suck-egg mule!": An Examination of Southern Euphemisms
Euphemisms lend languages a colorful and meaningful quality that is not easily achievable otherwise, and all languages share this common linguistic feature to some extent. Although euphemisms provide a useful linguistic shortcut and add flavor to conservations and writing, they are one of the more challenging aspects of learning another language because of their esoteric qualities and subtleties of meaning that defy ready analysis by outsiders. In the case of the American South, the euphemisms that have emerged over the years may likewise appear to be almost from another country to Americans living in California, say, or New York because of these same esoteric qualities. In order to avoid being labeled a "dirty ol' suck-egg mule" in this regard and as discussed further below, this paper provides a review of the relevant literature to identify traditional and modern euphemisms used in the American South, and to the extent possible, their origins, followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Euphemisms are simply the substitution of an agreeable word or expression for other words or expressions that may be considered unduly offensive or harsh in the context in which they are used (Webster's 3rd New International Dictionary, 1991). For the purposes of this discussion, the American South will include the Confederate States of the Civil War, as well as some peripheral states where southern influences can be discerned. This classification, of course, means that a great deal of the United States can be regarded as the "South" as shown in Figure 1 below, and therefore some of the euphemisms that are used throughout the South can be found elsewhere in America as well. For example, a recent essay by Wurth (2010) recounts the author's experiences as a young child in the rural south, equating the location to "Mayberry RFD." With regards to swearing, Wurth reports that there were several colorful euphemisms that were commonly heard in her home when she was a child: "My parents' generation was particularly creative in that department. Some memorable euphemisms at our house: 'Good night nurse,' 'Heavens to Murgatroyd' and my personal favorite, 'God bless America and all the ships at sea!' (We all ran when my mom said that one.)" (p. 1).
Other modern Southern euphemisms provide their speakers with a folksy quality for people from other parts of the country and this aspect of Southern euphemisms (i.e., "In plain Texas talk, it's 'do the right thing'") was used to good effect by former presidential candidate Ross Perot (Crabtree, 1996, p. 15). While these types of euphemisms might be readily understood in other regions of the country in the context of an exclamation used in place of swear words, other southern euphemisms are not so readily transferable in terms of their meaning. For example, the title of a play by Paula Coco, "Nipples to the Wind," is based on "an old Southern euphemism that Coco first heard growing up in Texas. She says it's a more colorful way of saying, 'Head up, chin out!'" (quoted in Munro, 2007 at p. 3).
Figure 1. "Southern States" of the U.S.
Source: Morgan Keegan, 2010 at http://www.morgankeegan.com/NR/rdonlyres/A22C22BD-E1C3-410F-958B-B30C3D9343FE/0/locations_map.gif
As can be readily discerned from Figure 1 above, due in large part to the hot weather that characterizes life in the South, it is not surprising that many euphemisms have emerged to describe this miserable condition. According to Anders, some colorful euphemisms used in Louisiana to describe individual responses to excessive heat include, "When I was a young girl growing up in Shreveport, I was told, Horses sweat, gentlemen perspire, and Southern ladies feel the heat" (2006, p. 1). Other modern hot-weather related euphemisms from the South include the following:
1. It's so dry the trees are whistling for the dogs.
2. So dry the catfish are carrying canteens.
3. So dry I'm spitting cotton.
4. Hot as a two-dollar whore on the 4th of July.
5. So hot the hens are laying hard-boiled eggs.
6. So dusty the rabbits are digging holes six feet in the air.
7. Hotter than a Laredo parking lot in the summertime.
8. It's hot enough to peel house paint.
9. It was so hot you could pull a baked potato right out of the ground (Hampton, 2008).
Comparably colorful animal-related Southern euphemisms are also in abundant supply, with the following representing a cross-sampling of those found on the Internet (Hampton, 2008 et al.), all with a distinctly Southern flavor:
1. Well, don't you look prettier than a glob of butter melting on a stack of wheat cakes!
2. I won't say it's far, but I had to grease the wagon twice before I hit the main road.
3. (Pregnant before marriage): They ate supper before they said grace.
