In various settings in the South, some words have multiple meanings and some meanings are covered by multiple words. Being a native to the sub-culture or a patient learner enables the hearer to understand the message.
"Work" is a commonly used English word. Basically, it refers to exercise of both energy and ability to achieve a goal, usually but not always in the realm of economy, as in work on a farm or in a factory. Children do homework. Millions of people work at computers.
The country folk among whom I grew up had additional applications of "work." It was combined with on ("work on") to mean repair. A man might take his automobile to the shop of the most trusted or cheapest mechanic and say, "John, I need for you to work on this old car. It don't sound right to me. I have got to go to Savannah and don't want it to break down on me in the backside of nowhere."
A mother might work on the ripped britches of a son with a simple "whip stitch" to get him back to work or play quickly. (A whip stitch came to mean any quick action to some, including my mother, as in "I will be there in a whip stitch.")
A slightly variant use of "work on" was used to convey doing something with vigor or intensity. "John and Jack had a fallin' out and old Jack worked on John, left him with a black eye."
"I was hungry and worked on that supper Momma put before me." High intensity is communicated by strong inflection on worked or addition of "really," as in "really worked on."
"Public work" is any work other than farm labor, especially labor outside the context of one's own farm and that of family and friends. Work for businesses or any government agency carried a degree of negative stigma even though it produced dependable income. As demand for agricultural income shrank and more people from rural areas turned to public work, negative connotations disappeared.
Sometimes different words were used for the same thing. "Work on" and "fix" both can mean "repair" and more. The word "poke" in some places refers to a brown paper bag. Where I grew up, it mean jab or provoke. "Sack" was used more often than bag, whether made of paper or any sort of cloth. Flour came in tightly woven cloth sacks made from cotton; fertilizer came in heavy-duty, tightly woven cotton sacks; animal feed came in burlap (coarse brown fabric) sacks; groceries came home from the store in brown paper sacks.
We understood that "bag" was perhaps the more up-town word. Some of our folks who were displaced by the Great Depression worked at Union Bag, properly Union Camp, a plant in Savannah that produced craft (brown) paper from pine trees. It used a chemical process to break down wood fibers, the essential material of brown paper for bags and cardboard and by-products. While many people appreciated the economic impact of Union Bag, the noxious smell from the chemical process was despised and a wind from the east could take that smell into our homes. Bag was not a popular word.
Some words were used in limited social/geographical contexts. North Carolina, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to Appalachia, provides prime examples of linguistic variety. Lamar Moore, a friend since childhood in South Georgia, married a native of Davis, North Carolina, one of several small towns on the coast just across the sound from the Outer Banks. On a visit with him, I chatted with some of the townspeople, mostly fishermen. They sounded almost Cockney. Men were referred to as "chaps."
During my years at seminary, I met country folks from around Wake Forest and to the east. I was intrigued by their question, "What car are you on?" Not in but on. Later, I worked in North Carolina and was impressed by the cultural variety, including language, in that special state.
My late wife, Annette, has several Cajun cousins, products of a South Georgia father and a Cajun mother. They are essentially bilingual. In Lafayette, if conversation becomes real Cajun dialect, one of them has to translate for me. It is far different than what you hear from the gator chasers on television.
There are quaint, often misunderstood, things that are sometimes used in the back country where I grew up. One of them is "lord's plenty." Here is a ample. Question, "Did you get enough to eat."
Answer, "Oh yes, I had a lord's plenty."
If a good neighbor brings a gift of garden vegetables and asks if it is enough, which it always is, the response might be, "Oh thank you, Mary, it's a lord's plenty."
The phrase indicates an amount that is more than ample, a full and overflowing measure.
The origin of the phrase lies deep in the past in a time when "lords of the land" owned all land and controlled the people. "Plenty" for common folk was not the same as "plenty" for lords, who consumed in great quantities.
Thus, when South Georgia common folks say that they have a lord's plenty, they mean an amount far beyond enough, even beyond "a baker's dozen."
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.