Say what?

Alabama Living Magazine
Illustration by Dennis Auth

It bothers me that so many people make fun of the way we speak in the South. Look, I get it, we talk slow and take some liberties with the English language, but give me a break. Every region of this country has their own peculiar words, phrases and pronunciations. From “wicked good” in Massachusetts, to “gnarly” in California, you’ll find them everywhere. 

Once, when I was in New England, one of my buddies said he wanted to go to lunch and get a grinder. I thought we were headed for Home Depot. Imagine my surprise when I discovered he was talking about a sandwich. 

Then there was the time I asked for a drink of water in Wisconsin, and someone directed me to a bubbler, or as we call it, a water fountain. 

Part of our problem comes about because Southerners have a curious habit of using one word as both a noun or a contraction, depending on the sentence. A great example is the word “tail.” As a noun, that’s an appendage on a dog or a cat. But in the South, we’ll also use it as a contraction when we’re asking someone something. 

“Hey, Vernon, what tail you doing’?” 

What about Eggo? It’s a brand of breakfast waffle. But, in the South, we will use that same word as a contraction when you hand somebody something. 

“Hey, gimme me that ratchet, Darlene. ”


A yawn can be a noun that describes opening your mouth and inhaling deeply. However, southerners will use yawn as a contraction: “Billy Ray, when you turn 21, you’re out of this house. Then yawn yawn!”

Like parts of the country, if we don’t have a word, we’ll create one. And we have some doozies. I think most Southerners will agree that the made-up words cattywhompus and whoppyjawed both describe something that’s askew. Down here, if you want to say someone’s confused, you could say they’re bumfuzzled. It can also mean that somebody’s cornbread is still soft in the middle. 

Once when I was a kid, I got in big trouble when I tumped over a glass of grape juice on the sofa. Tumped is about as Southern as it gets. Tipped over and dumped – that’s tumped.  As I recall, that juice stain rurnt one of the cushions. Yes, rurnt. That word reminds me of the sound a chain saw makes when you’re trying to start it. But we know exactly what it means. 

One thing I’ve never understood about Southern-speak is why some of us will put an “r” in a word that not’s there. I don’t warsh my car, or go to Chicargo, or fish using minners for bait, but some of us do. My grandfather was guilty of adding an “r” that wasn’t there, and it drove me crazy. Once, I asked him why he pronounced Chicago that way. He became indignant, and asked, “What do you mean? I pronounce it just like it’s spelled. C-H- I- C-A- G- O! Chicargo!” Satisfied that he had cleared my question up, he leaned back in his chair and took a sip of sweetee – another wonderful Southern word, by the way. 

In all fairness, I can understand how stringing several of these words together with a Southern accent would confuse anyone who’s not from ‘round here. 

“What tail did you do? Tump that over? Get a warsh rag, it’s fixin’ to be rurnt! What will your Mamanem say?”

Sometimes the way we speak even confuses each other. That’s why a lot of people in the South will respond to a statement by saying, “I heard that.” It means they understand what you just said. 

And if they don’t? You can always say, “Sorry, yawn yawn.”

Joe Hobby is a standup comedian, a syndicated columnist, and a long-time writer for Jay Leno. He’s a member of Cullman Electric Cooperative and is very happy now that he can use Sprout from his little place on Smith Lake. Contact him at


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