4. Safe as a tick on a dog with a stiff neck.
5. Meaner than a skilletful of rattlesnakes
6. If dumb was dirt, he'd cover about half an acre.
Likewise, humorist Lewis Grizzard (emphasis on the second syllable), reports that, "Southerners are taken to referring to animals to explain the current state of our emotions. 'I'll be a suck-egg mule,' was a way of saying 'Blow me down and call me shorty,' or 'I'm not believing this sports fans'" (p. 60). After hearing a radio sportscaster use the phrase, "Well, I'll be a suck-egg mule!" following a well-executed touchdown play at a hotly contested football game in Athens, Georgia, Grizzard did some research to determine the origins of this colorful phrase. Based on his findings, he reports, "I suppose I should also explain the term, 'suck-egg mule.' Certain animals are taken to performing the dastardly act of getting into the henhouse and partaking of the eggs. Dogs are particularly bad to do such a thing, thus the phrases, 'You dirty ol' egg-suckin' dog' and 'Lassie suck eggs,' which I saw written on a restroom wall once in Tupelo, Mississippi" (p. 61).
Clearly, the sportscaster's use of the "egg-suckin'" euphemism could be viewed in the context of his being overwhelmed and excited at the outcome of the game-winning touchdown, but calling anyone a "Dirty ol' egg-suckin' dog" would likely be viewed as fighting words. The difference in meaning is important. According to Black's Law Dictionary, "fighting words" are "certain utterances that [are not protected by the 1st Amendment] if they are inherently likely to provoke a violent response" (p. 627), making the legal distinction especially important for "dirty ol' egg-suckin' lawyers" as well as differentiating true euphemisms (more agreeable terms substituted for more harsh or taboo terms) from insults or worse. For example, some traditional Southern euphemisms that have fallen into disfavor, and which can likewise communicate sufficiently insulting qualities to probably qualify as fighting words include the now-politically incorrect Southern euphemism, "hillbilly," which has been replaced by the more acceptable "Ozark-American" (Greenberg, 2007).
By sharp contrast, many so-called "rednecks" still embrace and celebrate the designation (Greenberg, 2007). For instance, according to Greenberg, "You gotta hand it to rednecks; they don't care who calls 'em rednecks. Indeed, the true redneck takes pride in the name, and it does beat all heck out of the more scholastic classification, Southern Yeomanry" (2007, p. 27). In reality, from the popular perspective adopted by the rest of the country with regards to these types of individuals, most rednecks would probably bristle at being called a "Southern Yeoman," especially by a Yankee, even if they did not know what it meant.
The ladies and gentlemen of the antebellum era in the American South, though, were acutely aware of such class differences and took pains to use euphemisms that were sufficiently agreeable while communicating an unmistakable negative connotation. For example, Nolan (1991) reports that in a letter to his wife prior to the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee used a common Southern euphemism in reference to the attempt by "certain people of the North to interfere with . . . The domestic institutions of the South," with additional references to these worthless and contemptible "descendants of [the] pilgrim fathers" (p. 47). Viewed from a modern perspective, these euphemisms could hardly be considered to be fighting words by any standard, but the underlying message they communicated during this turbulent period in American history is well-known and they were in fact fighting words with profound implications for the history of the United States.
Clearly, the historic and social context in which euphemisms are used is vitally important to understanding their true meaning. For instance, in order to avoid offending delicate Southern sensibilities during the Civil War-era, Southern gentleman would even avoid using the term "spittal" with reference to the issue that results from the truly disgusting habit of chewing tobacco, substituting the more agreeable (but still disgusting) term "ambia" as in: "Mrs. Lowry complained about the ambia on the sidewalk in front of his store" (Wright, 2001, p. 8). American history students and perhaps even their parents (but certainly their grandparents and great-grand parents) will also likely recognize…