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Bless Your Heart – and Other Southern Sayings

“Bless your heart” – a Southern way to say you’re fat or not quite acceptable. If you only learn ONE southern idiom, it must be “Bless your heart.”

Southern lady photo from Big Mill B&B

Sweet Southern Lady Saying, “Bless Your Heart.”

You can say anything about anybody, then say, “Bless her heart,” and it is alright. “She certainly has fleshed up – she looks like a bale of hay – bless her heart.” It is the accepted retort if someone relays some sad or unflattering news about another person. The listener will then reply, “Well, bless his heart.”

Even my transplanted Yankee friends have had to learn this one. Bless your heart gives us southerners carte blanche to say something not so nice about folks, and then be forgiven immediately.

If you don’t speak our language, you will most likely hear from the cashier at the check-out in the grocery store, “You ain’t from ’round here, are you?” And we are ALWAYS right. As soon as you open your mouth, we know you are not from around here. We do get some blank stares from folks who hail from above the Mason Dixon line.

Hurrah's Next or messy hair photo from Chloe's Blog

The Perfect Southern Word for a Mess – Hurrah’s Nest

This was something that my mother would often say. She would tell me, “Your Aunt Effie’s hair looks like a hurrah’s nest.” I moved away, I said it and folks laughed at me. Then one day I didn’t say it anymore. That is too bad. I could never find it in my dictionary – until last night. I said it to my phone, “What is a hurrah’s nest.” Eureka, I found it! It was there in Webster. It means “an untidy heap, a mess.”

There are many words and phrases that I heard when I was growing up in the south – more specifically, eastern North Carolina. I spoke these words too, until I left home. Then, almost daily, someone would look at me and say, “What did you say?” It was then that I realized not everyone used those wonderful old expressions.  Unfortunately, I removed them from my vocabulary. Now I am adding them back.

Many words that my mother used are no longer used. I just figured they weren’t really words. I now know they are good words. Sherlock Holmes said he was prising open a window. Well, so did my mother – she did not pry it open, she prised it open.

Many of our words have to do with the weather, most of us were farmers. Daily you would here words like airish, raw, briling, a tight shower or coming up a cloud.

My South African friend Lee Anne loved the expression, “Don’t act ugly.” It means, of course, to be nasty or rude.  A child can misbehave and we would say he is acting ugly. Big folks often act ugly too.


A piece – Refers to distance. “He lives a right far/fer piece from here.”

Ails – This means “what is wrong or troubling you? Or are you sick?” (This is from the old English.) What ails you?

Ain’t a huckleberry – Not anything or isn’t anything, usually has something to compare. “He ain’t a huckleberry compared to the last fellow she went with.”

Airish – Cooler than expected.

All stove up – Feeling so bad you just can’t do anything. Bad off.

All over creation – Everywhere, as in reference to going somewhere when the person would rather be somewhere else.  “She dragged me all over creation looking a hat to match her shoes.”

Amongst us – In the middle of the group, in the midst of. “Is there a doctor amongst us?”

Bacca – Shortened from tobacco “It is hot work putting in bacca these days.

Bad off – A medical term to mean someone is  really sick. “He has been bad off ever since he had that operation.”

Beatenist- If that don’t beat all. “He had the beatenist beard.”

Beating and Lamming – Great amounts of noise as someone slams doors, knocks things over, etc. “He came home late last night, beating and lamming.” Lamming in British English means thrashing.

Beholden – Indebted to, I owe you one. “I am beholden to you for helping me,” (from Middle English).

Bless your heart – We usually use this expression right after we have said something about someone that is not flattering. She has certainly fleshed up, bless her heart. Even my transplanted Yankee friends have had to learn this one. Bess you heart gives us southerners carte blanche to say something not so nice about folks, and then be forgiven.

Booger – If someone is a booger they are a mess. Booger can be an expletive and substituted for “just damn.” A proper lady can say, Booger, but not just damn.

Born Days – Usually expresses shock or disbelief. I haven’t seen anything like that in all my born days.

Boxing – The soffit and fascia  in a building. “Don’t forget to paint the boxing.”

