Southern Phrases That Others Need A Dictionary For
Southern America is known for a plethora of unique cultural aspects. There’s the homestyle cuisine, love for football, and slang that makes you wonder if they’re speaking another language. There’s a ton of southern phrases over yonder that the folks from states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia seamlessly embed into their diction. East coast and west coast citizens might have a hard time deciphering what these words mean when they hear them. Go through and teach yourself these phrases from the south and you’ll be an expert in no time.
“Aren’t You Precious”
One characteristic that’s especially prominent in the south is hospitality. Southerners love being polite and will disguise insults as compliments. Keep this in mind for whenever you hear “aren’t you precious,” because it could be loaded with sarcasm.
They’ll usually say it after a person has done something questionable or if they’ve been offended. You’ll rarely hear it relayed with the conventional connotation that people everywhere else are accustomed to. Did you just call someone dumb? Well, aren’t you precious?
We reckon it’s time to teach you about this word. If you’re having a conversation with someone and you give your thoughts and opinions, then chances are that other person will chime in.
That’s when they kick off their spiel with “I reckon.” In most cases, this southern word substitutes in place of I believe, imagine, suppose, and think. We reckon that these southern phrases aren’t too hard to understand, wouldn’t you agree? Reckon also becomes catchy once you start using it.
“See To Christmas”
You’d have to some type of supervision to be able to see to Christmas. Luckily, that’s not what this phrase means. If you’re a woman and you go to a family event wearing a skirt that might be a little short, then chances are you might hear this slang.
You think your outfit is perfectly fine until your grandmother sees it. That’s when she flares her nostrils, slightly offended at the length of your skirt, and says she can “see to Christmas!” All it means is that your garment might be a little too revealing.
Don’t worry, you’re not unattractive. Southerners just have a way with words and will tell you that you’re being ugly if you’re acting unacceptably. Similar to when you get hungry, and you start to have an attitude with people, that’s when you’re being ugly.
If you want to adopt this phrase, be careful who you use it with and around whom. Folks might start to think you’re calling people rough, when all you want them to do is switch up their attitude.
“Pretty As A Peach”
Sometimes a woman might look dashing to the eye, and you wish to compliment her. Sure, a simple “you look nice” or “how beautiful” can suffice, but in the south, there’s a different phrase.
Southerners will tell her she looks pretty as a peach. It’s not to be taken in the literal sense, it’s just a short and sweet way of saying a girl how nice she looks. Ladies, next time you frequent the south, don’t be alarmed.
This phrase might be more on the universal side, but you hear it more in the south. If you’ve ever seen a young kid throw a temper tantrum after they’ve been denied that piece of candy, then you know how wild he or she can get.
That would be a prime example of a hissy fit. It’s a handy phrase, and as we said, it’s spread beyond the diction of southerners. Folks on the west, east and everywhere in between use it as well.
“Too Big For Your Britches”
Southerners typically call their undergarments and pants britches. If you hear the phrase, you’re too big for your britches, that doesn’t mean you’re overweight at all (unless the person is disrespectful). Instead, it means someone might be getting ahead of themselves.
Being too big for your britches indicates that you think too highly of yourself. For example, challenging what your parents say when you’re young will make you too big for your britches, and you might be disciplined.
“Full As A Tick”
We all know that feeling of getting too full after eating a delicious meal. You feel it even more if it’s a homecooked meal, because who cooks better than your parents? Your belly is on the verge of blowing up, so what do you say?
You utter the words “I’m full as a tick.” If you don’t live in tick county, after they enjoy a healthy dose of blood, they can quickly balloon up. It might not be the most inviting thing to visualize, but it’s accurate.
“Hold Your Horses”
Hold your horses! That doesn’t mean to go to your barn and grab hold of your precious animal. This is another common phrase that might not throw you off guard, and it simple to grasp.
If you ever hear this slang, someone is trying to tell you to simmer down and wait. Sometimes, people can get anxious and become impatient, simply ask them to hold their horses and hopefully, they’ll listen to your kind request.
