We’ve spent this series talking about some hilarious Southernisms and their backstories — so many that we shared a second round of them). Today, Grammar Guru serves up a few well-known Southern vocabulary words and traces their fascinating origins. These are just a few examples of the many unique colloquialisms that weave our colorful tapestry of Southern speech and add to the charm and character of Southern culture.
Meaning: “Catawampus” is an informal, deliciously fun-to-say word that describes something skewed, diagonal, or not in its proper position.
Origin: Some linguists believe that “catawampus” is a combination of two words, “cata-” and “wampus.” The prefix “cata-” suggests disorder or diagonally positioned (like cattycorner), and “wampus” is a colloquial word meaning askew or awry. Others suggest that “catawampus” might have been influenced by the Native American Catawba people who inhabited the southeastern United States, but there’s not a lot of evidence to support this theory. It most likely emerged in this variation over time through common usage in the Southern and Midwestern United States.
Example: “The hurricane knocked my patio furniture all catawampus!”
Meaning: The word “tarnation” is a colloquial exclamation used to express surprise, frustration, or annoyance.
Origin: Interestingly, the word “tarnation” likely emerged as a way to avoid using more explicit or potentially offensive language — like “damnation” — while still conveying *drama* and strong emotions. In church-going regions, it was common to alter words to soften the impact of profanity or to create new slang expressions. “Tarnation” is believed to be a contraction of “eternal damnation” and can be traced to the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Example: “What in tarnation is going on out there!”
Meaning: In the South, we use “fixin’” (or, more commonly, “fixin’ to”) to mean “getting ready to.” It means we are preparing to do something but haven’t yet done the thing itself. The irony is that the word is an action word, yet it denotes no action — just a pre-action — in the South. The word is so deeply ingrained in Southern speech that it is rarely pronounced with the final “g.” “Fixins,’” as a noun, means all the extra sides you might find in addition to the meat at a holiday meal or a “meat-n-three” cafe. And, of course, y’all know a “veggie plate” may include biscuits, cornbread, corn pudding, mac ‘n’ cheese, and other non-veggie things, right?!
Origin: The British likely started using “fix” to mean arrange, prepare, and organize in battles and sailing. It was first seen in American English in the early 1700s.
Example: “I’m fixin’ to set out the chicken and fixings, so go wash your hands!”
Meaning: A “doohickey” is a thing whose name is either obscure, forgotten, unknown, or temporarily escaped from memory. It’s a common placeholder word in casual conversation when someone can’t recall or doesn’t know the proper name for something.
Origin: The exact origin is unclear, but it is believed to have emerged in the United States in the early 20th century. One theory is that “doohickey” may have evolved from the word “doodad,” another term used for an unspecified object or gadget. Both “doohickey” and “doodad” share a playful, whimsical tone. Other excellent placeholder terms with a similar purpose are “whatchamacallits” or “thingamajigs.”
Example: “Son, go find me the doohickey that fixes the door handle.”
Meaning: The noun “hankering” is used in casual speech and writing to describe an intense craving, longing, or desire for something, often a specific edible entity, activity, or experience.
Origin: “Hankering” is thought to have been influenced by two European verbs: the Dutch word “hunkeren,” which means to yearn or long for, and the German verb “hängen,” meaning to hang or to be suspended. Interestedly, the noun “hankering” is commonly found in American and British English and is often used in casual speech and writing to describe a persistent and heartfelt longing for something someone wants or wishes to have.
Example: “I’ve got a hankering for some home-cooked Southern fixings right now.”
Meaning: A “hootenanny” describes a social gathering or informal event where people gather for jovial merriment. It usually includes singing, picking instruments, dancing, imbibing, and camaraderie.
Origin: There are a few theories about the origins of “hootenanny.” It gained popularity in Appalachia during the early to mid-20th century, especially during the folk music revival of the 1960s. Some believe it might be influenced by the Scottish Gaelic term “hùthanàin” meaning “celebration” or “merrymaking,” and the Irish Gaelic word “húdaí” which refers to a small gathering. Another theory suggests that “hootenanny” may have roots in African American vernacular. The term “hoodoo” was used to describe a spiritual celebration. “Hoodoo” could have morphed into “hootenanny” over time.
Example: “Come out to the farm this weekend for my birthday hootenanny!”
Meaning: “Dillydally” means to waste time, procrastinate, or linger unnecessarily. It is often used to describe someone indecisive, wishy-washy, or lazy.
Origin: While the exact origin of “dillydally” is unclear, it is believed to be a blend of two words, “dilly” and “dally,” which were already used separately before the combination. “Dilly” is a shortened form of “dillydall,” which dates back to the 16th century and means to waste time or trifle. “Dally” means to playfully or flirtatiously waste time, often used in the context of … ahem … romantic activities. Two other similar Southern terms are “lollygaggin’” and “piddling.”
Example: You know she’d rather dillydally than show up to the restaurant on time.
Meaning: “Mosey” is used in the South and other US regions to describe a leisurely, relaxed, casual, and unhurried way of moving from one place to another. If “dillydallying” means delaying the important action, “mosey” means doing the action in a cavalier or unbothered manner.
Origin: “Mosey” entered common usage, particularly in the American West, where it became part of cowboy culture and frontier life. One theory suggests that “mosey” may have been influenced by the Spanish word “mosear,” which means to move slowly or to dawdle. The Spanish language significantly impacted American English, especially in areas with historical ties to Spanish-speaking communities. It also may have evolved from the Dutch word “mooze,” meaning to ponder or move aimlessly.
Example: “I’m going to mosey around town shopping today.”
I love hearing about the words and grammar rules that interest you! Email Grammar Guru your favorite Southerisms at [email protected].
For more fun grammar lessons, catch up on Grammar Guru’s recent articles HERE.