High cotton and southern language

restaurant in Booneville, Kentucky.

Often it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.  And on a recent reporting trip to South Carolina, I was reminded that in the rural south, how you say things can be an art. A few examples from listeners:

“Frog Strangler” -  a heavy rainstorm where even a frog would have a hard time getting out of it.  (Andy Grabel, who grew up in Georgia)

“Even a blind hog can find an acorn once in a while”  -  basically means even the most incompetent of us can luck out.  (Fernando Pizzaro, who grew up all over the South)

“They’re living in high cotton,” - meaning their lives are pretty cushy and they’re doing well. Or “I’m feeling low cotton today,” meaning I’m having a bad day.   (Leslie Criss – Tupelo Mississippi)

It’s not a coincidence that nature and agriculture figure so prominently in many southern idioms. Economic realities can leave linguistic marks, and the language of the South is a window into its economic past.

“The south was much more rural than other areas,” says Walt Wolfram, professor of Linguistics at North Carolina State University and author of "Talkin' Tar Heel." “So because farming was such an important part of the culture, there are a lot of terms related to things like weather and farming and so forth.”

The phrase "stubborn as a Missouri mule" came about during a time when Missouri exported mules. The phrase "chopping in high cotton" or "living in high cotton" refers, according to some explanations, to the fact that if the cotton had grown high, the crop was abundant and a field worker would be shaded from the scorching sun. 

In southern fishing towns you get expressions incorporating the wind and the water and the fishing economy.

“It’s draped over occupations, the economy, lifestyle really,” says Gill. 

Some expressions seem to derive from the strong work ethic required for farming. It’s hard work and there’s little time or patience for slacking or whining. 

“People that want by the yard but try by the inch, should be kicked by the foot” -  If someone wants by the yard, it means “they want an enormous amount for a minimal effort, so they need to be kicked by a good foot.”   (Reggie McDaniel, Mullins South Carolina)

I would put the following phrase in the same category of work-ethic related expressions.

"When you run into someone who’s grouchy, give them a big smile and say, 'You can just get happy in the same britches you got mad in.'"  (Leslie Criss)

Perhaps otherwise put, "Snap out of it and get with the program."

Some southern expressions have made their way into broader usage. 

"Bless your heart." – Basically that means you’re too dimwitted to know any better. I think I love that one because it epitomizes the southern way of being a little bit catty but not wanting to sound too mean.  (Danelle Lane, Charlotte North Carolina)

(This famous expression may, however, actually owe its origins to the English.)

Many linguistic gems are fading.

“You don’t find these expressions nearly as much in urban areas in the South as you do in rural areas,” says Wolfram. “So the divide between the rural and urban south is in some ways becoming as sharp as the divide between northern and southern speech.”

In part it’s because more northerners are moving into Southern cities, but also some expressions just don’t seem to make it from grandparents and parents to their children as much. 

Wolfram says he hopes that southern speech – which, he adds, is quite alive and well - becomes more recognized as one of the treasures the south has to offer, and a piece of its heritage:

“There was a period in the south where some people were ashamed of talking southern, but I hope we can celebrate southern speech as part of its culture and history.”


Here are some of my favorite southern expressions and some from listeners.  Feel free to add your favorite in the comments. 

  • A long row to hoe – a difficult task
  • All hat and no cattle – all talk/show
  • Drunker than Cooter Brown – They say Cooter Brown lived on the dividing line between north and south during the Civil War. He had family on both sides and so didn’t want to fight. So he got drunk and stayed drunk for the whole Civil War so nobody would draft him.
  • Wish? Wish in one hand and pee in the other and see which one fills up first! – wishing won’t get you anywhere. The implication being you have to work for it.
  • Lord willing and the creek don’t rise – assuming everything goes right. “See you next time Grandma!” “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise!”
  • Worthless as nipples on a boar hog - useless
  • Might could – possibly, a noncommittal maybe
  • Lost as a ball in high weeds – to describe someone who is very confused, hopelessly out of the loop or doesn’t know what they’re doing.
  • I wouldn’t care to – I’d be happy to
  • Crooked as a barrel of fish hooks – an untrustworthy, corrupt person
  • Catch the Devil – to have a rough/bad time

CORRECTION: The state where Andy Grabel grew up was misidentified. The text has been corrected.

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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