Some of My Favorite Southern Expressions

My great grandma’s name was Edna, but everybody called her Miss Sweet. She was known mainly for her skills in the kitchen. The woman could fix anything. She used only fresh ingredients, mostly purchased daily.

When my sister and I walked a’piece, to “town” with Mama Sweet, we wore our straw bonnets and carried our parasols to prevent heat stroke. We looked like gangly chicks marching along behind the hen, stopping and bumping into each other as she paused to speak to every neighbor along the route. 

They would call from their porches, “Hey Miss Sweet. How you feeling?”

To one family she might say, “Oh, tolly well.” And to another, she’d holler, “Fair to middlin’!”

As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to move around my kitchen affecting my great-grandma’s speech and mimicking her tone. This morning when my husband asked how I was feeling, I responded, “Tolly well.” 

“What does that even mean?” he asked.

I smiled, glad to finally examine and explain some of my Mississippi elder’s favorite expressions as she used them. Some of you may have heard them used in other ways. I can’t speak to your definitions. I only know how the little ole lady known as Miss Sweet used them.

Tolly well means I could be worse, but right now I am tolerably well. Fair to middlin’means I’m neither good nor bad, but right here in the middle.

My grandmother, Miss Dorothy, was another elderly lady whose Southern speech thrilled me. Of course being that she was Miss Sweet’s daughter, this was no mystery. Sometimes I’d pick up the extension while she was conversing with her church sisters on the big black telephone and I’d be privy to her animated conversations.

“Chile, they sent Clarence to the ‘crazy house’,” she’d say.

You can’t imagine the images the crazy house conjured in my mind. It took years to reconcile that the crazy house was a mental institution—a much more structured and controlled environment than the freewheeling crazy house I’d imagined.

Another time she shared that a friend had “sugah” and they cut off her leg. I thought it must be weird to have sugar flowing through your legs. I would learn “Sugah” was short for sugar diabetes which eventually became just diabetes.

There are other phrases my grandmother and great grandmother used in their everyday conversations. I have complied a few of my favorites.

More than one way to skin a cat

If someone is being slick, untrustworthy and you’re at your wit’s end dealing with them, there is another solution. Today we might say, “What’s your Plan B?

You’re preaching to the choir

This means don’t waste time trying to convince me. I already agree with you. Take that argument to someone who needs it.

Chickens don’ come home to roost

This describes someone who has skated free for some time without accounting for a wrong he or she has committed. Now, for some reason or another, fate has caught up with them and trouble has found them. Today, we might say Karma.

If I live and nothin’ happens

This means I won’t promise because we never know when we’ll be going home to be with the Lord. But … “If I live and nothin’ happens

Another way to say the same thing is, If the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise.

Going to see a man about a dog

I took a couple years to realize that dog was never coming home. This was a lie to quiet a nosey child when adults didn’t want to divulge their destination.

Every closed eye ain’t sleep

When someone was finally outed for a deceptive practice, by the one they’d sought to deceive, my great-grandma would tell someone, “Every closed eye ain’t sleep.”

Like it or lump it

I heard this mostly when I was being served liver or sauerkraut with wienies.

If I continued to protest and make clear what I wanted instead of that awful slop, I’d hear, “People in hell want ice water.”

I don’t know him from Adam

Dialogue: “Mama Sweet, who is that?”

“Chile, I don’t know him from Adam.” 

“Then why did you speak to him?” 

Honey Hush.”

I’ll be back direckly

Direckly (directly) is not a definite time. It could be an hour or it could be tonight, but it means expect my return. I’m coming back.

Well, I’m plum tuckered out trying to come up with these. If you have any you want to share or if you want to expound on how your folks used any of these, please comment. Right now, I’m fixin’ to head out until tomorrow.

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Educator, Author, Blogger, and supporter of Independent Writers. One mystery novel, The Neon Houses, Find me on Twitter @boom_lyn.

14 thoughts on “Some of My Favorite Southern Expressions

  1. What a wonderful post, Linda! I love the story of Miss Sweet. I could see and hear her! Yes, I’ve heard most of these sayings all my life. My Grandpa always said he was “Fair to Middlin'” when anyone asked him how he was doing. And I’ve heard my mom say hundreds of times, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” Thank you for sharing!!!

  2. I loved this post, Linda. What surprised me the most is that most of those wonderful expressions are also used here in Australia. Although admittedly now mostly only in country regions. The accents are different of course. Unfortunately, we also tend to add an x-rated expletive to the end of each expression. Sigh. Gotta love us folks from WAY down south on the planet.😊🐨

  3. I really enjoyed this Linda and could imagine walking to the market with you. I haven’t heard some of these expressions in years. Boy, did they bring back some memories of being in my own grandma’s kitchen:)

    1. I thought I’d forgotten most of them, Denise. I keep waiting for my daughters to give me grandchildren so I can thrill them with southern speak and comfort food the way my grandma did us. So far, nothing. 🤗 Thanks for stopping and commenting.

  4. Linda, I ADORE posts like this. Although I am a northern bird, some of the expressions you used were ones I remember from my childhood, too. I haven’t heard them in ages! Talk about making me nostalgic.

    My MIL will still say she needs to “go rammin’ around” which means running errands. I’ve also heard “rutzin’ around” when someone is doing a chore but not being productive about it.

    If something really good happened, my mother used to say “don’t faschnaut it” meaning don’t call attention to it for fear it might go bad. I still use that expression today 🙂

    Finally, I have a friend who lives in the south and tells me that people in the north go to the “shore” (which is true) and people in the south go to the “beach.” It also took us some back and forth before I realized that when she was talking about “putt-putt” she was referencing what I call “miniature golf.”

    This post left me with a smile. Thank you!

    1. Hi Mae! Your comment was wonderful! I hadn’t heard your expressions so I learned some new ones. That shore and beach thing can be tricky. Chicago is the midwest. Maybe we’re not far enough north because we say beach. Thanks 🤗

    1. Thanks, Regina. Each fall when it was time to return home to Chicago I’d have to unlearn my Southern speak. ie. pop instead of soda.

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