EDITOR’S NOTE: The columns of Bill Duncan are being reprinted in The News-Review. Duncan, who died in November 2011, wrote a weekly column for The News-Review and The Capital Press of Salem from 1981 to 2011. Duncan wrote the following column in April 2005. His thoughts are still pertinent to today.
By the time you read this I will already be talking Southern. I am headed for the deep South on my bi-annual pilgrimage to the rich Georgia red clay that makes up the dust of my soul.
Actually, I plan to spend most of my time on the Gulf Coast of Florida, where the sand is snowy white. There are two Floridas, you know. The part I am visiting is pure Southern. That other half speaks a different language.
I know I will be fully understood in my home territory even though I have been absent for more than a half century. Oh, I lost that Southern accent years ago, except, my wife says, when I get tired my speech lapses back to my roots, or when I try to say water, or dog.
I got full confirmation of my lost accent once, when my Aunt Eva Pearl Sloan from Atlanta called me while I was living in California. As soon as I began talking she interrupted and said:
“You talk just like a Yankee.”
So after my long absence from chiggers and chitlins, would I even be welcome traveling back to the Mason-Dixon Line? My niece Ellen didn’t think so, because she sent me the Harvard University Dialect Survey to find out whether I was a Yankee or a Southerner.
I took the test and I am ready to drawl with the best. Ellen was right in sending me this test to make sure I still knew how to communicate, because I damn near failed.
I did get a barely passing C- with a 76%, but the scorers said “that is a pretty strong Southern score,” considering my Western brogue. Of course I am questioning how those damned Yankees at Harvard put together the test.
In some of the questions, I don’t think they know what they were talking about. Surely it wasn’t Southern speak.
I got the question wrong when the test asked how would I pronounce creek? Everybody knows it is crick, but the test said the correct answer would rhyme with meek. That just ain’t so where I come from.
When I checked route as rhyming with toot, it scored me as being from Chicago.
Of course I had no problem with how to address a group of people. I certainly didn’t say youse guys, I said y’all.
Those university folks sure don’t know much about moonshine. They asked the question about what we Southerners would call a drive-through liquor store? There wasn’t one answer that would fit the question for a Southerner. I may have been out of the South too long, but I never heard of a drive-through liquor store.
The test asked what I’d call a sow bug and explained this was not to be confused with a doodle bug. Now if you are from the South you’d know what a doodle bug is. As best I can remember we called sow bugs roly polys.
I am just anxious to hear the melodious, musical expressions of the deep South, especially the quaint similes and metaphors of this unique American dialect. On one visit I copied down some of these sayings, seldom if ever heard outside the South:
“Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit.”
“She’s as cute as a sack full of puppies.”
“It’s so dry, the trees are bribing the dogs.”
“She’s uglier than homemade soap.”
“He could screw up a two-car funeral procession.”
I don’t know what Adam’s housecat looks like, but a lot of folks must know Adam’s housecat because often you hear “I wouldn’t know him from Adam’s housecat.”
Personally, I favor this old Southern saying:
“If things get any better, I’ll have to hire someone to help me enjoy it.”
I might have to hire someone to help me enjoy this trip.