Charles Portis on Southernisms

Charles Portis, best known for True Grit, was a news reporter and an observer of Southern idioms.

In a news feature from August 20, 1959, Charles Portis writes:

Downtown the other day we saw a mother give her little girl what is sometimes called a good shaking and hear her say, “If you don’t stop acting ugly, I’m going to take you back to the car and wear you out.”

We had not heard these expressions, “acting ugly,” and “wearing you out,” in a long time, and it sets us to thinking about Southernisms.

In a similar situation, we thought, the mother could have said, “When we get home I’m going to cut me a keen switch and stripe your legs good.”

We thought of those two good adjectives, “tacky” and “ratty” that are being largely ignored these days.

“No, you’re not going to wear that old tacky Captain Marvel T-shirt again today.”

“Well, if you’d ever get up out of that ratty old chair long enough, I might get it fixed.”

We thought of “cream” for ice cream and “wheel” for “bicycle.” 

“This is mighty good cream.”

“Boy, hop on your wheel and go get me a can of Granger.”

Notice, this was written in 1959.  And some of these statements, Portis said, were not heard anymore.  I grew up hearing misbehavior described as “acting ugly.”  That is a great description for what sinful behavior is like.  And I knew, from experience, what was meant by “wear you out.”  Only later in studying history did have I the terms “cause and effect,” but those historical concepts were taught early on.

Many Southernisms were rich and colorful.  “I’m fixin’ to carry Uncle Joe to the doctor” bests “I am going to take Uncle Joe to the doctor.” 

I even grew up hearing our refrigerator referred to as an ice box.  My grandfather used the wonderful word “dreckly” for “directly,” as in, “They’ll be here dreckly.”

What Portis says in his last paragraph of this essay, is sad to say, probably not true today.  He writes,

If you want to hear Southern talk, and watch them, attend a gathering of a whole family of them. They’re at their most Southern there where the conditions are optimum.  And you can learn a right smart if you listen.



One thought on “Charles Portis on Southernisms

  1. Ben, that’s a right fine post. Unfortunately, I think your right in your take on most Southerners today. Most folks’ speech is shaped more by the TV than by their grandparents and that’s a cryin’ shame.

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