Butchering the Queen’s English

Summer work in the pine forests of Louisiana put me in muddy pickup trucks and at coffee shops with hard-bit white working men as rural as any Appalachian hillbilly. They had their own lexicon. We all knew exactly what Mr. Townley meant when he said That property is all cater-corner as it sits on the diangle to the neighbor’s line and it is paralevel to the road. Even to this day I deliberately use the mispronunciation of “diangle” occasionally because it is so much more descriptive and it brings a smile to my face. Even some of the old English terms of hain’t, mought, tain’t, cain’t get used as contractions along with the more familiar ain’t. A weak argument might be characterized as That dog won’t hunt and a declaration of non-involvment might be voiced Ah got no dawg in that fight.

There was a saying in Louisiana regarding national rankings for education quality– “Thank God for Mississippi!” -because that neighboring state guaranteed that we were #49 instead of #50. I was a product of 12 years of the Louisiana Public School system as the tumultuous adjustment of de-segregation played out. At the time I was ignorantly oblivious of what my new black classmates faced in terms of acceptance. I could have and should have done a lot more to welcome them but I was a typical self-absorbed and hormone-addled teen. It brings to mind Thomas Hobbes quote “Hell is the truth learnt too late.” But still, we had fun, we talked and shared a lot of cultural expressions. I am grateful and would not trade that education so rich in life and language lessons reaching far beyond mere pedagogy.

Idiomatic and metaphorical talk is normal to me until people point it out as curious, odd or funnily out of context. Shove a snake too close to my face and I am likely to blurt JESUS GOD!! in a dialect borrowed directly from the Edenic serpent from my contemporaries’ black Baptist churches. One of my grandma’s hired women often mopped the flo and answered the telefoam. Yep, I use those too but mostly with family that share her memory.

Later, working in a Cajun French cowboy setting in coastal Louisiana I found myself the odd Anglophone man out but I still heard expressions I use to this day. My workmate sometimes said he got things misconcrewed. His temper made him want to snatch that SOB cross-laiged. One did not get out of a car, rather, in true wagon fashion, he might say Welcome home, y’all get down! Which always made me want to bust a dance move and skootch across da flo.

Even my own mother, a second generation Louisianan and college graduate had a tendency to embellish her usually impeccable English with local sayings. A little spice in an otherwise bland conversation as she was often fixing to do something or was so mad I wanted to bite the back of my own neck.

Like several linguistic rivers of different colors merging, we assimilated the colorful languages of our respective southern backgrounds. Of course, such folksy talk is an anathema in erudite academic settings where speakers carefully expunge colloquialisms for fear of being seen as ill-educated. I lived in that world for 25 years and felt the strained discourse was an affectation. My inner southerner might say they was fartin’ higher than they’s asses. Truly, my academic colleagues never cottoned on to the power of being under-estimated. You know dumb like a fox.

Now I am retired and live in Canada, a land of great homogeneity and very solid K-12 education systems that teach proper grammar, diction, and pronunciation in two languages. Yet, I treasure the expressive and colorful malapropisms and slang of my youth even if they make these well-educated northerners flinch and look askance. For example, I might say That meeting was as boring as eating a pound of sawdust with no butter or maybe a slow Olympic competitor was sucking hind tit. Yet, the big winner might have someone as happy as a pig in slop reminding us that all joy is contextual and relative. Language is one of those joys. Use it, elevate it, keep it alive.

Southerner by birth, Northerner by choice, Casual person by nature.

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Lee Foote

Southerner by birth, Northerner by choice, Casual person by nature.