Can You Decipher These 18 Southern Phrases? Most Can’t

Written By Babatunde Sanni

People from the South, in addition to their hospitality, are known for the colorful ways they say things. To foster a better understanding with our lovely neighbors, we’ve compiled 18 southern phrases many people from other parts of the US often struggle with.

High Cotton

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When one’s in high cotton, he or she is in good or prosperous times. According to a post on Tumblr, this phrase comes from pre-civil war times when cotton was the most valuable cash crop around, and having a lot of it meant you were rich. You may hear someone say, “Ever since he got that promotion, he’s been in high cotton.”

Knee-High to a Grasshopper

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To say someone is “knee-high to a grasshopper” means this person is very young or small. This is an expression that’s either used to describe someone as a child or to say someone’s behaving like a child. Southern Thing says this can be traced to as far back as 1854.

Hush Puppy

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Although “hush puppy” is now a type of fried cornbread, it was originally used to describe something that pacifies others. This phrase gets its name from treats given to dogs to keep them quiet, and sometimes it describes something used to stop news of a misdeed from spreading, like a bribe, for instance.


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“Tarnation” is an old-fashioned southern exclamation used to express surprise or frustration. It’s a euphemism for a more profane expression and reflects the region’s penchant for colorful language. This term adds emphasis and emotion to a statement, and for example, you may hear someone ask, “What in tarnation is going on here?”


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When something is “cattywampus,” it’s askew, crooked, or out of order. This whimsical term describes things that are not aligned or properly arranged. It’s often used to comment on disorganization or messiness, adding a playful touch to the observation. You might say, “Your picture frames are all cattywampus on the wall.”

Pitch a Fit

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To “pitch a fit” means to throw a tantrum or become very upset. This expression vividly conveys the intensity of someone’s anger or frustration. It’s commonly used to describe outbursts, especially those that are dramatic or exaggerated. For instance, you can say, “When he found out his car was towed, he pitched a fit.”

Butter Wouldn’t Melt

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The expression “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth” describes someone who appears innocent or composed yet is actually quite shrewd. It suggests a façade of sweetness that conceals a more cunning nature, and it’s often used when someone is nice to some individuals and rude to others. For example, “She acted all innocent, but butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.”

Come to Jesus Moment

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A “come to Jesus moment” refers to a time of realization or truth. It’s a phrase used in both serious and humorous contexts, highlighting moments of clarity and honesty. The phrase can be annoying too, given that it made it to the top of Forbes’ 2013 list of the most insufferable business phrases.

Swear Up and Down

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To “swear up and down” means to strongly assert something as true. This phrase emphasizes the speaker’s conviction and certainty. It’s often used when someone is adamantly insisting on the accuracy of their statement, despite any doubts or challenges. For instance, “He swears up and down that he saw a UFO.”

No Account

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When someone is described as “no account,” it means they are considered worthless or unreliable. This harsh judgment reflects the speaker’s low opinion of the person’s character or abilities, and it’s a generally dismissive term often used to express disdain or disappointment. You might hear, “He’s no account and won’t ever change.”

Fit to Be Tied

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Someone who’s “fit to be tied” is a person who’s extremely angry or agitated. The phrase suggests that the person is so upset they might need to be restrained, and it vividly conveys the intensity of someone’s emotions and the potential for a violent outburst. For instance, someone might say, “She was fit to be tied when she found her husband cheating.”

Fair to Middlin’

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“Fair to middlin'” is a way of saying something is average or mediocre. This phrase suggests a state that is neither particularly good nor bad, just passable, and it’s often used to describe how someone is feeling or the quality of something. For instance, “How are you today? Oh, I’m fair to middlin’.”

Plum Tuckered Out

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When someone is “plum tuckered out,” they are completely exhausted. This phrase combines “plum” (an intensifier) with “tuckered out” (tired) to emphasize extreme fatigue, and it’s commonly used to describe feeling worn out after a long day or strenuous activity. You can say something like, “After the hike, I was plum tuckered out,” for instance

Diddly Squat

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“Diddly squat,” like Brittanica explains, means nothing at all or something that’s very little. It’s a dismissive term that’s often used to express that an amount or effort is negligible or unimportant, emphasizing its lack of value. For example, “He hasn’t done diddly squat all day” means someone has been totally unproductive throughout the day.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

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“Barking up the wrong tree” means pursuing a mistaken or misguided course of action. This phrase comes from hunting dogs barking at the base of the wrong tree, and it’s used to tell someone they are making a mistake or focusing on the wrong thing. For instance, you might say, “If you think I can fix that, you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

Two Shakes of a Lamb’s Tail

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The expression “in two shakes of a lamb’s tail” means something will happen very quickly. Lambs shake their tails rapidly, so this phrase emphasizes speed, and it’s more commonly used to reassure someone that a task or event will be completed in a short amount of time. Now you know what “I’ll be there in two shakes of a lamb’s tail” means.

Heaven’s to Betsy

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“Heaven’s to Betsy” is an exclamation of surprise or disbelief. Often used to express astonishment in a gentle and non-offensive way, it’s an old-fashioned, mild oath that reflects Southern politeness and the avoidance of stronger language. Someone might say, “Heaven’s to Betsy; I didn’t see that coming.”

Bone to Pick

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Having a “bone to pick” with someone means having a grievance or issue that needs to be discussed. This phrase suggests that a confrontation is necessary to resolve the matter, and it’s often used to indicate that this confrontation will be a non-aggressive one. For example, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you about your work on this project.”

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