Southern sayings are as much a part of the Southern culture as are fried green tomatoes and sweet tea. They speak of the character of the people and their willingness to find humor in just about anything. And much like Southern dialects, the aphorisms vary from the Appalachians to the Lowcountry and all the way to Texas. But they all have one thing in common: they sound strange to outsiders. So here are some favorite Southern sayings deciphered.
- Madder than a wet hen
Farmers once dunk brooding chickens in water to cool off their temper so that the eggs could be gathered
This Southern axiom closely resembles another favorite, “madder than a setting hen.” And for good reason.
Chickens, and their eggs, were a significant source of protein for the early European settlers. Throughout the 1800’s, chickens were used primarily through the Southern United States for their eggs. Well, when mama hen is ready to hatch her eggs that are so readily needed by the farmer, she’s gets “broody,” and a brooding hen is nothing to mess with. To be able to gather her eggs, and drench her foul (or fowl) mood, farmers would dunk the hen in water up to her neck to cool off her temper. Thus, the phrase, madder than a wet hen. Remember, no one likes a broody hen, metaphorical or not.
- He thinks the sun comes up just to hear him crow
Known for being territorial and for their strut, a rooster may be so vain he thinks the sun comes up just to hear him crow (photo by John Schneider)
What’s with these Southern chickens? Here, we take a look at those Southern roosters, or any rooster really. It’s hard to determine where this one originated from, but fairly easy to decipher the meaning. Anyone who has been on or near a farm has heard the loud crow of a rooster in the morning. Turns out that’s when they are most active and are likely crowing to let others know this farm is his turf. Roosters are known territorial birds and like to strut around to let everyone know it. Which is where the idea came from that roosters are more than a bit conceited. So conceited that they probably think the sun comes up just to hear them crow. Maybe this originated with a farmer’s wife somewhere, but anyone who thinks too highly of themselves gets this fowl comparison.
- Drunk as Cooter Brown
Southern folklore says Cooter Brown stayed drunk throughout the entire Civil War to avoid fighting for either side
Now here’s a saying that lingers into Northern territory, but seems to be used mainly in the South. Cooter Brown comes from Civil War folklore. Ol’ Cooter lived right on the Mason-Dixon Line. Because of his unfortunate location, he was eligible to be drafted to fight for both the Union and Confederate armies. Not wanting to fight in the war, Cooter got drunk. Apparently he stayed drunk throughout the entire Civil War, making him useless to either side. Ever since, anyone who drinks heavily has been known as being “drunk as Cooter Brown.”
- Finer than frog’s hair
Not even Southern frogs have hair, but we still like to say “finer than a frog’s hair split four ways” (photo by Andrew E. Russell)
In case you were wondering, no, frogs don’t have hair. Not even in the South. But that doesn’t stop us from using this Southern saying. It basically means fine as can be, or that you are doing wonderful. The odd adage is believed to have first been used in the mid-1800’s. While “split four ways” has been added over the years and isn’t always used, the phrase is believed to have first been recognized in C. Davis’ “Diary of 1865” in the following entry:
“I have a better flow of spirits this morning, and, in fact, feel as fine as frog’s hair, as Potso used to say.”
No one seems to know just who Potso was, but we thank him for the phrase.
- Walkin’ in high cotton
High cotton meant a larger yield; today “walkin’ in high cotton” is yet another popular Southern saying
Cotton and the Southern United States go back far before the antebellum days where the cash crop built mansions and fueled the slave trade. In fact, agricultural scientists believe cotton was first planted in Florida in 1556, and the plant made its way to Virginia by the early 1600’s. Walking in high cotton was the goal of many a plantation owner by the 1800’s when the South’s economy so desperately relied on it. The higher the cotton plant, the bigger the harvest. Today, any wealthy or successful Southerner despite their occupation is said to be “walkin’ in high cotton.” Or it can describe anyone who is doing particularly well.
- Happy as a dead pig in the sunshine
“Happy as a dead pig in the sunshine” might be one of the oddest phrases from the South, probably as much as “you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear” (photo by Stephen Fulljames)
When it comes to odd Southern aphorisms, this one just might take the cake. ’Cause just how happy can a dead pig be? Regardless, the phrase describes someone as being wonderfully content, although often ignorant of the circumstances. Now here comes the dead pig. When pigs die and lie in the sun, the sunshine dries out their skin. It’s similar to drying out leather in the sun. As the skin shrinks from drying out, the lips are pulled back leaving a sort of toothy smile, hence the phrase “happy as a dead pig in the sunshine.”
And speaking of dead pigs and Southern sayings, everyone knows “you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.”