Livin’ in High Cotton

Feb 12 2014

by Leigh Ann Thornton

I recently had someone ask me what “high cotton” means. I was somewhat perplexed. I thought even folks outside of the South knew the George Gershwin song, “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess:

And the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’
And the cotton is high.”

I explained that the phrase “livin’ in high cotton” originated during the Antebellum-era in the Deep South. When cotton had grown high (tall), the crop promised to be good, bringing a profit to the grower. And when the cotton was high, there wasn’t a lot of work to do until the harvest – the livin’ was easy. The phrase passed into the Southern lexicon and now “livin’ in high cotton” means that a person is successful.

Our conversation “got me thinking” about other words and phrases that were part of everyday conversations I heard growing up in the South. If you aren’t familiar with Southern vernacular, let me explain. I’ve found that these terms can be sorted into three categories: about People, about Food, and about Activities.

Now the most familiar “People” term to those outside of the South is “y’all.” And even if delivered in the best drawl, nothing gives you away faster as a faux Southerner than the incorrect use of this term. “Y’all” is the contraction for “you” and “all.” It is always plural. One person can never be a “y’all.” I must say that I find it impossible to address a group of people without using “y’all.” If I just say “you,” how do they know I’m not speaking to only one of them? “Y’all” is practical – just saying’. You can even add “all” to make a phrase if need be, as in, “Are all y’all going to the Auburn game on Saturday?”

Yes, incorrect use of the term “y’all” is a dead giveaway that you’re a Yankee. Now let me explain that term. New England residents will tell you that “Yankee” properly refers to descendants of English Colonial Settlers. But when a Southerner uses the term, it means anyone not from the South, be they from California, or Montana, or Ohio. Here’s an example of proper use of the word: “We were worried when Lila Rose told us she was marrying that Yankee boy from Michigan that she’s been goin’ ’round with, since we don’t know anything about his family, but he seems to have had some raisin’.” Yes, we Southerners may call anyone from outside of the South a Yankee, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know good people come from all over. And even in the South, you can find people who’ve had no raisin’. In fact, one of the worst things you can say about a person is that he or she’s “got no raisin’.” This indicates a total lack of manners and class.

Now, a person may have been raised to know the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork and to say “Ma’am” and “Sir” and still not have any common sense. That person is described as such: “Oh, no. Here comes Rob, Jr. That boy ‘doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground’.” If he winds up making a well-thought-out blunder, such as “cheating on Mary Elizabeth with that ‘white trash’ Donna Jean,” well, his “sorry ass” better not show up around here. Excuse me for cussing – now let’s move on.

A happy person is “happy as a dead pig in the sunshine.” A lazy person “won’t hit a lick at a snake” and is probably “a no account, good-for-nothing.” And that lazy person most likely “doesn’t have a pot to pee in” due to his or her lack of ability to hold a job. It may be the person spends too much time imbibing. In that case the person might be found “drunker than Cooter Brown.” I don’t know who Cooter Brown is, but obviously he needs help from AA. He may have gotten so drunk that he couldn’t see clearly and took to procreating with a “gal” who was “uglier than homemade sin.” Hopefully that gal moved on to a better fellow – “a good ol’ boy.” “A good ol’ boy” is entirely different from a “redneck,” who is completely different from “trash.” The distinctions are hard to explain, but quite apparent if you spend enough time around folks from these three classes.

Before leaving the “People” category, I feel I should address the issue of proper Southern names. Southerners love family names; that is to say, that to name your child after a long dead relative is a sign you know the value of a family legacy. Last names often show up in successive generations as first names. And no Southern child has less than two names, preferably three, and is possibly known casually by a nickname that has been handed down in the family as well. If the child is a boy, then the designations “Jr.,” “II,” “III,” “IV,” etc. are highly prized. Here’s an example: Rutledge Tutwiler Lee McAlister, III, commonly known as “Rut.” And when you meet someone, you always want to find out as soon as possible who that person’s family is. Perhaps you are distantly related, and then you’ll have found a long-lost cousin to invite to the next family reunion. Yes, we Southerners love genealogy! If all this seems silly to you, then all I can say is “bless your heart!” May I also explain that this phrase is said with a smile, but the meaning is anything but magnanimous.

