Southern Slang: 11 Words and Phrases You Hear in the South, Explained

Outside the South, many of these terms have totally different meanings or connotations. Let us break it down for y’all.
In the South, all sodas are called “Coke,” no matter what their actual name is.
In the South, all sodas are called “Coke,” no matter what their actual name is. / Yulia Reznikov/Moment/Getty Images (soda), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (speech bubble)

The American South is a region known for its hospitality, cuisine, and culture—and, of course, a slew of colloquialisms that often require translation for outsiders (not to mention the wide range of regional accents that come along with being raised in the South).

While every subregion in the South has its own way of talking, there are a few words and phrases that are universally heard from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi River. Here’s a rundown of some Southern slang terms that might be beneficial to keep in mind the next time you’re visiting.


Not long ago, the contraction of you and all was considered solely Southern (research, however, has shown that its first use may actually have occurred in 17th century England). Teachers tried to guide students away from using it, saying it wasn’t a recognized combination of words. But everyone who once struggled to remove y’all from their vernacular has since been vindicated: In 2021, y’all was added to, and it even registers in voice-to-text on your phone (thank goodness).

While y’all has spread outside of the South to a wider audience, outsiders might still feel strange hearing it. Just remember—it’s plural, and when someone uses it, they’re generally referring to the group you’re with.

“My family and I are looking for a place to eat.”
“What kind of food y’all looking for?”

Side note: Be sure you don’t write ya’ll—it’s guaranteed to get you laughed at by a true Southerner. It’s y’all, y’all.

Ma’am and Sir

If you grew up in the South, you learned some rules—the first and most important of which was respect for others. When you speak, be polite. That’s where ma’am and sir (usually accompanied by yes or no in front of them) come in.

These pleasantries are considered the everyday standard of polite conversation in the South, but saying them in other parts of the country can raise eyebrows; non-Southerners often feel like the ma’am and sir mean you think they’re old. But these phrases are simply a way of acknowledging to the other person that you heard them, processed what they’re saying, and are giving a response to their inquiry. They have nothing to do with your age and they’re not meant to insult anyone.

“Do you happen to know where the best barbecque restaurant is in this town?”
“Yes, ma’am. I sure do.”*

(*Please note: This person’s opinion might not be universally shared by everyone in town.)

Bless Your Heart

Everything about bless your heart hinges on how it’s presented and the context surrounding its use. It can be a true blessing for your struggles or efforts, an empathetic “I’m sorry,” or a cutting insult.

For example, if you’re telling a story of woe, and the person listening gives a slight head shake in disbelief before saying it, they’re letting you know they understand your difficulties. Or if you’re helping someone and they can see you’re struggling, they’ll say it as a way to acknowledge their appreciation for what you’re doing.

But if you show up to a pig pickin’ with quinoa and the host says “bless your heart,” the next flight home might be your best option: They either think you’re blissfully unaware, are wondering what you were possibly thinking—or they’re thinking you’re a fool.

“I made some grits for breakfast.”
“Did you put any butter or cheese in them?”
“No, does that make a difference?”
“Bless your heart.”

Fixin’ To

Ever been tasked with doing something but either forgot or ran out of time to squeeze it in—and then the person who assigned that duty asks if you’ve taken care of it? That’s where fixin’ to comes in. It’s two words that mean, “Yes, I remember you asked me to do that and no I have not taken the time to get that project done … but I’m planning on it.”

“When are you going to cut the yard?”
“I’m fixin’ to.”

Three Sheets To The Wind

Man holding shot glasses up to his eyes
In the South, people who are really drunk as said to be “three sheets to the wind.” / John Rensten/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The phrase three sheets to the wind has its roots in nautical history, but Southerners use it as a polite way to say someone is drunk. Like really, really drunk. Stumbling around making a fool of themselves drunk.

“What is Eddie doing?”
“That’s his eighth bourbon and Coke. He’s definitely three sheets to the wind.”

A Mess

The word mess generally has a negative connotation, but in the South, it takes on a whole new meaning—one with a positive spin.

As with bless your heart, the context around mess matters. The entire phrase is usually something along the lines of you a mess or you’re a mess, with the discussion before it centering on something you’re doing. Think of it as a compliment, a way of saying you’re adorable or possibly clever or witty.

“Hey PawPaw, smile for the ‘gram—Instagram, not Grandma.”
“Boy, you a mess.”

Over Yonder

Hand pointing
That thing you need? It’s over yonder. / Joho/Image Source/Getty Images

There’s the American way of measuring distance (feet, inches, yards, miles). There’s the universal way (metric system). And then there’s the Southern way, which usually involves the phrase over yonder.

Yonder, which can be traced as far back as the 1300s, can go as big or as small as you need. If you’re in your house, and someone asks where the TV remote is, you can wave a hand towards the coffee table and say, “It’s over yonder somewhere.” Similarly, if you’re outside and asked where something is that’s not close by, yonder generally means that while it might not be within reach, it is within sight.

“Where’d mom go?”
“She’s over yonder somewhere.”

Hissy Fit

When you’re a child and you’re upset at the world, you have a temper tantrum, an emotional outburst complete with pacing, a red face, yelling and possible crying. If you do that as an adult living in the South, it’s called “throwing a hissy fit.” The term dates back to the 1960s, and the hissy may be derived from hysterical. A hissy fit isn’t just a moment of frustration, but a full-on blow up or melt down. It takes a lot to get to this point, but once someone reaches it … it’s a spectacle.


Soft drink being poured into glass
Forget pop vs. soda—in the South, all soft drinks are Coke. / Virojt Changyencham/Moment/Getty Images

While Midwesterners and West Coast residents bicker about soda vs. pop, for folks in the South, there’s only one name for all soft drinks, and that’s Coke—probably due to the fact that Coca-Cola was invented before the two other soda brands that hail from the South, RC Cola and Pepsi.

If you’re not drinking water, sweet tea, or coffee at a restaurant, Southerners will usually ask for a Coke or a Coke-related product (Diet Coke or Sprite, namely). Once requested, it can bring about an additional conversation to clarify what brand of soda the restaurant serves. Some Southerners have strong feelings about one over the other, and you will get Southerners who are offered an alternative brand to Coke and they will turn it down.

Quit Being Ugly

The phrase quit being ugly has nothing to do with looks—it’s a reminder to another person not to talk badly about someone else, to stop being mean, or to cease acting uncouth while others are watching.

“Mr. Johnson sure is weird looking with his hair combed over and his missing teeth.”
“Child, quit being ugly.”

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