If you think y’all is a contraction for ‘you all’ you’d be partially correct. Y’all is always plural referring to more than one other person. Modern English doesn’t have a word for the plural form of you. During the middle ages, thou was the singular from of you and ye was the plural. Over time “ye all” evolved into “y’all.” To further complicate things, if you’re talking to a group of more than three people in the south, you say “all y’all”.
So who put the “y’all” in the Southern slang?
The Scotch-Irish immigrants that journeyed to America in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Although the first known reference of the term was from Queen Elizabeth I in 1573, today it is almost exclusively an Americanism. As it turns out, the Scotch-Irish (also know as Scots-Irish) weren’t very Scottish. While some had fled Scotland following an unsuccessful rebellion to Ulster in Ireland, the majority were Irish. The rest were religious refugees who settled in Ulster from the English counties of Cumberland and Northumberland. Others were from Flanders, Germania or France (the French Huguenots like Paul Revere). What bound them together was their embrace of reformed Christianity and their rejection of established state religion. By the time they emigrated to America, by and large they considered themselves Irish. It wasn’t until the mass immigration during the Great Famine of the 1840s that the term resurfaced as a means of distinguishing themselves from the new Roman Catholic immigrants.
The Sctoch-Irish settled primarily in the south, especially in the areas of the Appalachian mountains. Their unique history and cultural identity is evident in many words that have seeped into the American vernacular.
Rednecks Despite what you may think, the term didn’t arise from the sunburned necks of these early farmers. During the 1600s, protestant insurgents wore a red scarf around their necks to signify their allegiance to the rebellion against the state churches of Scotland and Ireland.
Backwooods When they arrived in America, they weren’t necessarily greeted with open arms. The English considered them dirty, rebellious, poor and uneducated. In order to avoid the crowded conditions along the eastern seaboard and the discrimination they encountered in the cities and small towns in the colonies, they settled further west. Because they inhabited the areas behind civilization pushing the English colonial frontier, the English settlers said they lived in the backwoods.
Hillbilly Although following the Civil War the term took on a derogatory stereotype of being backward, prone to violence, and ignorant of modern customs, the term is believed to have originated from the Scotch-Irish themselves. “Hill-folk” referred to people that preferred isolation from the greater society and lived in the Scottish highlands while “billy” meant “comrade” or “companion.”
Some other phrases we can trace to America’s frontier busting Scotch-Irish ancestors:
Barking Up the Wrong Tree—Mistaken/Picked a fight with the wrong person. When hunting dogs chased raccoons up a tree and didn’t notice the critters jumped into another, they were said to be barking up the wrong tree.
Fly off the Handle—Lose your temper unexpectedly, overreact. As the Scotch Irish settled the frontier, they felled the dense forests of the eastern woodlands. A sturdy ax was essential to their success. Men carved their own handles and then attached them to ax heads shipped from the East. Because they were crudely fitted together, ax heads were known to fly off the handle, posing the possibility of serious injury to those nearby.
Ax to Grind—Personal grievance with someone, usually a strong selfish motivation. On the frontier, an ax was sharpened on a sandstone grinding wheel powered by a foot pump. When you were angry enough at someone, sharpening your ax meant you were ready for a fight.
Trailblazer—The first person to do something. This phrase came into being as the Scotch-Irish pushed their way deeper and deeper into the American frontier. Since they were exploring uncharted territory and didn’t want to get lost, they marked a trail by hacking bark off the trees. This method of marking trees was known as “blazing” since the mark resembled the white blaze on a horse’s nose.
The South today is known for its colorful style of self-expression. Although they can leave a Yankee scratching their head, there is a unique charm to these down-to-earth phrases for stating exactly what’s on the speaker’s mind.
Here’s a list of some of my favorite Southern phrases and their translations. If these don’t just dill your pickle, I don’t know what will.
“That possum’s on the stump!” Translation: That’s as good as it gets!
“His knickers are in a knot.” Translation: Look out, someone’s angry!
“A mind to!” Translation: You are thinking about doing something.
“His heart is a thumpin’ gizzard.” Translation: You’re cold-hearted and cruel
“She could start an argument in an empty house.” Translation: You’re cantankerous!
“Cain’t never could.” Translation: You’ll never do it if you don’t try
“He thinks the sun comes up just to hear him crow.” Translation: You’re conceited or vain.
“Hit the bushes!” Translation: Go to the bathroom!
“Huzzy” Translation: a bad woman like the kind that will steal your man!
“Cattywampus.” Translation: askew or awry; cockeyed
“Too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash.” Translation: You’re broke.
“That woman is talking with her tongue out of her shoe.” She’s lyin’.
“He’s only got one oar in the water.” Translation: He’s not too bright.”
“Well butter my butt and call me a biscuit.” Translation: Who would’ve known?
“He fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.” Translation: You’re not too good lookin’.
“Fat as a tick.” Translation: Full and well-fed.
The richness of Southern speech goes far beyond one or two-word expressions and as you’ve seen, there’s a Southern expression for every occasion.
I’m just happier than a dead pig in sunshine that all y’all stopped by the blog today!
What is your favorite Southern expression? Feel free to share it in the comments below!