Birmingham, Alabama—I’m eating a hamburger at a bar. The men on stools beside me are shouting over each other. There are seven of them, all wearing nice suits.
They are from New Jersey.
Our bartender’s name is Mandy. The New Jersey men are asking Mandy about various Southern expressions.
Mandy knows a thing or two about regional dialect. She has a thick accent, deep lines on her face, and she’s got more country expressions than Carter has liver pills.
Mandy comes from Sylacauga, which is home to such American treasures as: Jim Nabors (Gomer Pyle); Bill Todd (world’s lowest gospel-singing bass voice); and Ann Hodges (first woman in U.S. history to be struck by a nine-pound meteorite while taking a nap).
“Is it true?” New Jersey asks Mandy. “That you Southerners say ‘bless your heart’ to stupid people?”
Well, yes and no.
“Bless your heart” was once a common phrase uttered by anyone from Granny to Andy Griffith. But somewhere along life’s way, it got ruined by People Magazine, chain-email jokes, and Paula Deen.
“Yeah, we say it,” Mandy points out. “But most of the time, I’d rather say something like: ‘Ain’t he precious?’”
Which, when translated literally, means: “That poor man must’ve been exposed to lead paint during infancy.”
Many expressions in the South involve the weather. Here, we hold deep affection for the heat index.
One New Jersey man shouts: “I know a country expression about the weather: ‘SWEATING LIKE A HOG IN CHURCH!’”
Mandy rolls her eyes.
“Nope,” Mandy points out. “That ain’t how it goes. It goes: ‘Sweat’n like a WHORE in church.”
The New Jerseyans laugh hysterically.
Thus, Mandy teaches these men various regional expressions, free of charge. They listen and marvel at how many different ways a Sylacaugian like her can say something as simple as: “It’s hot outside.”
—“It’s hotter’n Hades.” A classic.
—“Hotter’n twelve Hells.” Country gold.
—“Hotter’n the fire it takes to burn forty wet mules.” Big Mike gets credit for that one.
—“It’s so hot Granny’s taking off things she really oughta keep on.”
—“Gimme some dadgum tea.”
Also, there are dialectal ways of referring to people who—how do I put this?—do un-smart things.
A few academic examples:
“Your cousin Geether couldn’t find his ass with both hands in his back pockets.”
Or: “That boy’s about as smart as a box of burnt hair.”
Those are just a few illustrations. There are other phrases I can’t list here because my mother reads these things—and she knows how to use a hairbrush as a weapon.
Still, you ought to know that these sorts of sayings aren’t actually mean-spirited. Let’s assume, for instance, you were to say:
“My cousin Ed Lee don’t know whether to wind his butt or scratch his watch.” Or: “Cousin Ed Lee couldn’t find his own crack with a mirror on a stick.”
Saying these things would not mean you don’t LOVE Ed Lee. Quite the opposite. You still love him plenty. You just wouldn’t ever let Ed Lee drive while your kids were in the car. And under no circumstances would Ed Lee ever say grace at a family reunion.
But we invariably love Ed Lee.
And this is something the TV people get wrong about our part of the world. We love everybody. Even Paula Deen.
And believe it or not, we even love New Jerseyans who walk out of Birmingham bars without tipping their lovely bartenders.
But Mandy is no amateur, she’s been tending bar for thirty years. She’s raised four kids while surviving on nothing but late nights and caffeine.
And when those New Jerseyans stiffed her, she took it like a strong woman. She didn’t cry. She only shook her head and said the most frightening words you’ll ever hear a Southern woman say:
“I’m gonna put those heathens on the church prayer list.”
This old world could use few more women from Sylacauga.