “bless your heart” can sting worse than any insult.

* * *

I’ll be back in a week or so. Remember to vote this coming Tuesday and make sure you pick the winners, just like in tomorrow’s Kentucky Derby.

royexum@aol.com




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