This morning's newspaper column builds on the conversation at this blog about regional dialect, including the proper use of "barbecue," inverted words like "hoppergrass" and "peckerwood," and my favorite genteel verbal dagger, "bless his heart."
Read the whole thing after the jump.
By Edward Cone
News & Record
If the only thing you have ever mashed is a potato, you are probably not a native North Carolinian.
Around here, people ask you to "mash the button" when they enter an elevator, not press it or push it. Or at least they used to when I was growing up. Regional speech isn't what it used to be, not just in terms of the accents flattened by generations of television, but the words and phrases that help define different areas of the country.
I found out that I talked funny when I moved to New York after college to work for a magazine. Passing an editor in the hallway I said what many people from Greensboro would have said: "Hey."
He said, "You must be from North Carolina because other people say 'hi.'"
To speak Carolinian is to understand that Beach Music does not mean the Beach Boys, but the flavor of R&B that thrived in this area when surf guitar and high harmonies were coming into their own on the Pacific coast. And shagging is the dance you do to Beach Music, not what Austin Powers thinks it is, although one thing has been known to lead to the other.
My wife's people are from New Jersey, where they don't say "people" when they mean "family," although they sometimes say "family" to mean organized crime. There, they call the beach "the shore." Jersey Italians also refer to noodles as "macaroni" and spaghetti sauce as "gravy," both of which I learned quickly upon marrying into a family of good cooks.
Meanwhile, Lisa's Guilford County vocabulary has expanded considerably in our 15-years-next-month of marriage, but she was still thrown for a loop when a friend told her recently, "Go ahead and put your'n up," which translates to "feel free to put yours away."
What she was putting up was a carbonated soft drink, or as we called it when I was a kid, a Coke, no matter the brand or flavor. Greensboro preacher Alex McFarland remembers older people using the word "ale" as a generic term for soft drinks when he was growing up in Pleasant Garden. Elsewhere in the United States you might hear "soda" or the antique-sounding "pop," and I once knew a guy from New Hampshire who called any soft drink a "tonic," even the kind you don't put gin in.
Now, you might choose to drink a Coke with your barbecue, but around here you need to know that barbecue is a noun, not a verb, and that the noun does not refer to a social occasion revolving around a meal grilled al fresco, which is properly called a cookout, but to the meat you might eat there. Which is pork, not beef. Anyway, you probably want tea with that barbecue, with "tea" understood to mean sweet and iced.
Blogger and journalist Doc Searls lives in California, but he still remembers certain phrases that jumped out at him when he arrived at Guilford College in the late '60s, including "might could," meaning "might be able to," as in, "y'all might could do that." In a conversation about local speech patterns at my weblog, Doc also mentioned "like to," meaning "likely to," but I've also heard it to mean "almost," as in, "you like to scared me to death."
Some local usages have gone national. I grew up pronouncing "alright" as "aw-ite," and now I hear suburban rap fans from across the country say it all the time on MTV. The useful "y'all" is often attempted by non-natives, but they tend to mangle it into a singular pronoun; certainly nobody who didn't grow up saying it should try to deploy "all y'all" without extensive training.
A real southernism is the inverted compound word, such as "hoppergrass" for grasshopper, which I have heard only from country folks of a certain age, and "peckerwood" for woodpecker, which is more commonly used as a pejorative term for a rural white person.
Another insult, although velveted and used by the sweetest-sounding ladies, is "bless his heart," meaning, "I agree with the unkind thing you have just said but do not wish to say so myself."
Example: "That newspaper columnist is as dumb as a box of rocks," he said. "Bless his heart," she replied.
© News & Record 2004