Grammar Moses: A Southern charm vocabulary lesson

  • A note posted at a gas pump indicates that it's out of premium gasoline at a Costco Warehouse fuel station May 11 in Ridgeland, Miss. The hack of Colonial Pipeline led to gas shortages in the eastern parts of the country.

    A note posted at a gas pump indicates that it's out of premium gasoline at a Costco Warehouse fuel station May 11 in Ridgeland, Miss. The hack of Colonial Pipeline led to gas shortages in the eastern parts of the country. Associated Press

Posted6/13/2021 1:00 AM

A hearty hello to all y'all after my two-week vacation in Tennessee and North Carolina.

I hope you missed me.


I'm one of those people who love to visit unfamiliar places with unfamiliar customs, unfamiliar dialects and unfamiliar foods.

I strive to make them all familiar to me lickety-split so I feel more a part of the place than a fish out of water.

I didn't bone up on French, Italian or German in preparation for this trip, but I did burn into my cerebrum that the mountain range is pronounced App-uh-LATCH-in, not App-uh-LAY-shun.

You blow that one, and locals point at you, their mouths agape, and scream like Donald Sutherland did at the end of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

I take it back. They're much too polite there to do that.

Midwesterners are known for their politeness. My friend Scott Schuster is the politest person I have ever met. It could be that he spent most of his time in Mount Prospect, but it also might have something to do with his time spent in greater Atlanta.

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Many of the people I met -- and I mean I had a full conversation with everyone I smiled at -- were unceasingly polite.

We were there for the aftermath of the Colonial Pipeline hack, when the only liquid being dispensed from 80% of the gas stations came from the soda fountain.

I pulled into a crowded station to fill up and sat while a guy in a pickup truck filled his tank. As he pulled away and I started to pull in, a fella with a pony tail and a BMW pulled into the lot and backed right into that spot in front of me. Here we go, I thought.

He plugged the hose into his tank and then became aware of my situation.

He came up to my window, flustered, and apologized up, down and sideways, calling me "sir" several times in the process. How could I complain?

On several occasions in our first couple of days down there people called my wife "ma'am."

People have been kneecapped for less.

"Hey, do they think I'm old?" she asked me under her breath. Not at all, I assured her. It's a sign of respect.


But hey, this is a language column, not an etiquette guide.

"Y'all," as I'm sure you know, means "you all."

Despite the typical use of "all" to describe a collection of things in many parts of the country, down there "y'all" is generally a singular thing. "How y'all doin'?" roughly translates to "How are you -- just you -- doing?"

"All y'all" is the plural form.

My wife and I ate breakfast in a cute place in Chattanooga one morning, and I had a powerful hunger because I walked a mile and a half to get there and then waited 30 minutes for a table.

While perusing the menu, I knew I had an option of grits or a biscuit as a side. I love biscuits more than a man should be allowed to. But was it going to be one of those measly biscuits-and-gravy biscuits or something substantial?

"Oh, it's a cathead," the waitress assured me.

I took that to mean that it was the size of a cat's head, and I was right.

That's a thing in the South. See, I catch on fast.

Finally, one day during the Chattanooga Ironman competition, my wife and I were suffering a little heatstroke -- despite our not having swum, cycled or run that day -- and needed water. It was somewhere just north of the temperature of a solar flare that day.

We found a convenience store and grabbed a couple of quart jugs of Gatorade.

Pink-faced and clammy, I thanked the kid behind the counter for being alive and providing us these lifesaving cold drinks, giving him my best double-barreled Southern thank you.

I remember he told me we looked "a little puny."

Now nobody has called me puny since I was a freshman in high school when I was, well, puny.

You see, "puny" in the South means "punk."

And we definitely were.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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