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.
Jack Quanstrum - April 9, 2018 5:38 am
Love this story being a former northerner! Fantastic read!
Afi - April 9, 2018 5:41 am
Mean men. I bet they stiff waitresses in New Jersey too.
Ttown Dick - April 9, 2018 6:01 am
Emmylou Harris is STILL hotter than a $2.00 iPhone!
Pamela McEachern - April 9, 2018 6:51 am
Anyone that would do that to a hard working woman or man is just a sad situation all around. I’m going to put them on a list too, let’s hope the grace they were shown rubbed off on them and their Mothers never find out.
Peace and Love from Birmingham
Gary - April 9, 2018 9:40 am
Mandy sounds like a great person. The kind you wouldn’t mind being friends with.
Melanie - April 9, 2018 9:52 am
Sean I’ll send Mandy that tip and then some. Address? As for those Yankees, I’ll pray for them. Clearly they need it.
Dianne - April 9, 2018 11:45 am
To those New Jerseyans, I say………Well, bless your little hearts!! Guess they needed their tip money more than they thought Mandy did.
James - April 9, 2018 12:04 pm
I think J. D. Sumner is the lowest bass.
Sue Cronkite - April 9, 2018 12:52 pm
That’s why when New Jerseyites leave we say “What’s better than New Jersey tourists leaving the South?” “If they carry a New Yorker under each arm.”
Carol-Ann Dearnaley - April 9, 2018 7:10 pm
Why bless your heart! I’m sure the same could be said about any state – especially, Texas, Oklahoma, and few other members of the Confederacy. But real Northerners try not to stoop to that level.
Steve - April 9, 2018 1:25 pm
My favorite cartoon was “That’s Jake”…..who once said, “The best thing about living in NYC…is not having to put up with all the New Yorkers that used to live there.”
Carol ann ROTHWELL - April 9, 2018 1:45 pm
Thoes are some good one’s, Love’m,all!
Never heard the one about the prayer list….
Gonna add a few to mine!!!
Thank ya Sean!
Virginia Hamlin - April 9, 2018 1:48 pm
This one “tore me up.” From someone who understood every phrase.
Wendy Franks - April 9, 2018 3:49 pm
Love this! I agree with James that J.D.Sumner has the lowest bass voice, but then I don’t know Bill Todd.
Susie - April 9, 2018 3:59 pm
Love this story and love Sue Cronkite’s comment, also.
Edna B. - April 9, 2018 4:18 pm
Some folks just don’t have the manners they were supposed to be raised with. Mandy sounds like an awesome person. I’ve made lots of trips to the South, and I’ve met lots of wonderful folks. Some of my family still lives there. Thank you for this wonderful story. You have a great day, hugs, Edna B.
Beki Denison - April 9, 2018 5:48 pm
I’m sure the thought, “you ain’t from around here are ya, honey?’ probably crossed Mandy’s mind too, even if it didn’t pass her lips.
Susan - April 9, 2018 9:37 pm
How do I post this to FB? I’m from New Jersey but am now a dedicated North Carolinian and want to shame those “precious” Jersey guys!
Just Ennis - April 10, 2018 12:46 pm
Mandy is my kind of girl!?
Mike Varnes - April 13, 2018 1:23 am
I know these Yankees are helpin’ your paycheck, Sean, but enough is enough! We can’t even find a decent place to rent now for a reasonable amount because they keep coming down with their high yankee pensions and driving the prices up! They crowd out long-time fishin’ and huntin’ spots and then want to act like they belong here! I’ll tell you where they belong. Back up in yankee land where they came from! I want the South my Grandparents had! They are ruining the South. No Joke.
Becky - April 14, 2018 10:20 pm
So enjoyed this!!! After living in California for over 35 years, teaching fifth and third grade here for thirty years my strong south Alabama Accent is still here! I am proud of my Alabama heritage, my Auburn Education, and my ability to speak correct English. When people ask why my accent is so strong after all this time… my husband says ‘because she doesn’t listen to others’. I am proud to be a Southern Lady and I am happy to share the fine manners, heritage, culture and beautiful beaches and scenery with others. The South and their way of speaking and sayings are too good to keep to ourselves. We all should try to improve our actions and behave in a Civil Manner. Long Live the South!! War Eagle!!!!