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Don't sass me, youngun
Now and Then
roger branch

Anyone who grew up in the rural South in the 20th century and before probably heard this command, “Don’t you sass me, youngun.” Unless he or she was careful in spoken interaction with elders, there was a good chance that he/she would be the recipient of this warning.

Although the terminology was regional, the meaning is clear. Youngun was short for young one and that in turn was alternative for child. “Sass” is less obvious. It means impudent, disrespectful or confrontational speech directed to an authority figure, be it parent, other adult family member, school teacher or most any other adult. “Don’t talk back to me” is another way to say essentially the same thing.

When being chastised, corrected, directed or informed, there were two acceptable responses: “Yes, ma'am” or “Yes, sir.” Sometimes, it was possible to introduce dissenting perspectives later, using great diplomacy and, if possible, a different authority than oneself. “I don’t mean to be sassy-mouthed. I am just going by what the Bible says.”

This top-down exercise of authority is rejected by many in the ”enlightened” present when a popular theory of child development follows a botanical model to the effect that if given full freedom children just naturally will grow straight and strong like an oak or rose bush.

Having been raised on a farm, I could write books about how this is a flawed model. The old way was necessary in the social context of the rural South that prevailed from the frontier era to the revolutionary impact of modernization beginning mid-20th century.

Frontier life was not open and free. It was constricted by the environment and the lack of easy access to necessities for living. Obtaining subsistence from farmed land, forests and streams was uncertain and labor intensive. Cooperation and coordination were necessary for survival. Elders, who knew more about how to extract subsistence from field and forest, were the bearers of wisdom and power. Local communities typically were networks of kinship and cooperation. Children grew up under the watch care of extended family. Even those outside of this network had the power of saying, “Do you want me to have to tell your daddy (momma) about the way you’re acting?”

The answer was a resounding no.

At the start of the Civil War, much of the rural South was only a few years past the frontier era. In his book, “The Mind of the South,” W.J. Cash astutely concludes that that the Civil War thrust much of the South back into a frontier-like existence. That war resulted in loss of young men, draft animals and manufacturing. Worse, it created an economic system that Dr. V. Richard Persico defined as “internal colonialism,” in which one region produced raw materials and the other region controlled prices for these and for manufactured products as well as the financial system.

In spite of brief, local flashes of prosperity when railroads proliferated and made possible the harvesting of massive amounts of lumber and naval stores, poverty ruled. Significant, systematic change began when President Franklin D. Roosevelt “discovered” this economic stepchild of the nation and made it central in some of his New Deal programs. World War II brought full employment, much manufacturing and introduction of modern technology to the region, including its farms.

These economic revolutions altered the nature of farming and swept away the social foundations of rural communities. Children might not challenge parental authority while growing up but were able to leave that nest and pursue other careers. Then they could follow their own definitions of truth and acceptable behavior. Some might sass their elders, but most just did not bother to voice their disagreements. Declining in relevance, the word itself is seldom used anymore.

These days, old folks rarely say “Lordy mercy” to express exasperation or desperation. That phrase, derived from “Lord, have mercy,” was often spoken by ladies back then, but is on the same list of bygone things as “Don’t you sass me, youngun.”

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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