The United States is the world’s fourth-largest country by area and traveling across the US can feel like a world tour, especially with the diversity in not only cultures and traditions but also in dialects and slang that aren’t commonly heard in other English-speaking countries. The English language has grown and developed differently in different regions of the world and even within the U.S. but perhaps Southern expressions and Southern Belle Phrases in English are most colorful.
Even the terms southern belle and southern gentleman have their weight and come with certain outfits, mannerism, and etiquette expectations that are exclusive to American South. Other than this the American South is well known for several things: a deep love of football, entertaining and warm hospitality, its southern-style cooking and soul food; potlucks; their funny-sounding colloquialisms, and southern phrases.
The southern dialect has evolved to a point where it is considered by some as its language warranting for translation. They have their jargon and prefer to speak in colorful metaphors, similes, and extravagant exaggerations. They have southern sayings that might sound polite and even flattering but are insulting, this is their way of expressing distaste while being polite.
So to help you better understand your Souther friends, here is a list of 40 most popular Southern expressions and phrases that you are likely to hear when in the South, with the meaning and some explanation.
1. Bless your heart.
This is the most frequently used southern phrases and almost all Southerners use it in their daily routine. While it can be meant kindly, it is also used sarcastically when someone is acting silly, foolish, or overly emotional, and irrational. It is their polite way of telling you that you are naive and not very smart in their opinion.
2. If I had my druthers.
It is Southern slang for “If I had my way, I would rather …” or to express that the person didn’t have a choice to do what they wanted to do. It has its origin in classic American fiction by Mark Twain, where characters Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn used the word “druther” instead of “would rather.”
3. He’s having a dying duck fit.
As you can imagine the noisy nervous wreck a duck would be upon seeing the death approaching it, a person said to be having a “dying duck fit” is pretty upset, to put it mildly. It is usually used when someone is being very loud and animated out of anxiety and nervousness.
4. Hold your horses.
This phrase is used by southern when they believe someone is rushing to take action without thinking things through. It is their way of telling you that you are being reckless and you need to be more careful and do things more mindfully rather than just jumping to action.
5. What in the Sam Hill?
It is an expression of disbelief used instead of ”what the hell”. You might wonder who is this Sam Hill guy and why the hell Southerners invoke his name in place of “hell”? Well, the exact story of Sam Hill or the origins of this phrase is unknown, but some say that Sam Hill was a savory sailor who used to curse a lot and went to hell. Some also believe that Sam Hill is simply a clever play of words for “some hell”.
6. Stuck up higher than a light pole.
As you know that someone “stuck up” has ego issues and thinks highly of themselves. Someone stuck up higher than a light pole has some serious ego issues making them unlikeable and unsociable.
7. As all get-out.
This a superlative that can be used with all and any adjective. “It is busy at the store as all get-out”, or “He is mad as all get-out”, “the fight was steamy as all get-out”. This phrase also has its origin from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
8. Finer than a frog’s hair.
Would you believe a compliment comparing you to a frog? What about non-existing frog’s hair? Believe it or not, this is a compliment southern people give as they believe that frog’s hair must be so fine that you don’t even get to see or feel them. This colorful compliment is usually given to very fine men and women.
9. She’s As Pretty As a Peach
The southern states notably Georgia and South Carolina are known for peaches. This is a high compliment in the South given to a girl, who has a beautiful complexion and blush-colored cheeks, just like the prettiest of peaches, that one can pluck from a tree.
10. If it had been a snake, it would have bitten me.
Have you ever frantically searched for something that was later found right in front of you? If you are a normal person chances are that you have. Well, this phrase refers to the object of your hunt that was so close, that it could’ve struck if it were a snake.
11. More than Carter’s got little pills.
It is used to express an abundance of something for example “he has got more bank accounts than carter’s got little pills” or “Every time they got more excuses than carter’s got little pills”. It refers to the patent medicine Carter’s Little Liver Pills that was heavily marketed from the 1880s to the 1950s.