“If The Creek Don’t Rise”
Having a busy life can put a damper on your social plans. People might invite you places, and no matter how badly you want to go, you can’t guarantee your appearance. Southerners have the perfect phrase for this situation.
Take these older gentlemen you see in the picture. Say they meet every Tuesday at the same time, but one of them wishes to do something else on the upcoming Thursday. The other might have plans that night with his nephew, but it isn’t in stone yet. That’s when he’ll say, “Well, Jim, if the creek don’t rise, I’ll be there.” It’s just slang for we’ll see what I can do, but no guarantees.
If you aren’t from the south, then there’s a chance someone from there might throw this term at you. You don’t have to enjoy baseball or even be a fan of the Yankee’s to earn this title.
If someone calls you a Yankee, it merely means they assume you’re from the north, or you act like it. Yankee became popular in the south during the Civil War as a means to refer to Union soldiers.
What’s that over there? Over where? Over yonder! If you’re visiting in the south and ask for directions, someone might use the phrase “over yonder.” The word yonder might be a phrase you aren’t used to, but used in the correct context and it isn’t tough to decipher.
Bottom line, it translates to over there. A friendly point might be attached to the phrase to aid in which direction “yonder” is, so don’t be too baffled if you hear this.
“Barking Up The Wrong Tree”
You’ve probably heard this phrase before but didn’t know it originates from the south. People put themselves in situations that have them barking up the wrong tree all the time. Most of the time, you don’t even recognize it until someone else tells you.
Generally, you’re barking up the wrong tree when you speak on a matter you’re not too versed in or if you assume the wrong thing. “If you think I’m going to give you $100, then you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
When you first read this word and hear it, you might be thinking it’s ridiculous. The more you say it, however, you’ll want to indulge it even more because it sounds so fun.
Cattywampus has nothing to do with cats. It means that something is sideways or out of sorts. If you have a painting in your living room and it tilts a little to the right, a southerner will say that it’s quite cattywampus and that you should straighten it.
“Sweating More Than A Sinner In Church”
Sometimes, the sun can be rude to the inhabitants of Earth. We didn’t ask for it to feel like we’re slowly descending into the pit of an active volcano. Maybe the air conditioner just broke, and it’s the hottest day of the summer, and you’re stuck inside.
In any of those scenarios, you will be sweating more than a sinner in church. That’s a southern phrase that implies those who do no good feel the heat when they go to church.
“Till The Cows Come Home”
You might not own a farm, but the phrase till the cows come home can still apply to you. If someone you know who usually takes a long time tells you he or she will be right back, deep down, you know that’s not the case.
You’ll be waiting till the cows come home for that person. The southern phrase implies that your wait time won’t be short and that you should be prepared to do something else in the meantime.
“No Bigger Than A Minnow In A Fishing Pond”
Southerners like using their metaphors and euphemisms! This phrase is pretty straight forward but might cause some confusion. If you’re telling a story and you need to describe something small, what would you say?
If you’re from the south, then you’re going to say it was no bigger than a minnow in a fishing pond. The goal when fishing is to get something of decent size, but sometimes you reel in some of those minnows that pale in comparison to the bass.
“Three Sheets To The Wind”
If you’ve gotten drunk before, then more than likely this phrase could have been applied to you. When you’ve had one too many drinks, but you swear to your friends that you’ll be fine, they might not agree.
Ten minutes later and you’re standing on the bar asking for the bartender’s number. You’ve for sure had too much alcohol and the phrase three sheets to the wind certainly applies. This phrase has nautical roots but is used commonly in the south today. A “sheet” is a rope that’s unmoored and is flailing about wildly in the wind, just like a drunk person.
“Madder Than A Wet Hen”
We’ve never encountered a wet hen, but this slang term has nothing to do with them. If you hear that a woman is “madder than a wet hen,” you shouldn’t press any of her buttons. There’s no telling what she’s capable of doing when enraged.
Remember, “hell has no fury like a woman scorned.” If you can remember that, then you will be comfortable remembering what the southern phrase madder than a wet hen means.
