15 Odd Southern Sayings & Their Origins Posted by: Aaron Stearns | 1 Comment
If you weren’t raised in the south, perhaps visiting family here or traveling on business you may find yourself in a conversation with sayings or phrases that leave you in a quandary. We have chosen 15 of such Southern sayings and hope to provide context to the origin of the phrase. We hope you learn and enjoy.
- “We’re living in high cotton.”
Cotton has long been a key crop to the South’s economy, so every harvest farmers pray for tall bushes loaded with white fluffy balls in their fields. Tall cotton bushes are easier to pick and yield higher returns. If you’re living “in high cotton,” it means you’re feeling particularly successful or wealthy.
- “He’s got enough money to burn a wet mule.”
In 1929, then-Governor of Louisiana Huey Long, nicknamed “The Kingfish,” tried to enact a five-cent tax on each barrel of refined oil to fund welfare programs. Naturally, Standard Oil (Rockefeller Barron) threw a hissy fit and tried to have him impeached on some fairly erroneous charges (including attending a drunken party with a stripper). But being the fighter he was Long, a good ole’ boy, fought back. He reportedly said the company had offered legislators as much as $25,000 for their votes to kick him out of office — what he famously called “enough money to burn a wet mule.” We think it would take a very large pile of money to actually burn a wet mule.
- “She was madder than a wet hen.”
Hens sometimes enter a phase of “broodiness” — they’ll stop at nothing to incubate their eggs and get agitated when farmers try to collect them. Farmers used to dunk hens in cold water to “break” their broodiness. You don’t want to be around a hormonal hen after she’s had an ice bath.
- “He could eat corn through a picket fence.”
This describes someone with an unfortunate set of buck teeth. They tend to stick up and outward, like a horse’s teeth. Imagine a horse eating a carrot, and you’ll get the picture.
- “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
A pig’s ear may look soft, pink, and shiny, but you’re not fooling anyone by calling it your new Marc Jacobs bag. A Southerner might say this about her redneck cousin who likes to decorate his house with an overabundance of deer antlers.
- “You look rode hard and put up wet.”
No, this isn’t Southern sexual innuendo. The phrase refers to a key step in horse grooming — when a horse runs fast, it works up a sweat, especially under the saddle. A good rider knows to walk the horse around so it can dry off before going back to the stable. A horse will look sick and tired if you forget this step, much like a person who misses sleep or drinks too much.
- “He’s as drunk as Cooter Brown.”
Cooter Brown is an infamous character in Southern lore who lived on the line which divided the North and South during the civil war, making him eligible for military draft by either side. He had family on both sides of the conflict, so he did not want to fight in the war. He decided to get drunk and stay drunk for the duration of the war so that he would be seen as a useless drunk soldier and would not be drafted. Ever since, colloquial and proverbial ratings of drunkenness have been benchmarked against the legendary drinker and over served Southerners have measured their drunkenness by him ever since.
- “She’s as happy as a dead pig in the sunshine.”
When a pig dies, presumably in a sty outside, the sun dries out its skin. This effect pulls the pig’s lips back to reveal a toothy “grin,” making it look happy even though it’s dead. This phrase describes a person who’s blissfully ignorant of reality.
- “She’s got more nerve than Carter’s got Liver Pills.”
Carters Products started as a pill-peddling company in the latter part of the 19th century. Specifically, Carters advertised its “Little Liver Pills” so hard a Southern saying spawned from the constant bombardment of advertisements. The phrase really took off when Senator Robert Byrd was quoted as saying, "West Virginia has always had four friends, God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter's Liver Pills and Robert C. Byrd." Alas, the Federal Trade Commission forced the drug-group to drop the “liver” portion of the ad, claiming it was deceptive. Carter’s “Little Liver Pills” became Carter’s “Little Pills” in 1951, but the South doesn’t really pay attention to history. The phrase stuck.
- “I’m finer than frog hair split four ways.”
Originating in an 1865 publication, it was used to describe a state of euphoria so majestic it couldn’t be real. Southerners mostly use this phrase to inquire, “How are you?” Even those below the Mason-Dixon know frogs don’t have actually have hair, and the irony means to highlight just how dandy you feel.
- “He thinks the sun comes up just to hear him crow.”
On farms (not just in the South) roosters usually crow when the sun rises. Their vociferous habit wakes up the house, signaling time to work.
An extremely cocky rooster might think the sun rises simply because he crows. Similarly, an extremely cocky man might think the same when he speaks — and also that everyone should drop their activities, give him the floor, and listen intently to his banter.
- “That’s about as useful as tits on a bull.”
Only female dairy cows produce milk. Male cows are called bulls. And even if you could “milk anything with nipples,” bulls tend to be rather ornery. Good luck with that one.
- “That thing is all catawampus.”
Catawampus adj: askew, awry, cater-cornered.
Lexicographers don’t really know how it evolved, though. They speculate it’s a colloquial perversion of “cater-corner.” Variations include: catawampous, cattywampus, catty wonkus. The South isn’t really big on details.
- “Big Hat, No Cattle”
This is a mostly a Texas saying used to describe a particular type of braggadocios person. In the late 1800’s during the expansion and growth of the Southwest, cattle was the currency of wealth for the ranchers and cattleman. Since the rancher typically only converted his herd to cash once per year during the big drive to the rail spur, his wealth and worth was measured by the number of head of cattle on his land. This saying is an interesting way of describing someone who talks a good game, but can’t back up his or her talk with any concrete action.
- “They don’t have a pot to piss in”
Urine used to be used to stimulate the chemical reaction in the tanning of animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot & then once a day it was taken & Sold to the tannery, if you had to rely on this practice for a meager income you were called “piss poor”. Even worse were the really poor folk who couldn’t even afford to buy a pot, thus they “didn’t have a pot to piss in” in order to collect the urine to sell to the tannery, thus the poorest of the poor.
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