Do You Speak Southern Mama?

If you grew up Southern, you know that what Mama says and what she actually means are two entirely different things.

Valerie Fraser Luesse
Southern Mama
George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

When did we first figure it out—this exotic language we define as Mama-speak? It’s called out in Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays’ book Some Day You’ll Thank Me for This, so it’s officially documented. And it’s layered with more meaning than the Rosetta Stone. Like so many things Southern, it stems from our desire to camouflage the negative in a cloud of politeness. Translation: We’d rather be vague than rude. Also, there’s an element of childrearing involved. Apparently, Southern mamas believe their children will grow up smarter if they spend their youth learning to decipher the difference between what is said and what is meant—kind of a low-tech version of Luminosity. Hence, Mama-speak:

When Mama looks at that mod chair you bought at the thrift store and says . . .
“Well, isn’t that different?”
What she means is . . .
“That’s the tackiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life and you should take it back to whatever landfill it came from.”
When Mama meets your brother’s new girlfriend and says . . .
“Now, where exactly are you from, dear?”
What she means is . . .
“Who on earth raised you to wear so much makeup in the daytime?”
When Mama says . . .
“Is that what they’re wearing now?”
What she means is . . .
“Go change your clothes before Memaw sees you in that get-up.”
When Mama tastes your first attempt at cornbread dressing and says . . .
“That’s coming right along . . .”
What she means is . . .
“It’s called sage. Look into it.”
When Mama says . . .
“Somebody got perfume for Christmas!”
What she means is . . .
“Somebody needs to tone down the Shalimar.”
When Mama checks you over, nods approvingly, and says . . .
“You’ve lost weight—I can tell.”
What she means is . . .
“Thank heaven you finally pushed back from the table—I thought we were going to need new shocks on the car.”
When Mama gets a baby shower invitation and says . . .
“I wonder if they’re planning to play any of those shower games?”
What she means is . . .
“I hate playing those shower games.”
When Mama is asked about your new boyfriend and says . . .
“He seems nice.”
What she means is . . .
“Not much to look at and will never earn a dime. Bless his heart.”
When Mama says . . .
“I just don’t go along with that.”
What she means is . . .
“I don’t approve of what you did/are planning to do. I have already put your name on the prayer list in my Sunday School Class. Expect a visit from the preacher shortly.
When Mama sizes up the reception hall at a wedding and says . . .
“Well, isn’t this just like [BRIDE’S NAME HERE]. Bless her heart.”
What she means is . . .
“Ticky-tacky. Bless her heart.”
When Mama sizes up the bride herself and says . . .
“That dress is just perfect for a big-boned girl.”
What she means is . . .
(Heck, you don’t have to be a Southerner to translate that one.)