Has anyone ever told you to do something that you already planned on doing? It happens all the time, and southerners have a neat phrase to use a response. It’s simple and only two words: fixin’ to.
“Hey, what are you about to do?” “Well, I’m fixin’ to do the dishes then go for a six-mile run.” See, there’s nothing to it. Unless you’re really fixin’ to “fix” something, this usually just means you’re about to do something.
“A Mind To”
If you’re thinking in your head about what you’re going to do next, planning… contemplating… there’s a certain term for that in the south. Can you think about what it might be? You definitely don’t hear this one in other parts of the country.
If you’re thinking about something, you have “a mind to” do it. So you might say, “I have a mind to go over to Tom’s house to help him work on his car, but I’m not sure when.”
What in the world do you think “piddle” means? For Southern folks, it means that you’re being lazy or procrastinating at a task. We’re sure that you have more than a friend or two who “piddles” around, right? It can also mean wasting something.
To use it in a sentence, you could say, “Would you stop piddling around back there and get it done?” Or even, “Jane was going to come out tonight but she piddled away all her money before Friday.”
“Happy As A Pig In Mud”
Are pigs happy when they’re in mud? This is something that city folks certainly know nothing about. When was the last time most West Coasters even saw a pig? Probably at the County Fair. For those who don’t know, yes, pigs are very happy when they are in mud.
So if you were to say, “Jimmy is as happy as a pig in mud at college” that means that Jimmy is very happy that he chose to go away to college.
“Dog Won’t Hunt”
Even if you’re not a hunter, you might be able to figure out what this Southern phrase means. “Dog won’t hunt” literally means that the dog won’t do his job to go hunting with his owner to find raccoons, birds, or other small animals.
As a Southern phrase, “dog won’t hunt” basically means “that won’t work.” This can be used as a response when someone provides an idea that you know won’t get you anywhere.
“If I Had My Druthers”
This Southern phrase originated from a 1950s Broadway musical depicting Southern life, called Li’l Abner. In the musical, poking fun at the lifestyle of the rural South, they used the phrase “If I had my druthers…”
This phrase basically means “If i had my way…” so you would say “If I had my druthers, this party would be over by nine and I’d be in bed by 10.” You likely won’t hear this phrase as commonly as some of the others on this list!
“All Get Out”
“All get out” is a Southern phrase that means something along the lines of the most extreme example, the ultimate. It’s a phrase that you can use throughout the day in a lot of instances, though, so you might want to adopt this one!
You could say, “I’m hungry as all get out.” Or, “that concert was as good as all get out.” You’re basically saying that whatever it is, it’s the maximum.
You’ve heard this one before, right? “Gumption” is a word that’s been carried over and used by many people, but it originated from the South. If someone tells you that you have gumption, it means that they think you are bold and courageous.
This isn’t used in a negative way, as if you foolishly carried out something with bravado, but rather a compliment, that someone admires your bravery. Add this one to your vocab!
“I declare” is a phrase that you would insert at the beginning of a sentence. You can basically use it in any sentence, but when you do, it means that you strongly believe whatever you follow it up with.
So if you say, “I do declare, it is hot today!” You’re saying it’s really hot. Or if you say, “I do declare, this is some good chicken you cooked” you’re giving a compliment, saying this is really good chicken.
“Living In High Cotton”
Most know that the cotton industry started in the South and is embedded in the roots of Southern culture. There are plenty of cotton fields in the South, and Southerners know that the higher the cotton bush is, the more cotton it will produce, and hence, more money.
So if someone says they’re “living in high cotton” it means that they are feeling financially secure, or wealthy. If you moved and got a new job you could tell your friends you’re “living in high cotton now.”
“Hush Your Mouth”
This one is quite straightforward and you’ve probably said it more than once. Whenever someone gets on your nerves or continuously speaks, just tell them to hush their mouth. There are many variants of this too, like put a sock in it or close your lips.
This particular way of phrasing it is the southern way, but you more than likely heard it elsewhere. If you grew up in the south, then you know to hush your mouth when your parents are talking to you.