Bray or Bray out – To yell loudly as a mule will bray out. “Every time dinner was ready, Mama would bray out for us youngins.”

Brilin – As in briling sunshine – very, very hot. It was probably derived from broiling.

Brush – To sweep. “She brushes the kitchen floor two or three times a day.”  To brush the yard comes from when folks made yard brooms out of branches. Folks who had no grass and only had dirt yards brushed the yard.

Bubba – A Bubba is someone who has rather conventional ideas, does not like change, but in effect, is a good old boy. He will help whenever he is called. He might chew tobacco and hunt and most definitely he will drive a pick up truck with a dog box or tool box in the back. He is not illiterate, but his ideas are very provincial. A Bubba is not necessarily a redneck.  Bubbas do not like casseroles and will not usually try any food that his mama did not make. Vacations are usually taken at places no farther away than 100 miles. There are no female Bubbas.

Bumbler – A bumble bee

Butter wouldn’t melt in  his mouth – A saying in reference to someone who is so overtly nice to some folks but around others he is rude.

Cackle – To laugh out loud. “I cackled when he told me about Aint Callie and the mule.” See tickled.

Came in the ace of Almost. “I came in the ace of stepping on that snake”  On the verge of, very near. Middle English

Cape Jasmine – A Cape Jasmine is a gardenia.

Car he was on – Means the car he was in. “Did you see what kind of car he was on?”

Carry on – An illicit relationship or affair. To have an affair. This does not mean “to continue.”  “He has been carrying on with her for years.”

Carry – To give a lift, usually in a vehicle of some sort.  “Can you carry me to church tomorrow?”

Catty-wompus – Out of kilter

Chimbley – Chimney

Cobbled up – To bungle or make a mess of doing something. “No one can ever fix it after he has cobbled it up.” This too is a perfectly good word.

Co-Cola or ko-ko-la -This is Coca-Cola, and it is pronounced Kokola. For years this referred to the small Coca-Cola in the bottle. These are not always so readily available now.  The authentic Coca-Colas can still be found in small town country stores or at small town soda fountains.

Commode stool – Inside toilet fixture, stool

Conglameration – A general mixture; conglomeration.

Conniption fit – To really throw a fit and sometimes you can fall in it. These fits are usually thrown by hysterical grown women.

Crank-sided – Catty-wompus or leaning to one side. “That chimbley really looks crank-sided.”

Cup pan – Usually a white enamel basin pan for washing dishes – different in size from a dish pan. These were used on the back porch to wash dishes. The water was then flung out into the yard or on the shrubs.

Current – Electricity. The current was out for an hour.”

Cut off or cut out – To turn off as a light or television.  “Please cut out the lights before you go to bed.”

Cut a shine – To act ugly or cut up. “He really cut a shine when his sister married Noah.”

Dinner – The noon meal. The night meal is supper. “I invited the preacher for dinner.”

Directly – Later. Pronounced da rec’ ly. It would seem that directly would mean right now or very soon, but it really means when I get around to it. “I will get to it directly.” This is another British expression that we have adopted.

Dish Pan – Usually a white enamel (sometimes aluminum) round pan.

Drag – (verb) Means you had to unduly coerce someone as in, “I did not want to go but Bob dragged me to the party.”  Drag can also mean to haul a bunch of things somewhere. The best description of Drag is the Yiddish work schlepp. “She dragged all of that mess over to Bertha’s house as if we were going to stay a week.” You can also drag in to the party; that means you were late.

Duster- A house coat

Dutch Cleanser – Scouring powder such as Comet.

Eat on it – Is to have some food readily available, usually already prepared, such as a cooked ham. “It’ll be nice to have it around and we can eat on it all week.”

Fall out – To pass out or have a spell. “It was so hot Sammy fell out in the field.”

Fall of the year or Spring of the year – It is a time that evokes a certain emotion. However, it is NEVER Summer of the year or Winter of the year. British provenance.

Fall out with – (Totally different from simply Falling out.) – To fall out with is to have a serious disagreement, to part ways. “I heard that Mr. Donald and Miss Carrie fell out with the church board and started Yarrell’s Creek Church back in the depression.