12. Sweatin’ like a sinner in church.
Southern states are known for dramatically hot and steamy weather, no wonder they need special phrases and expressions to illustrate how uncomfortably hot a particular day is. The same phrase is also used to refer to someone who is visibly uncomfortable or nervous about something especially out of a guilty conscience.
13. Heavens to Betsy.
This is an expression of mild surprise or disbelief and simply a variation of “for heaven’s sake”. Origins of this phrase are unknown but it is most frequently used in terms of disbelief that how much has gone by. For example, “You wasted an entire day sleeping, Heavens to Betsy we have an order to deliver!”
14. Give me some sugar.
It is an expression of affection mostly used by elderly family members when asking for a hug or kiss. You are more likely to hear it from a grandma or a grandad than anyone else. Often it is pronounced “sugah” as they like to skip their “r’s.
15. I’m About to Fly Off the Handle
This one is not good news, it is an ultimatum that someone has had enough of unacceptable behavior and is about to lose his temper. It is an expression of an exhausted mom, or a disappointed wife, or a frustrated coworker who had been holding back her anger for a long time and now has been pushed to their limit so now you are going to all of it at once.
16. Aren’t You Precious”
This is not a question but in most cases an affectionate complement and in some cases a passive-aggressive statement. Most frequently it is a compliment for something cute or sweet like a baby or a child’s outfit or behavior. However, if you hear, “Well aren’t you precious?” with an edgy tone, it is meant as a polite insult.
17. Worn Slap Out
It is a phrase to express ultimate exhaustion, to the point where you can’t go any further or work anymore. It is a variation of the term “dog-tired, with another variation “worn slam out.”.It is most frequently used during hot southern summer days when the temperature rises past 100 degrees.
18. Madder than a wet hen
Southerners are known for chicken farming or simply raising some chickens at homes, thus they are very familiar with the behaviors of chickens. When a hen enters a phase of ‘broodiness,’ it will do anything to incubate her eggs and will get aggressive if farmers try to collect those eggs. Farmers thus dunk hens in cold water to snap them out of this broodiness and this drives them crazy. You probably wouldn’t like to approach someone madder than a wet hen, they are probably throwing an angry fit.
19. I could eat the north end of a south-bound polecat or skunk
When a polecat or a skunk is headed north their behind is south-bound. The behind of a ferret or a skunk is not a very desirable meal, but if someone agrees to eat it, they must be very hungry or starving. This phrase is used to express how ravenously hungry someone is.
20. I’m So Full I’m About to Pop
If you have ever enjoyed southern hospitality this is exactly how you must have felt after a big ‘ole southern meal. Southern meals are incomplete without collard greens, cornbread, and pecan pie. Once you are done with all that it’s not an exaggeration to say that you’re about to pop. It means that you have eaten so much that you can’t eat or drink anymore and you are uncomfortably full.
21. My Eyeballs are Floating
This phrase is used to emphasize that someone is running with a full bladder and urgently needs to take a leak. For example, “I drank an entire box of juice before setting off for the trip, and by the time we reached the gas station my eyeballs were floating”.
22. So good, made you wanna slap your mama
Some people find this phrase or its variant “made you wanna slap your grandma”, but it is used to emphasize that something is so good that it will make you do the unthinkable. For example, when the customer asks the waiter if fish is any good there he can respond with “Sir it’s so good it’s gonna make you wanna slap your mama”. So it is a variation of knocking your socks off.
23. That dog doesn’t hurt.
It is used to refer to someone or something useless, something that won’t or doesn’t work. It can be a person, a tool, a device, a strategy, or a plan that will not work or do the task that is expected from them.
24. He doesn’t have the good sense God gave a goose.
While other English-speaking people will insult you by telling you that you are silly as a goose, Southern people can say that you make a goose seem smarter. They use this phrase to sound polite while insulting your intelligence.
25. She’s being ugly.
it’s a deeper criticism than an offensive remark on your appearance. In the South, if you are being difficult, annoying, stubborn, vulgar, rude, or generally unpleasant to be around you will be referred to as being “ugly”. Don’t scrutinize your looks in a mirror or run to a plastic surgeon but instead work on the beauty within and take a hard look at your manners and behavior.
