You tell us: Is Mama dabbing or daubing (pronounced “dobbing”)?
Google “old Southern expressions” or “old Southern sayings and their meanings,” and you’ll find a bazillion lists online. Most of them include the classics like bless your heart, fixin’ to, and I reckon. But what about the dirt road less traveled—the Southern idioms and phrases that aren’t used as much, the more commonly misused sayings?
Let’s start with dab vs. daub (which we pronounce “dob,” much as we pronounce barbed wire “bob wire”). Mama puts a dab of bacon grease in her green beans. She might also dab on a little lipstick. But she will likely daub (again dob) some Neosporin on that place where the cat scratched you. She might even daub-dob some barbecue sauce on the ribs Daddy just took off the grill.
Then there’s buggy. You can drive Mama buggy, but she also puts her groceries in one at the Piggly Wiggly and Publix.
My Alabama grandmother never stopped saying ice box, and she wasn't referring to a Coleman cooler. No, even when we bought a modern Frigidaire, that thing that cooled our perishables was always called the ice box. I still say “ice box” now and then, maybe as a little tribute to her.
Similarly, my Aunt Vivian and Aunt Joyce carried pocket books, not purses, and I don’t think either one of them ever owned a shoulder bag. They were purists, standing in the church yard with that pocket book handle hooked over the same arm that cradled the King James.
Aunt Vivian often called earrings ear bobs. You have to wonder whether that’s a Southernism for “ear baubs” short for “ear baubles.” (See the pattern: daub-dob, baub-bob?)
Mama’n’em have a whole arsenal of phrases to express displeasure in, and bring about an immediate change in the behavior of, their offspring. For example, when Mama says “I’d be ashamed,” she doesn't really mean "I would be ashamed in your position." No. What she means—and what her children hear—is, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, and you’re embarrassing the living daylights out of me, so you’d better get glad in the same pants you got mad in and act like you’ve got some raising, or I’m about to jerk a knot in your tail.”
The companion phrase to “I’d be ashamed” is this short but deadly Mama zinger: You’re acting ugly. "Acting ugly" has nothing to do with whether your hair needs Aqua Net or your Essie's chipped. When you're acting ugly, you’re not only misbehaving, but you’re doing so in a way that Mama’n’em can’t bear to look at. You’re being rude or mean or (the kiss of death) tacky—for example, porch fighting with your spouse, where all the neighbors can hear every word. Remember, pretty is as pretty does.
Mama can also be the ultimate shoulder to cry on. And once you’ve had a good cry, she’ll tell you everything’s going to be all right, so straighten your face up, and Mama’ll fix you some chicken and dumplings to cheer you up. By “straighten your face up,” she means wipe your tears, blow your nose (and maybe powder it), and get on with your life.
As you might expect, we have Southernisms for potential suitors: Here comes a long tall cool drink of water has virtually nothing to do with height. It means, “Here comes a good-looking man.” While this one sounds more at home in Texas than other parts of the South, the rest of us use it from time to time. (And again, the guy in question doesn’t have to be especially tall; he just has to be as appealing as a tall cool drink of water on a hot day.)
Sadly, some tall drinks of water are also hard dogs to keep under the porch, meaning they are monogamy-challenged. They can also act like they just rode a mule around the moon backwards, which is to say, they can be full of themselves.
But enough about men. Let’s talk about the weather. It’s coming up a cloud means a storm is approaching or building. When the storm begins to clear, it’s fairing off. In between coming up a cloud and fairing off? You should probably wait for the weather to break before you get on the highway or fire up the grill.
If you peek in the bathroom mirror at the office and look like death warmed over, then you probably need a little color on your face. (In other words, it’s time to refresh the Estee Lauder you put on this morning.)
When referencing age, we tend to go Biblical. One of Eudora Welty’s characters described something as being old at the Flood. My Aunt Joyce used to say, Why he’s old as Methuseleh! (Given that this Old Testament patriarch lived beyond his 900th birthday, Aunt Joyce was basically saying, “That geezer's got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. Bless his heart.")
Feel like we’re moving right along with these Southernisms? Then we’re cookin’ with grease!
What if we had told you at the beginning that there would be a quiz at the end—and a grand prize? Well, that would make the cheese more binding, now wouldn’t it?
WATCH: Things Southern Women Say At The Beauty Counter
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