Fart in a hot skillet – This means that someone is fidgety and antsy. He just couldn’t sit down; he was acting like a fart in a hot skillet. I hear that my grandmother Sallie used this expression, but my mother, the southern lady, would not say this in company.

Fell Off – Lost weight. “Since she had that operation, she really fell off.”

Fixin’ – When somebody’s “fixin” to do something, it won’t be long.

Fleshed up – gained weight. “Louise has certainly fleshed up since I saw her last” (as opposed to fell off).

Float an iron wedge – Thick and strong as in liquid. “That coffee was strong enough to float an iron wedge.”

Folks – people. “There must have been twenty five folks at that meeting,” never twenty five people.

Frigidaire or Kelvinator – refrigerator. “Please get me a drink of water out of the Frigidaire.” This expression changed from town to town, depending on who had the dealership in that town.

From the horse’s mouth – This means that  you heard that story straight from the person it happened to, NOT from Aunt Effie.

Gallivant – To go around all over, to wander or go everywhere, to roam about. “We spent the morning gallivanting all over Bear Grass.”

Gape – to yawn. “I couldn’t stop gaping during the sermon.” (from Middle English.)

Gee – Command given to a mule to turn to the right. Haw means to turn left. All of our mules understood this and actually they knew it when they first came here. They were also matched up in pairs to work together when it took two mules to pull something.

Get a bath or shower – To take a shower or bath. NEVER to take a shower.

Get shed of – To get rid of. “I finally got shed of that old car.”

Get up with – to get in touch with “ I tried all day to get up with him, but could not find him anywhere.”

Ginavy or Jinavy or jenavy – (I don’t have a clue as to the origin of this word or how to spell it.) I means a whole bunch of folks. There was a whole jenavy of folks over at Mamie Lou’s house.”

Gone to seed – Deteriorated, usually from wild living. “Albert used to be a good looking young man, but he has just gone to seed.”  This is in reference to the last stages of a plant when it sets seed. It will soon die.

Good ole’ boy – They are Caucasian but not necessarily a red neck or a Bubba. A good ole’ boy is often someone who is unschooled, very local and who means well. He listens to country music, he will do you no harm and will help anyone in need. You may choose not to take him to a black tie event (no matter how cute he is). There are no good ole’ girls.

Gourd green – Green, as in reference to a fruit such as a watermelon. That watermelon was gourd green…meaning not ripe.

Grabble – To feel around with the hands. “I grabbled around in the dirt and found some new potatoes.”

Grinning like a Mule eating briars – Smiling all over, very happy.

Smiling donkey photo

Grinning Like a Mule Eating Briars

Grip – Influenza

Ground Bees – The wasp family of yellow jackets who often make their nests in the ground or in old stumps or fence posts.

Guano – (Pronounced gue-anna) another name for fertilizer. From what my father told me, this must have originated with the bird manure that used to be shipped in on the train. Through the years the word just became synonymous with fertilizer. “That garden could certainly use some guano. (I really do believe that the word Guano was printed on some of the bags and gue-anna is the Martin County pronunciation.) This word has Spanish origins.

Hain’t – Ain’t, don’t have any. “I hain’t got no time for that mess.”

Haint – Ghostlike or looking really awful. Did you see her? She looked like a haint.

Happen-So – Total coincidence.” It is just a happen-so that he was home at the time of Aunt Lavenia’s death.”

Hasslin’ – Out of breath, to breathe heavily, such as a dog is hassling.  “He was purely hasslin when he came back from walking to the store” (this is probably truly a Southern dialect word).

Head – Number of folks. Reference to “eight head” is the same as eight people or folks. “We had eighteen head attend the revival.”

High Cotton – term used to reflect the best of times; a time of elation. The term originates from the rural farming community in the Antebellum (Pre-Civil War) when “high cotton” meant that the crops were good.

Hissie fit – A tantrum (sometimes you can fall in to the fit).

Hominy Snow – Precipitation that is not rain, not quite ice and not quite snow.

Hotter than blue blazes – Very hot

Huckleberries – The small blueberries that grow wild in the woods. “He ain’t a huckleberry” means he is very small.

Ill – Aggravated. “He makes me right ill every time he brings that up.”

