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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

daily bliss: southernisms

All day long I cast about for good blog topics...hmmmm...flying metaphors? Sea glass hunting? Trademobile? A list of things that annoy me when I'm at the gym? I send out a S.O.S tweet, and one of G's ideas sounds intriguing: explain the use of "might could" for non-Southerners. Truth be told, other than knowing that the grammatically correct name for this usage is the Double Modal, I don't really know much about it.

Still, the writing gods are not smiling on me. I read a little Michael Perry, his latest memoir, Coop, and am paralyzed instead of inspired by his complex easy-goingness infused with sentiment. Damn him!

I decide to run some errands. After all, 4:00 is as good of time as any to change out of yoga pants and declare it a *real* day...

The first stop: my favorite local liquor store, TL. I'm in search of a particular wine, and think I remember seeing it on their crowded shelves.

I browse the aisles and hear, "Are you looking for something specific?"

I turn, and gape/grin at an older man with bleach blond hair, dripping in jewelry, and wearing the brightest, boldest tie-dyed shirt I've seen since I was in grad school and surrounded by Grateful Dead fans.

"Layer Cake Shiraz."

"Ooh, I don't think we have it, but let's go check."

I follow him back to the corner rack, and he points to the spot where it used to be. "Nope. Can I help you find something else?"

"Thanks, but I kinda have my heart set on that wine."

"Are you looking for a red?"

(yes! the wine you don't have! duh!)


"Do you like Pinot Noir?"

"It's my favorite," I perk up, thinking he had some undiscovered gem to share.

"Come on, I have a wine for you, Hon..."

(hon? did he just call me hon? are we still North of the Mason-Dixon line?!?)

"Here. This one's real popular with our customers. One guy even bought a case."

He shows me a wine I've seen before, and I flip over the bottle to read the prose. Hmmm. Gentle aging in oak barrels. Nope.

I thank him, wander to the back of the store, pick up some beers, and head to the check out counter. He's amused that I've switched alcohol categories entirely.

As I turn to leave, a multi-generational group of women approaches the counter with a huge jug of wine. "Do you sell gift certificates?"

"Yes we do!"

I sprint out the door. I can't help but giggle as I drive to the Super Discount Liquor Store to look for my lush, jammy Layer Cake Shiraz...

...and, yes, they have it. Hallelujah.

Mr. Neon's endearment/aside stuck in my head, and I started to think more about Southern American English, and the words and phrases that have integrated themselves in my speaking and writing.

Such endearments were commonplace all over the South, from grocery store checkers to fellow shoppers in the Dillard's shoe department. I miss them all. There was something so friendly about shopping in the South.

Other phrases stick, like the ubiquitous "y'all" and the intimate plural "all y'all," so useful for referring to groups of people.

Or how about "fixin' to"? As in, "I'm fixin' to write a blog entry when I get home from the store." (and, yes, in that sentence the get must stay:)

And, finally, the ever useful double modal. There are many variations, but my favorite is "might could."

Now, imagine the sentence "I might go to the store." And the sentence "I could go to the store." Both are conditional, on some level. There's a certain implied agency--i.e. I have the ability to go to the store, but whether or not I'm actually fixin' to go is another matter.

Now, mash 'em together: "I might could go to the store." Now, you have an extra level of conditionality, which gives you a lot of wiggle room for store-going. You're not really committing to any store-going in this sentence, and are maintaining a lackadaisical air.

This phrase is useful when responding to student essays, especially to students who are skittish about writing. It's like I'm giving them all the power to make the decision they want to make. For example, "You might could change some of your word choices here to make your essay sound stronger."

Now, some might think the double modal is just a linguistic form of passive-aggressiveness. I prefer to think of it as both empowering (to others ) and protective (to the self). It's handy. It's quaint. It's fun.

And I might could use some of that Layer Cake Shiraz right about now. In fact, I'm fixin' to pour a glass if all y'all want to join me:)


  1. Ha! Layer Cake is the Shiraz I brought to the Shiraz wine club--probably my favorite. I bought it at SDL, and gained much approval from the guy checking me out.

    Speaking of checking things out....you know, some day we might could go on out to Baltimore for this: www.honfest.net

    Great entry. Made me miss my (borrowed) corner of the South, and all the Appalachian-isms, pronunciations (Buchanan? Say "Buck-hannon."), and kindnesses.

  2. you might could make a playlist for your characters :) it's tres fun!

    oh, and thanks to you i'm totally hooked on cafe au laits. i can't start my morning without one. :)

  3. Also...now all I want is a glass of Layer Cake Shiraz! Oh well. Will have to have some malbec instead.

  4. "Might should" is another useful double modal. How little obligation does that express?! The first time a workman told me to "mash" the button, I was totally confused. Ditto when my college suitemate talked about her Daddy (always "Daddy") "carrying" her to school. Love the regional idioms!

  5. "Might could" is one of my favorites! Also, children here don't put their toys away, they put them "up." They are not sick to their stomach, they are sick at their stomach. And at the grocery store we push around buggies, not carts. I really think these slight linguistic differences are part of what makes the country interesting!