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The Southern Code

Since someone let the cat out of the bag about the blessing of hearts in the South not having a thing in the world to do with blessing anything, it may be time to articulate some other Southern code employed by many folks down here that means something a little different than what it sounds like on the surface.  

It probably started because gentility and graciousness required Southern women not to be too outspoken, although the most revered ladies were often just that—when the occasion called for it.  But most of the time, restraint was more important, and language reflected that.  It does to this day, and here’s how it works.

“No one I know makes a better peach cobbler than Edith.  She’s going to make some lucky man a wonderful wife.”  Meaning:  It’s a good thing Edith can cook or she’d never find a husband.  “Where did you find that dress?”  Meaning:  I need to know where not to shop.  “I could never get away with wearing anything quite so daring.”  Meaning:  That looks a little trashy to me.  “She certainly has her own style.”  Meaning:  She has no style at all.  When Mrs. Blessherheart says things like this, she can feel comfortable knowing she didn’t say anything ugly about anybody while still getting her point across.  That’s how code works.  

There’s more Southern code embedded in the use of “Miss” as something of an honorific—think Miss Daisy or even Miss Scarlett.  But it would really take a linguist to sort out all of the coding when it is used across race, generational, and class lines.  So I’ll just comment that my maternal grandmother, called “Mommie” by her grandchildren, was always “Miss Nettie” to her sons-in-law, including my father, my Uncle J. B., and the various men who married my Aunt Mozelle over the years.  Oh, and if anyone ever called Mrs. Blessherheart by her first name following “Miss,” it would have been said with a certain amount of derision—tone of voice having everything to do with the code.   

Names for grandparents reveal some things, too, once they’re deciphered.  Grandfathers could be “Pepaw” or “Papaw” or “Granddaddy,” as well as a host of others.  My paternal grandmother was “Big Mama” to me, but “Granny” to most of her other grandchildren.  There was also “Mawmaw” and “Memaw” and “Nannie,” plus snappier versions like “Gigi” and “Mimi” for those grandmothers telling the world (in code) that they weren’t quite ready to spend the rest of their lives making tea cakes.  My personal favorite is “Mamere,” which evokes gazebos and wicker furniture in the shade of an aging magnolia.

So it came as something of a surprise this week, that a Yankee (we’ll let the “damned” be silent) had the temerity to try to decipher Southern code.  Trump (honorific omitted by code) said, “When people had their Confederate flags, they’re not talking about racism.  They love their flag, it represents the South.”  Never mind the whiplash change in tenses, he just got it plain wrong.  But then he’s more Jonas Wilkerson than Rhett Butler.

Here’s what represents the South—ham hocks and butter beans, grits and beignets, Tennessee whiskey and Tennessee Williams, chicory coffee and sweet tea, strong men and even stronger women.  The South has its own magical version of English that can turn one vowel into two (bay-yud for bed), create two syllables out of one (lie-uff for laugh), and make the letter “r” disappear entirely (hay-uh for hair).  

That famous Southern hospitality starts with making sure everyone feels welcome and comfortable.  Any southerner hosting any event knows that the guests one pays the most attention to are those likely to know the fewest people there, so we make sure that they are included.  Call me crazy, but that flag does not represent inclusion, and by extension, does not represent the true South.

What it does represent is the coded attitude of a certain subset of folks holding on to a 19th century relic who claim to see “service, sacrifice, and heritage” in it.  That’s how Nikki Haley described it.  But then she’s the one who took down that flag in South Carolina back when she was governor, and later claimed that the flag had been “hijacked” by the white supremacist responsible for the nine murders at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.  Oh, Nikki, don’t you know you can’t “hijack” something you already own?

We southerners do like our code.  So try reading this in your best Suzanne Sugarbaker voice.  “People talk about the good old days, but I wouldn’t trade my air conditioning for all the box fans China can make.  I think we should get up a petition to make Willis Carrier a saint.  Getting overheated is one of those things that just need to stay in the past—like spittoons and chamber pots.” 

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