The following is an excerpt from "The Southerner's Handbook: A Guide to Living the Good Life" [HarperWave, $27.99].
Southern colloquial expressions (as my pappy used to say in his down-home way) are multifarious and, in fact, possibly infinite. Most of them mention animals, often dogs.
"That dog won’t hunt."
“That’s a hard dog to keep on the porch."
“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog."
“Run with the big dogs or stay on the porch."
"Happy as a tick on a fat dog."
Et cetera. Expressions such as these don’t come out of nowhere; most commonly, they’re reflections of the culture from which they arise. In this case, it’s clear that dogs are integral to the South and the character of its people. Is it even possible to be Southern and not have a dog — probably many dogs? No. If you don’t have dogs, if you don’t love dogs, you have come from somewhere else and are just pretending to be Southern, probably to meet women who are really into bad grammar and droppin’ g’s.
There are other animals commonly referred to in Southernisms as well, including but not limited to cats, turtles, gators, birds, possums, and skunks. Nature -- trees, for instance -- is important and makes a number of appearances, as in “lit up like a Christmas tree.” And then there are some with both dogs and trees. “It’s so hot I saw two trees fighting over a dog,” for instance.
Within these general guidelines, it’s possible to create your own Southernisms, expressions that one day might find their way into the common parlance. Here are a few I’ve made up myself:
“Lonely as a pine tree in a parking lot."
“Funny as a three-legged dog in a horse race."
“Give him two nickels for a dime and he’ll think he’s rich."
And here’s one that seem s likely to enter the lexicon any minute now: "That cat won’t hunt."
Here are 10 lively Southern expressions that are already in existence:
“All hat no cattle”
Imagine the would-be ranching magnate, flush with cash earned elsewhere, who blows into town with a ten-gallon lid, a fresh pair of boots — and a much too loud mouth.
“Fine as frog’s hair split four ways”
What’s that? You’ve never seen hair on a frog? Exactly. Split it four ways and it becomes awfully fine indeed.
"Drunker than Cooter Brown"
As legend has it, Cooter Brown was a man who did not see fit to take up with either side during the Civil War, and so remained so staggeringly drunk throughout the entire conflict that he avoided conscription.
“Grinning like a possum eating a sweet potato”
For a scavenger accustomed to a diet of bugs, slugs, and roadkill, having a fat, juicy sweet potato to gorge on is like winning the lottery.
“Happy as a dead pig in the sunshine”
Deceptively complex, this one contains a built-in lesson in postmortem porcine physiology. As a dead pig’s body lies out in the sunshine, see, its lips begin to pull back from its teeth, creating the illusion of a wide grin. The expression describes a similarly oblivious (though quite alive) person who smiles away when in reality things aren’t going so hot.
“Knee-high to a grasshopper”
Most of ten used to denote g rowth, as in: “I haven’t seen you since you were knee-high to a grasshopper!”
“Slower than molasses running uphill in the winter”
Things don’t get much slower than molasses. Uphill in winter? You get the picture.
“Ran like a scalded haint”
The opposite meaning of the previous phrase. A haint, in old Southern terminology, is a ghost, and according to tradition, scalding one will send it running right quick.
“Like a cat on a hot tin roof”
Cats are jumpy enough in a comfortable living room. The expression describes someone in an extreme state of upset and anxiety, and, of course, it was used by Tennessee Williams as the title of his Pulitzer-winning 1955 play.
“Enough money to burn a wet mule”
Why a person might choose to burn a soak-ing wet thousand-pound mule is anybody’s guess, but the expression was made famous (in some circles) when legendary Louisiana governor Huey Long used it in reference to deep-pocketed nemesis Standard Oil.