In a current TV commercial, a popular actor seeks to sell viewers on the value of a particular credit card, always ending with the “What’s in your wallet?” punch line. A new twist to the commercial has another character stealing that line and alpha actor exclaiming, “I don’t say it that way.”
Similarly, people from the back country South often used the same words as other English speakers but with different meanings.
For example, they did not use “pig” as a generic term for all swine, regardless of age, sex or size. In fact, they did not say “swine” either. Their word for all was “hog” in speech or writing.
Pigs were the very young — from birth to about 3 months — at which time they became “shoats,” no longer pigs, but not yet full-grown. By then, there were divisions by gender. Females were “gilts” and remained such until giving birth to their first litter of pigs. Most males were deprived of their sex by castration early on and thereafter were “barrows,” which usually was pronounced “barrs.” A male pig that showed promise might be spared to become a stock animal, called a “boar” or “boar hog” at maturity. Many proper ladies substituted “male hog” just as they did “male beast” for bull. Thus, there was a vocabulary to denote important differences among hogs.
While hogs were central to their diet and as a marketplace source of income, country folks did not actually like them. Sharing one’s home with a pet pig would have struck them as insane. Hogs are dirty from wallowing in mud to cool off and to get a mud cake on their bodies as protection against insects. Their feces stink, probably due to their omnivorous diet. Hogs can and will eat anything dead or alive, including grain, but also plant tubers rooted up in the woods and grubs or salamanders found at the same time. They will eat snakes — including poisonous types — being almost immune to their venom. They will eat dead things. World War II veterans told horror stories of hearing strange sounds nearby at night and discovering at daybreak hogs feasting on dead soldiers, comrades and enemies alike.
“Bag” was rarely used for soft-sided containers made of paper or fabric and in varying sizes with a wide range of uses. Be they of brown paper filled with groceries, printed cotton cloth for flour or coarse burlap for cotton picking, they were “sacks,” as in flour sacks or paper sacks.
In the movie “Sergeant York,” I first heard the word “poke” instead of sack used in dialogue attributed to people from the mountains of Tennessee. I don’t know if this is the way they talked there at that time or if it was imposed upon the script by movie screen writers who never even visited the place. I am aware that the phrase “bought a pig in a poke” refers to making a financial deal without knowing fully what is hidden in the sack. In my neck of the woods, “poke” meant prod or maybe even hit. But, I repeat, there is no universal Southern dialect. It is a big area with varying ethnic mixes in ancestry and differing regional histories.
In my version of Southern speak, most words have the same meanings as they do for other English speakers. “Catch” is widely used for varying actions. To catch a ball is to gain control of it, be the game baseball or football. To catch the cold is almost the opposite as an infectious virus gains control of a person. One catches trains. Many children’s games are versions of catch in which one player chases down another. To catch a criminal is to detect and maybe detain him or her.
My mother had a special application of “catch" and I think that it was part of her own culture of Southern speak. On some confrontational occasions, she would say, “Don’t you ever let me catch you doing that again.” Here, it means something like detect and detain. It seems that the logical response to oneself might be “You need to be careful so that she never catches you again.”
That will not work. She will catch you. If somehow she doesn’t see you, somebody will tell on you. Then the implied negative consequences will become real and immediate. So, don’t even think about doing it.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.