It goes without saying: Southerners have a unique vernacular. Whether we’re counting critters, contemplating the weather, or complementing a one-of-a-kind getup, no Southerner worth his salt should compose a sentence without a healthy dose of hyperbole, a lazy stretch of long-voweled patois, and a passel of colorful colloquialisms.
For those unfortunate enough to have been reared outside of the sun-dappled bounds of Dixie, the last of these can be the cause of quite a bit of consternation. Lucky for you, oh befuddled brethren, we’ve assembled a guide. For today’s lesson, a Southern favorite: weights and measures.
A passel of pups? Adorable, but probably not entirely accurate (photo courtesy of Liz West)
One may say that one of the greatest glories of Southern ingenuity is our ability to abbreviate. The Southern tongue has found ways to hiccough and condense many an ornery word into something more brief and civilized, and a “passel” is no different. Much as we’ve removed the ponderous “r” to turn burst into bust and curse into cuss, so have we taken the cumbersome consonant out of the word parcel—a collective noun for an indefinite number—and made it gentler, softer. A passel.
A veritable mess of greens (photo courtesy of Dads Cook Dinner)
Now, a mess itself is a fluid measurement; it’s generally agreed upon that a mess is whatever qualifies as enough for a meal—a careful Southern equation consisting of the relative size of the product to be messed, the appetite of those around the table, and whether or not we ought to expect comp’ny. Quality of the food in question also comes into play; if it wouldn’t benefit from a long, slow simmer with a bobbing chunk of fatback, it won’t come in a mess. You won’t find a mess of oranges. Or lettuce. But pile up a mess of greens, beans, and fish, and you’ve got yourself one heckuva meal.
- Fixin To
Women fixin’ to get their hair fixed
The word fix is quite possibly the most flexible in the English language. Hair, cars, pies, sermons, and elections are all improved by their association with the verb; in fact, we would challenge anyone to find something out there that can’t be “fixed,” or at least be given a solid effort in the attempt.
We find it strange, then, that the world finds such contemptuous fascination with the Southerner’s propensity to “fix” to do something. The definition is not a specific length of time, but a colloquial announcement of intention. Call it the result of eternal Southern optimism or a clever shortcut to the inevitable result; we’re merely preparing ourselves—fixing to—put something in order.
- More [Whatever] Than Carter’s Got Liver Pills
Carter’s Liver Pills: a cure-all for headache and hangovers, but apparently still no contest for smugness
Believe it or not, this Southern standard began far north of the Mason-Dixon, with a Pennsylvanian by the name of Samuel J. Carter, whose eponymous “Little Liver Pills” made their way into just about every medicine cabinet across the country. Touted as a cure-all for headache, constipation, dyspepsia, sallowness, biliousness, and indigestion, Carter’s petite panaceas were primarily fueled by a hearty dose of Bisacodyl, a garden-variety laxative—a fact that drew raised eyebrows from the FTC and resulted in “liver” being begrudgingly dropped from the name—but this did nothing to diminish their popularity, and the pills’ ubiquity made it the gold standard for proliferation.
- Country Mile
A country mile might take a bit longer, but we bet you won’t mind overmuch
One might argue that a mile is a mile, but if you trace its origins back far enough, you’ll find that the Romans laid out the distance with a little bit of wiggle room, and we make it a point not to argue with the Romans. The mile comes from mille passum, Latin for “1,000 paces,” and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who found their pace the same in the city and the country.
In the city, you’ll find yourself subject to the constraints of urban geometry: paved roads, dead ends, and the cattle-rush of pressing humanity, but in the country, things are a little different. Perhaps it’s because the terrain might be a little tougher and the paths a little circuitous, or perhaps it’s because you’ll find your perambulatory gait a little less rushed, but a mile in the country will inevitably end up being a bit longer than its counterpart up the way.
The original yonder?
Now we’d love to take credit for this one, but yonder has existed for far longer than Southerners have been adding it to their directions. You’ll find that the word yon—meaning something within sight, but not near—was not at all uncommon in the early days of English, and that time and the Southern tongue have seen to it that the word be relieved of its brevity and equipped with a comfortable suffix (if hither and thither can do it, then so can we).
The definition, it’s worth saying, hasn’t changed a bit, though. Something “over yonder” is still broadly defined as being located just within sight but too far to grab hold of, with the specificity of distance determined by the angle of the finger pointing towards it, the relative squint of the speaker’s eyes, and whether or not a shielded hand is needed to block the sun.