“Cat On A Hot Tin Roof”
We don’t know about you, but we’re under the impression that southerners like adding animals into their metaphors. “Cat on a hot tin roof” follows the mold and has an interesting definition.
If someone says anything that suggests a person was like a cat on a hot tin roof, then they’re saying that person was acting anxious and sketchy. Think about what the literal phrase would look like and you can imagine this way better in your mind.
If you had to take a guess not knowing what this phrase meant, you might get it correct. It’s pretty much translates to what it’s saying. Stompin’ grounds is what you call the place you consider home.
If you leave your hometown for college or a new job and return, then you’re going back to your old stompin’ grounds. That’s what they say in the south whereas other areas might say the old neighborhood or just “hood.”
“Can’t Make A Silk Purse Out Of A Sow’s Ear”
Once again, here’s another reference to an animal, but this time its a pig. Southerners aren’t referring to a female pig when they use this phrase at all. They’re merely saying it as an insult.
If you get told this, someone is taking a jab at your cheap taste. If you don’t know how to dress or always wear tacky clothes, you will be the poster child for this saying. People can be so mean sometimes.
“You Can’t Carry A Tune In A Bucket”
We apologize in advance if you’ve ever been told this phrase. Perhaps someone said it in passing and you didn’t know what it meant. Well, take a deep breath. You can’t carry a tune in a bucket stands for “you can’t sing.”
It’s that simple. Not even a bucket can make you sound good. That’s got to be pretty bad because the acoustics in a bucket make for a great singing voice on anyone. Don’t let this be you.
“There’s More Than One Way To Skin A Cat”
No, there isn’t anyone out there testing multiple ways to skin a cat. Southerners just like using animals in their phrases. This slang term is more about functionality than anything else.
When you hear this term, it means that there has to be another way to get something done. Tired of eating cereal that gets soggy so fast? Add the milk first, then the cereal, and enjoy your breakfast food longer without the soggy mess.
“God Don’t Like Ugly”
This is as southern as it gets. Remember, to refrain from “being ugly” you have to always keep in mind that “God don’t like ugly.” All this means is that acting in an unwanted manner isn’t welcomed.
Don’t be rude or mean if there isn’t a reason to. Stay positive and keep away from negativity. There’s no reason for you be ugly if you focus on the good. Shift your mindset toward optimism and you’ll never have to worry about hearing this phrase.
“Cuttin’ A Rug”
You don’t need a pair of scissors or a knife for this term. All you’ll need is the ability to move to the music. Cuttin’ a rug means to dance.
“Let’s go out tonight!” “What do you want to do?” “Duh, let’s cut a rug!” That could be an example of how one might use this phrase in real life. If you see two people moving their feet in an applaudable manner then you might say to yourself, “wow, they’re cuttin’ a rug!”
“Whatever Floats Your Boat”
Have you ever found yourself in a position where you need to give your input, but you aren’t too sure? Sure, you can shrug your way out of it, but you want to take the southern way out, we know what you can say.
One can always resort to using the slang term, whatever floats your boat. It’s effective because it tells the receiving end that they can do whatever they wish and they don’t need outside approval.
“Pot Calling The Kettle Black”
You don’t ever want to be the person getting this phrase thrown at you. It just isn’t right. Pot calling the kettle black is one guilty person accusing someone else of the same thing they’re guilty of.
That isn’t how you want to live your life. Perhaps as a joke this would be fine, but if it’s a legit accusation, then you should have kept your mouth on hush. Worry about yourself first before you go pointing fingers.
“It Doesn’t Amount To A Hill of Beans”
The term “It doesn’t amount to a hill of beans” became a mainstream term thanks to the classic movie Casablanca. When saying his goodbyes to Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart’s character tells her, “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
The term comes from the idea that beans are very easy to grow. It’s often used when explaining how something or someone has very little significance.
“Bless Your Heart”
“Bless your heart” is a term with multiple meanings, depending on how the slang is used. It can be a passive-aggressive way for someone to tell you that you’re wrong. On the other hand, the term can also be used to show sympathy or provide for a generic exclamation.
