Southerners are prone to pepper casual conversation with funny idioms, passive-aggressive insults, and conversational turns of phrase. After exploring adjectives, nouns, and verbs that make you sound smarter, Grammar Guru turns her attention to Southernisms. Let’s start with eight Southern phrases, their best-guessed origins, and how to use them.
Too big for their britches
Meaning: The person in question is too full of themselves or heading in that direction if they don’t check that ego. They’re likely showing some unwarranted hubris or self-confidence.
Origin: The first example of this Southern idiom is seen in Davy Crockett’s 1835 work An Account of Col. Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East, but it was likely around before that. “I liked him well once: but when a man gets too big for his breeches, I say Good bye,” the king of the wild frontier wrote. The word britches comes from the 15th-century word breeches (pants).
Example: “That new fancy job has him actin’ too big for his britches.”
Finer than frog’s hair | Finer than frog’s hair split four ways
Meaning: Good, fresh, swell, dandy
Origin: This phrase was reportedly first seen in C. Davis’s “Diary of 1865.” It has become a silly, ironic way to say you’re feeling fresh or dandy. Frogs don’t have hair, or the hair they have is barely noticeable, so to be finer than something so fine is to be very fine indeed.
Example: I’m feelin’ finer than frog’s hair after 10 hours of sleep.
Preachin’ to the choir
Meaning: Trying to convince someone of something they already know or agree with
Origin: This became popular in the US in the 1970s but likely goes back to the 19th. The idea is that church choir members are already devoted churchgoers and believers who listen to the preacher’s sermons every week and multiple times per Sunday, so the preacher need not turn around to preach to them. He ought to focus on the nonbelievers that may be out in the pews.
Example: When she vents to me about our rowdy neighbors, she’s preachin’ to the choir. They bother me, too!
This ain’t my first rodeo
Meaning: I’ve got this; I’m not a novice in this situation.
Origin: The first recorded version of this is found in the 1981 film Mommie Dearest in which Joan Crawford’s character says, “This ain’t my first time at the rodeo” to a boardroom full of male executives. When people say “ain’t” instead of “isn’t,” it makes this one feel pointedly Southern, but it’s used throughout the country.
Example: No need for the pep talk; this ain’t my first rodeo.
Madder than a wet hen
Meaning: Irritated, angry, enraged, exasperated
Origin: When trying to incubate their eggs, hens will get aggressive and moody, stopping at nothing to protect them from the farmers who come and collect the eggs. Farmers used to dunk hens in cold water to “break” their broody attitudes, making them even madder.
Example: On top of the long work hours, the new company rules have me madder than a wet hen.
‘Til the cows come home
Meaning: For an endlessly or unknowably long time; forever
Origin: Used since the mid-16th century, it’s thought that this idiom originated in the rural Scottish Highlands before making its way to the United States. Unlike horses, cows are often left out in the pasture to meander and do their own thing for months at a time.
Example: I want to dance with you till the cows come home.
They think the sun comes up just to hear them crow
Meaning: They’re full of themselves. They have an inflated sense of self-importance. They love to hear themselves talk.
Origin: This subtle Southern insult has practical origins. On farms, roosters crow when the sun rises. The sound wakes up the house, signaling time it’s time to start the farm work. A cocky, pompous rooster might think the sun rises because they crow instead of the other way around.
Example: She thinks the sun comes up just to hear her crow with her relentless posting on Next Door.
You look rode hard and put up wet
Meaning: You look tired, worn out, sick, hungover, out of whack
Origin: When a horse runs fast or is trained hard, it works up a sweat, especially under the saddle. A good rider should cool the horse down by walking him around before returning to the stable. Forget this step, and the horse can become sick, disheveled, and lackluster in spirit.
Example: It must’ve been some party last night. You look like you’ve been rode hard and put up wet!
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