April 2018

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

NL #37: The Keys to Understanding Southerners

NL #37: Some poeple think that the key to understanding Southerners is understanding the Civil War. That's true, but also understanding hyperbole, vocabulary (like y'all) and cultural phenomena (like grits) are keys to understanding Southerners.

Here are the main things you need to understand about the Civil War: 1) It is called The War Between the States or The War of Northern Aggression 2) It is not in the past. It is ongoing. When my grandmother M. used to say, "That wind came through here like Sherman marched through Georgia," no one would ask, "Sherman who?" That's like asking, "Michael Jordan who?"

When I was teaching a US history class a few years back, my original teaching partner had a nervous breakdown (no, I do not think I drove her to it), and my colleague Don took her place. Because it was November and the class was still in Plymouth, Don and I agreed that we needed to decide what to teach and what to skip. "Let's skip the Civil War," he suggested. "It's not that important." Don grew up in the Northwest. Raised in the South, I nearly dropped my teeth.

About language, an arena in which Southerners excel, the word, "y'all" is probably Southerners' most significant contribution to American English. "You guys" leaves out half of the population and the Spanish "ustedes" is too formal. "Y'all" is the word. By the way, it's plural. You don't say "y'all" to one person.

The elegance of hyperbole may be the Southern storytellers' greatest contribution to literature. Ann is from Texas, not the South, and I have finally taught her not to correct me when I say something like,"That meeting took twelve hours." The point is the experiential truth, not the fact of the meeting's length. That meeting (pretty much any meeting) seemed like it took twelve hours. My friend Marion, from New York, excels here as well. Marion also loves musicals, so in her soul I suspect she is part gay Southerner.

Of course, we use hyperbole all the time to talk about our misery: I'm starving. I'm dying. I can't take another step. Sometimes I wonder how people who have experienced starvation, the threat of death, and such exhausion that they cannot take another step hear these expressions. I know when people say (and they often do), "My head is killing me," I want to say, "Really?"

In terms of Southern cultural phenomena, I can't really explain grits. You have to eat them. Eat them before they dry into a plastic pancake. That's my tip. No Southerner allows food to stay on the plate long enough to get cold like that. Also, don't put sugar in them. Texans may do that, but Southerners do not.

See y'all tomorry. Mary


  1. This week I had to defend my novel manuscript from (Northern) copy edits. No, that truck is not "broken." It's "broke." And in answer to the question posed by a literary agent I sent the novel to early on, "Do people still say 'I reckon?'" Well. yes, I reckon they do.

  2. Please don't make your grits with milk either. They're gross that way. I do suggest mixing in pimento cheese with hot grits, though.


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