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The cast of 'Designing Women' (Photo: Sony Pictures Television)
The cast of 'Designing Women' (Photo: Sony Pictures Television)
The popular late ’80s/early ’90s sitcom ‘Designing Women’ showed the color and intricacy of Southern sayings. (Photo: Sony Pictures Television)

Many Brits in America either live in the South or, like me, married into it. Such is the Southerner’s love of a good ol’ metaphor that it’s sometimes quite hard to grasp the meanings of the region’s often hilarious sayings. The U.S. Southerner lives by the motto “Why say something in three words when there’s a colorful, descriptive alternative?” Many southern phrases remind me of Northern English sayings, like “Well, I’ll go t’ foot of our stairs,” or my grandmother’s response to someone who’d jumped to the wrong conclusion: “Well, you know what Thought did. Followed a dustcart* and thought it was a wedding.”

So here’s a sample of some of the colorful Southern sayings you might have heard already:

All get out
You’ll hear this tacked on the end of a variety of expressions, and it means “extremely.” “She’s as smart as all get out” or “It was as loud as all get out”. Its origins are unknown. Brits might say “like/as anything” in similar situations—“He’s as fast as anything.”

This could be just about anything, but it’s the same as the British word “wonky”, meaning not straight, or skewed. There are several spelling options for this word. Note that there is also an American word “wonky” which describes “wonks” – people who are pre-occupied with technical details. The alternative adjective here is “wonkish.”

Cain’t never could
This should really have quotation marks around the “cain’t” but I’ve never seen it written that way. The phrase means, “If you say you can’t, you won’t be able to.” A British equivalent escapes me—all suggestions welcome.

If I had my druthers
This one took a while to figure out. It means, “If I had my way or my preference” and the “druthers” comes from “I’d rather.”

Like white on rice
I’ve heard this a lot recently and not just from Southerners, although it did start off in the South. There doesn’t appear to be an etymology other than the color and the rice (if it’s white of course) being inseparable. The phrase means something or someone is going to stay very close or on your case: “I’ll be all over you like white on rice.” A less common alternative is “Like white on snow.” The Brit equivalent that comes to mind is sticking to someone “like glue.”

My eyeballs are floating
If someone utters this phrase, do yourself a favor and don’t ask. It basically means they need to pee, being so full of liquid that, well…’Nuff said.

Rode hard and put up wet
“That guy looks like he was rode hard and put up wet,” meaning someone looks rough (à la Keith Richards). Its origin is from horse grooming; when a horse runs fast and sweats, it needs to walk around to dry off before going back to the stable. Otherwise it’ll look “rough.” (Alternately, you might hear “rode hard and put away wet.”) The sentence encompasses another Southern phrase Brits might not know…

To put up
This means to put something away in its proper place, whether or not that place is up high.

Other sayings are just so apt, they’re laugh out loud funny:

Slicker than snot on a doorknob
This is my personal favorite; I do beg your pardon.

Madder than a wet hen
This needs no explanation, but the mental image of a soaking wet hen running about the place hits the nail on the head. And talking of animals, I also love “nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockin’ chairs.” I mean, how much more nervous could you be?

There are several phrases to describe someone who’s not the best-looking person on the planet. “Looks like he fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down” is a long-winded, but very descriptive, way of saying someone’s not great-looking. Another version is “he looks like he got beat with the ugly stick.”

Phrases to describe something or someone who’s a waste of space include “as useful as a trap door in a canoe,” which is similar to the British “as much use as a chocolate teapot.” “All hat and no cattle” is the cowboy equivalent of “all mouth and no trousers,” also known as someone who looks the part but doesn’t know what they’re doing.

* – dustcart (n.) – old-fashioned waste removal system. British trash cans are often called “dustbins.”

And of course, this is just a small taster of colorful Southern sayings. What’s your favorite?

See more:
8 American Dialects Most Brits Don’t Know About
10 American English Words and Phrases British Expats Eventually Adopt
12 Ways to Speak and Spell Like an American

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By Toni Hargis