Iota – Not even a tiny bit. “He does not care one iota about having a garden”

Job – (In reference to Job as a verb) – an up and down motion, as in cleaning new potatoes with a brush. “Please job those potatoes up and down for me.” This too has its roots in Middle English meaning “to jab or make a stab.”

Kindly – Rather or kinda or kind of. “He is kindly sickly.”

Laid a corpse – In reference to the time after a person has died and the time before his actual burial. “She was out gallivanting while her daddy laid a corpse.”

Lallygag – To drag out or slow down, to waste time puttering.  (This was probably originally Lollygag.)

Leader or leder – The main vein in the arm.

Light (verb) – Sit down, pitch or land somewhere. “Please light somewhere and stop fiddling.”

Looking or lookin’ – as in lookin’ something. This usually means, “looking for”.  The “for” is dropped from this sentence. “What are you looking?”

Lordy mercy – Lord, have mercy or mercy me – an expression of disbelief. “Lordy mercy, I never knew it could get this hot.”

Made – As in “He made a preacher.” This means that he used to be wild and mean, but he turned out all right. This is different from simply becoming a preacher.

Make a fist of – To bumble to make a mess of  something. “He certainly made a fist of that garden.”

Mash – To press as in a switch, as in “Mash that button for the elevator.” This does not mean to beat it up.

Mess of, or mess – A bunch of or a given amount.  “Please stop by Miss Sadie’s and get me a mess of collards.”

Miss Chloe or Doctor Charlie – These are terms of respect and/or familiarity. Everyone is called Miss or Mister, regardless of marital status.

Momick – To make a royal mess of something. “He certainly momicked up that door.

No count – No good, in reference to a person. That old man of hers is no count.”

Of a morning – on any given morning. “We can clean the house of a morning

Ought – The number zero.  “Mamma was born in ought two” (meaning 1902).

Outhouse – The outside toilet

Pack house – the barn where the mules live

Parched – Very thirsty. “I am about to parch to death. This can also mean, “to roast” as in “parching peanuts.”

Perish to death – Very, very hungry. “If I don’t eat soon, I will perish to death” This word perish is always followed by “to death.

Pert near – Almost

Piled up – is said of someone who is trifling and doing nothing but lying around in the bed.

Pocosin – The great swamp, the dismal swamp. A pocosin is a marshy area that has some land and some water. It is very subject to flooding  “He is all blowed up and he looks like a Pocosin bull.” From what my folks told me animals would get out and wander into the swamp. These animals became feral and looked rather wild, hence a Pocosin Bull. (This word is possibly a Algonquian Native American word.)

Poor ole critter – Reference to a woman (never a man) who has had a rough life. This expression used to make me cry. Mother and Ops never said it in front of me.

Poultice – Mush, cooked to death. “Your daddy likes his squash cooked to a poultice” (my mother’s exact words).

Presney – Eventually or when I get around to it. “I’ll be over there presney” (perhaps this started out as presently although presently usually means immediately). So presney has a slightly different impact.

Prize open or prise open – To pry open, as in “please prize open that window for me.” From Middle English prise.

Racket – Unappealing or annoying noise. “You youngins are making so much racket that I can’t hear the radio.”

Raw – Cold weather that has lots of moisture, weather that bites through and chills to the bone. “It’s right raw out there, you will need a big coat.”

Reach me – to stretch and get an item “Please reach me that hatbox.”

Reckon – To surmise or ponder an idea. John reckons that Bertha might not be coming home.

Right smart – Rather much. “He was right smart late.” (This has nothing to do with brain power.)

Right study – Persistent, to keep at something. “He is right study picking at that poor woman.”  This is probably a variation of “steady.”

Risin’ – A sore on the body. “She had a bad looking risin on her leg.”

Riz – A desire or want made public. “Johnny riz for a chocolate cake, so I got up early to bake it.”

Rolling chair – wheel chair

Sanctify – To bless or make Holy. “Lord, please sanctify this food we are about to receive.”

Scaffold – Usually this was at the tobacco barn where we looped and tied the tobacco. It is a place, not just scaffolding. Of course, there were racks built to hang the tobacco, but the scaffold meant under the shelter of the trees where folks were handing and looping the tobacco. I only recognize one person in this photo and that is Jack.

