Speech 6: Vocal Variety. The sixth speech of the Toastmasters Competent Communicator program is meant to guide me to add life to my voice with variations in pitch, pace, power, and pauses.
Good afternoon everyone.
I have a secret. I may look all gussied up and citified, but in reality I am the descendent…of rednecks.
Some people might be ashamed to admit this, but I think it’s awesome. I spent my childhood summers feeding cows, stuffing my face with East Texas cooking, and getting yelled at for speeding on the three-wheeler. It’s from my redneck family that I learned how to sing, how to drive on old dirt roads, and how to have good manners.
There is one aspect of my family, though, that causes the occasional fuss: our…loose interpretation of the English language. All Southerners have their favorite turns of phrase, but I think East Texas folks take the cake. There are phrases my family uses all the time, and I think they’re perfectly normal — until I say them in front of someone not from East Texas. Then they look at me like I’ve just sprouted a second head.
Which is a shame. Everyone should know at least some Southern phrases. They’re colorful, descriptive, and occasionally make so little sense that they’re worth saying just to confuse people.
So in the name of education, today I’m going to share a few Southern and East Texas phrases I think are particularly interesting. When possible I talk about the phrases’ etymology, or where and when it comes from. And there’s a lightning round in the middle, so be ready for that.
First up: actin’ ugly. Anyone want to guess what this means?
This is a phrase I couldn’t find any history on, probably because it’s used so widely in the South that no one is able to take credit for it. Basically it means “being mean.” When a child, or even an adult, behaves rudely or won’t share something or says something nasty, they may be told, “Quit actin’ ugly.” It’s what my mother would say to me when she needed to remind me to be nice.
Next: Comin’ up a frog strangler. Any guesses?
It’s about to rain a lot! There are several variations, such as “toad floater” and “gully washer,” but “frog strangler” is the oldest, first appearing in print in South Carolina in 1870.
It’s mostly meant as a joke — frogs are amphibians, after all, and really hard to drown. But if it did rain enough to actually drown frogs, you can bet Southerns would coin a phrase and tell stories about it.
You guys warmed up yet, getting into the swing of things? Good, because now it’s time for the lightning round!
First, what do you call the stuff you put in the washing machine to clean your clothes? [Washin’ powder/detergent]
What’s the word for that big thing in your kitchen that keeps food cold? [Icebox/refrigerator]
What do you call the metal thing on wheels you put groceries in at the store? [Buggy/cart]
I knew you guys would get the hang of this.
Now, the last two phrases I’m going to talk about are pure East Texas — they’re things I’ve never heard anyone else other than my family say. Ready?
Foo-foo water. What could that mean?
Let me give you a hint. Some people call it “smell-em-good.” It’s perfume, or sometimes lotion. This is an old idiom, or a phrase whose definition isn’t clear based on the words that make it up.
This phrase is listed in McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions, but I can’t find when it was coined or first used. I just know it’s the phrase my uncle uses to describe anything in a fancy bottle that smells girly.
Last but not least, the most incomprehensible of phrases: Devil’s beatin’ his wife. Please tell me someone else knows this.
Man, I’m battin’ a thousand with this one. This phrase is used, allegedly, all across the South to describe the phenomenon where it’s raining while the sun is shining. Meteorologists call this a “sunshower,” but apparently in my family it means the day is so pretty that the Devil is mad at God about it, so the Devil beats his wife and the rain is her tears.
I know, this is horrifying, but it’s also fascinating. Turns out almost every country has a phrase for sunshowers. In France it’s called the “wolf’s wedding,” in El Salvador it’s said that “the deer is giving birth,” and in Canada it’s known as the “glitter waterfall.”
The phrase I learned, “Devil’s beatin’ his wife,” is apparently most popular in the American South and Hungary — which makes sense, as the South is home to the descendants of many Hungarian immigrants. It’s interesting to see how phrases travel as people do.
I think that’s enough for one day. I hope that learning about these phrases has been fun, and given you a wider scope of language to use in your daily conversations. May you confuse and entertain family, friends, and co-workers with them this summer. Thank you.
Photo by Enrique Macias on Unsplash