26. If the Creek Don’t Rise
It is a phrase commonly used when making a plan or making promises. It is to emphasize that they will try their best to keep their end of the deal unless something happens which is out of their hand, for example, the car breaks down, a family emergency, or some other uncontrollable events that are part of life.
27. Hill of Beans
It refers to something that will amount to nothing even in large quantities. It is used to indicate that something is not important or worthy. If something does not amount to a hill of beans it is not valuable or significant.
28. Over Yonder
It is the variation of “over there” and its meaning is more clear in terms of the context. For example, if as a tourist you inquire “Where’s the nearest post office?” “Oh, it’s just over yonder head straight and turns second left down the road.” If they wish to emphasize the distance and say it is far, they would do so by the addition of the word “way” as in “way over yonder”. “Oh it’s way yonder, want me to carry you there? ” Note: to carry someone is another phrase that means giving a ride or a lift in a vehicle.
29. Pot Calling the Kettle Black
This phrase is believed to have Spanish origin and used when someone accuses someone else of being guilty of the very same thing.
30. It’s Blowin’ Up a Storm
When the wind is strong and the weather is edging towards a storm you can practically smell it. This phrase is used to refer to the upcoming storm, for example, “The dark thundering sky and howling wind should have told you that it’s blowing up a storm, get in or you will soon be hit with a soaking storm”.
31. Rode hard and put away wet.
People who have dealt with horses know that at the end of a good horse riding day they have to be cooled down and groomed before they’re stabled for the night. This idiom creates a comparison to a horse with a lazy owner when a person who’s had a rough day and is a little worse for wear. People will use the phrase when they feel awful or very miserable.
For example when asked “How do you feel after such a huge exhibition run by your agency” an employee may say “Don’t even ask, it’s as if I was ridden hard and put away wet. We packed things until midnight and had to come back office the very next day.”
32. Jiminy Christmas
It is a Southern expression for cursing politely and not using the Lord’s name in vain. However, some argue that it is a direct reference to Jesus Christ. It is believed that the popular Disney character Jiminy Cricket was also named after this phase.
33. Knee-high to a grasshopper.
The first recorded appearance of this phrase is in The Democratic Review in 1851. knee-high to a grasshopper refers to smallness associated with a young age. For example “Of course you don’t remember me, last we met you were knee-high to a grasshopper”.
34. Busier than a cat covering crap on a marble floor.
Cat owners won’t need us to explain this one. It’s even general knowledge that felines naturally try to cover their mess, hence for the convince of domestic cats the litter box was created. If no litter is available, and floors are all marble or wood cats get restless and anxious. This phrase refers to someone who is occupied with a very difficult task.
35. Busy as a Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
In the hot Southern summer, imagine a cat on a hot tin roof – correct, that cat will not be able to catch a break! This phrase is a Southern way of stating that someone is so busy they don’t stop to take a breath before moving on to the next thing. While this can be an affectionate way of e
36. Gone cattywampus.
The word “cattywampus” has evolved in its usage over time. As an adverb “catawampusly” was used as a synonym to enthusiastically, passionately, or avidly, while as a noun it meant “fantastical creature.”
37. “He Thinks the Sun Comes Up Just to Hear Him Crow”
It is a variation of she thinks the world revolves around her, and it implies that the person is very self-centered, egoistic, and thinks highly of themselves when they are not worthy of any credit or praise. So yes another polite insult southern folks use.
38. Fixin’ to.
This simply means you are getting ready (mentally or physically) to do something. This term is frequently used in Southern households when people are thinking about or otherwise preparing to do a task, making a snack, cooking a meal, or working on a broken car, or giving someone an earful.
39. Can’t Never Could”
This is a Southern-style motivating or inspiring statement to spark positive thinking. You couldn’t do anything if you keep saying you can’t do it. You must try things before deciding on your own that you will fail at them. After trying out you might actually find that you were able to do it after all. Can’t never could do anything!
40. We’re Living in High Cotton
For a very long time the South’s economy has largely depended on harvesting cotton crops. The term “living in high cotton” indicates someone is doing well financially or is successful and wealthy.