Tobacco scaffold photo by Chloe Tuttle

The Tobacco “Scaffold” During the Fifties

Short rows – Reference to the long rows of tobacco, corn, peanuts and cotton. The short rows refer to the job being almost finished. “Whew, this is a lot of painting, but we are in the short rows now.”

Set a spell – (noun) Have a seat and stay awhile “Come set a spell and have a glass of tea.”

Slap from – All the way as in they drove slap from Raleigh.

Smart – This means he or she is a hard worker. This has nothing to do with intellect. “I got smart last night and cleaned the whole house.”

Spell – (verb) Relieve, take over. “Let me spell you a while” (Middle English again)

Spider – Is an iron frying pan. I am guessing this came from the time the old iron frying pans had legs and they used them in the fireplace. They might look like a spider.

Spied – To notice suddenly or catch sight of. “He came into the house and spied the new couch” (from Middle English).

Spraddled out – In reference to legs and arms sprawled in a disorderly fashion. “He was sitting with his legs all spraddled out.”

Stubborn as a mule – Set on an idea and will not budge.

Such as they are – Meaning they might not be so good, but we will share, such as they are.

Sug – Pronounced Shug, it is a term of endearment. It is short for Sugar.

Sunday clothes – These would be your best clothes, reserved for wearing to Church, funerals or weddings. “I do not have but one Sunday dress.”

Swannee – An expression of surprise or incredulity “ I swanee, I never knew he could sing!”

Tater ridge – Dirt on your neck (under your chin).

Tear down on – Really like some food as in he tore down on that potato salad.

Tear off to – Rush off somewhere as to the bathroom.

Tetch – A wee bit. “I think I have a tetch of the gout.”

Tetchy – Peevish, acting peevish and offended (from the old English).  I, of course, assumed that my folks were mispronouncing “touchy”. Now I know that this is a far better word than I had assumed.

Tickled – Made me smile. “That little boy just tickles me to death.”

Tight Shower – A short good rain “Did you all get any rain? We had a right tight shower.”

Took a shine to – Really admired, to like spontaneously. “John took a shine to Mary Lou.”

Touchous – Tender to the touch or emotion. “He certainly is touchous about his family” or “that place on my arm is still touchous.” Now this may not be a bona fide English word, or, rather I cannot find it in a dictionary.

Watch the weather – To tune in to the television at 6:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. to see the weather report. This does NOT mean to go outside and “stare at” the weather.

Well bench – This has come to mean the source of water. My mother made reference to the well bench as the housing around the water well. There is one at my back door. Mother and Ops boarded it up when Barney and I were little. We were very fascinated with this big hole in the ground.

Went away from here – To die in a hurry; died and buried fast. “I’m telling you, he went away from here in a hurry.”

Whomp or womp – To chew loudly or smack, as in chewing gum.  “She sat around all day, womping that bubble gum.”

Won’t – A contraction of ‘was not’ or ‘were not’. We went by your house, but you won’t home” (Now if you spoke in full words and not contractions, no one would say,”we went to see you and you will not home.”  To Martin County folks “won’t” does not mean “will not,” it means “were not.”

Wound Up – Spoken of someone who “carries on” and talks on and on about a specific topic. “Don’t mention the new tax because he is wound up.”

Yank Out – A driving term, to pull out in front of someone.

Yee-yaw – Yaw means to swerve off course momentarily. Yee-yaw means something is off kilter. Out of plumb, etc.

Yestiddy – the pronunciation of yesterday (note that tomar is the pronunciation of tomorrow).

Yonder – somewhere over there, wherever that is. I, of course, know where yonder is.

You all or Yaw’l – Everyone. “Yaw’l come on over for dinner after church.” You can NEVER say “you guys.”

Luckily most of our wonderful southern sayings are still with us. Even the magazine Garden & Gun has produced a Trivia game called “Bless Your Heart.” I bet I can beat anybody on that one!

Photo of Chloe's signature Big Mill Bed & Breakfast, Williamston, NC 252-792-8787


Bless Your Heart - and Other Southern Sayings