The tone of delivery changes the meaning so pay close attention to how it’s used and the context it surrounds. Reese Witherspoon adds another element by noting that it’s “How we feel about everybody… It’s what we say literally about everybody we know. And we mean it. We do.”
“Heavens To Betsy”
The term “Heavens To Betsy” is a curious interjection with an unknown origin. The term is meant to show surprise or show someone’s shock with any circumstance of their own choosing. Some people believe the term refers to Betsy Ross, although that has not been proven.
The first known use of the term appeared in the US journal Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine, Volume 5, which was published in January 1857. Another suggestion is that it was a replacement for “Hell’s bells” although that has also not been proven.
“I’m Finer Than Frog Hair Split Four Ways”
If you ask a Southerner “how are you,” they may respond with the term “I’m finer than frog hair split four ways.” The term is meant to ironically highlight how they feel. The term first appeared in C. Davis’s Diary of 1865 where they wrote, “I have a better flow of spirits this morning, and, in fact, feel as fine as frog’s hair, as Potso used to say.”
Frogs have fine hair and this saying is intended to accentuate the effect of being extremely fine when asked how you are feeling.
“I’ve Got A Hankerin'”
The term “hankerin'” has several closely related meanings. According to Etymonline it can refer to a “linger in expectation;” or to “have a longing or craving for.” In the American South, if you have a “hankerin” for something you are likely having a craving.
The term dates all the way back to the Flemish term “hankeren” and the Dutch word “hunkeren” which means “to hanker, to long for.”It may also be an intensive form of Middle Dutch “hangen” or “to hang.”
“I Might Could”
The term “I might could” is a double modal used almost solely in the Southern United States. The term is usually used to explain that someone might be willing to do something in the future. An example might be if you’re asked, “are you going to work on the car later” and you respond “I might could.”
If you haven’t noticed yet, quite a few pieces of Southern slang are used to cut down the needed words for a response. This double modal a simpler way to say “I’m not sure but I might decide to do it later.”
It’s Blowin’ Up A Storm
“It’s blowin’ up a storm” is a Southern phrase that actually refers directly to the thing it’s talking about. If someone in the South uses this term they are referring to the feel, smell, and visual effects of an approaching storm.
Someone may notice a drop in the temperature, quickly picking up winds, the smell of coming rain in the air, and a visual look at an approaching storm. Honestly, this is one Southern phrase we wouldn’t mind seeing adopted outside of the area.
“Can’t Never Could”
The term “can’t never could” is a double modal meant to direct someone’s attention towards a mindset of positive thinking. We love this Southern phrase.
The idea behind this mantra is simple. If you think you can’t do something, you’ll never accomplish whatever goal you have in mind. Hence, saying you can’t do something will lead to nothing but negative thinking which will derail your ability to accomplish the goal.
“Well, I S’Wanee
Not all Southern phrases have been created to cut down on the number of words used in a common phrase. The term “I swear” is something changed to “Well, I S’wanee.” Southern Living says the term is often attributed to the Southern Suwannee River or the small college town of Sewanee which is located in Tennessee.
Another possibility is that the term is related to the reduced form of “I s’wan” or “I s’wan ye.” Those terms from the northern English dialectal meant “I shall warrant (you)”, which is nearly the equivalent of “I swear.”
“Worn Slap Out”
Being worn out usually means your exhausted and need a rest. The term “worn slap out” is one step beyond just being worn out.
Essentially, the term means you are both physically and mentally worn out. You’ll often hear this term used by Southerners in the dead heat of the summer when temperatures have reached into the triple digits and they’ve been working outside. We’re worn slap out just thinking about this piece of Southern slang.
“Busier Than A Moth In A Mitten”
This term isn’t as common as others on our list but it’s still a great Southern phrase that hasn’t really been adopted in most other areas of the United States.
As you might guess, a moth inside a wool mitten would likely be very busy, eating the mitten. This term is easy to decipher and is used when someone is very busy or they want to express that someone else is very busy.