If you’re still interested in learning more Southern expressions, then “let’s kiss and make-up” and move on to the next category of Southern expressions: those involving Food. Yes, food is very important in the South. Many family squabbles have been forgotten while eating a “mess” of greens (be they collards, turnip, mustard, or kale) and sopping a “pone” of cornbread in the “pot liquor.” No, this isn’t whiskey served in a pot; it is the juice produced by cooking the greens in water with ham and some sugar to cut the bitter taste. Learning to put sugar in your greens is just one of the many kitchen tips handed down in families, along with coveted family recipes, such as ones for moist cornbread dressing. And by “dressing,” I don’t mean something you put on your salad, but a side dish for your turkey. This dish is made not with white bread but with cornbread (which is never sweet), and the finish product is never stuffed inside a bird. The cornbread dressing snuggles up nicely on your plate next to sweet potato (not yam) casserole with the little marshmallows on top. To round out your meal, have some macaroni & cheese, Southern-style, a food-for-the-gods dish that is baked after stirring raw eggs into the mixture of noodles, milk, and cheese. Green beans would also be a nice addition to the meal. In the South, they are never sautéed or served “crisp tender.” Instead, they are boiled for at least an hour, with ham cut up in them, until they surrender completely and turn limp, sporting a slightly grayish-green color. Boy, do they taste good! But if that isn’t to your liking, then maybe have some fried okra – cut in pieces, stems trimmed, tossed in cornmeal and flour, salt & pepper, and fried in a little bit of oil. Have some sweet tea with lemon to wash it all down and either Banana Puddin’ or Lemon Ice Box Pie to finish up before you flop on the sofa for a nap. My, my, I do have a “hankerin’” for some Southern cookin’ about now!

But first, let me tell you about the last category of Southern expressions: Activities. Here’s one: I’m “fixin’ to” “fix” chicken and dumplings for supper. No they don’t need repair; I’m just getting ready to make them. The fix you’re thinking about is the kind done to your car. If your car just needs gas, then take it to the “fillin’ station,” not the gas station. The “g” word is best not used in polite company. After filling up your car, you can head over to the grocery store. You should go there “directly” (that means quickly), because they are having triple coupons today. I hope you get a good “buggy” (shopping cart), not one with a wobbly wheel. A word of advice: Keep your pocketbook (not purse) on your arm rather than putting it in the buggy; you never know what germs may be on the thing! When you take your groceries to the car, I hope it’s not raining, but if it’s summer in the South, then it’s most likely “hot as blue blazes” (not to be confused with navy blazers). Don’t ask me what “blue blazes” are; I haven’t a clue, and I’m too “tuckered out” to Google it. Instead, why don’t you “pull up a chair and sit awhile.” I’ll have baby Anna Belle with me. Her little face has gotten so plump that Grandma can’t help saying, “Gimme some sugar” (kisses), every time she sees her. Maybe Cousin Judson will stop by, and we can “talk some sense into him,” after we greet him with a proper “hey,” first. Ever since he retired, all he does is “piddle around” in his garage, and Cousin Opal Ann is “fit to be tied” about it. She was so “riled up” the last time I saw her!

After our visit, I do need to get to the Washateria (not laundrymat), because my washing machine is broken, and Sears can’t come out ’til next week. Johnny Lee said he was going to fix it last night, but he was making such a racket that I went in there and said, “What in tarnation is going on in here!” (I don’t exactly know what ‘tarnation’ means, but suffice it to say, it’s nothing good.) Johnny Lee was “torn up” that I didn’t trust him to fix it, but I think the work is best left to a professional. While Johnny Lee cleaned up his mess, I stepped outside to look at the “lightin’ bugs” (fireflies), and I caught a glimpse of that “varmint” possum going back under the porch after eating all the cat food. Then Johnny Lee started calling to me to cut him a piece of pie to eat while he watched the Braves game. I said, “I’ll be there by and by” (in a short while), but instead I just went on to bed. My head was pounding from too much stress, not to mention the fact that Johnny Lee doesn’t need to eat any more pie! Anyway, this morning, I felt “fit as a fiddle.”

However, I must admit that now all this explaining has left me “plum tuckered out.” So before I conclude, let me give you a final test of how you put these expressions all together:

Jackson was torn up over Gracie Pearl leavin’ him for that no-account, good-for-nothin’ nephew of Judson’s who’s always drunk as Cooter Brown and never has hit a lick at a snake, so Mama fixed a mess of collards and a pone of cornbread to go with that Honey-Baked ham Savannah gave her to make up for mangling that iced tea spoon from Grandma’s Francis I silverware in the garbage disposal. Anyway, Mama invited Jackson over for Sunday dinner. We talked some sense into him, and now he realizes that he’s better off without Gracie Pearl. That gal never did have any raisin’, and that fella she’s run off with doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground, so they never will have a pot to pee in. Jackson says now that he thinks about it, he realizes she was as ugly as homemade sin, so now he’s feelin’ happy as a dead pig in the sunshine to be rid of her.

Do you follow what I’m sayin’? Well, if you don’t, then bless your heart!

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,

Leigh Ann Thornton


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Testing info

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One response on “Livin’ in High Cotton

  1. cathypercefull

    Little Rock, Arkansas native and understood perfectly! Now living in Colorado and at times need to translate for people. Thanks for speaking English, Cathy Ann

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