Language book tends to gather dust in Mississippi

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, July 4, 2017

By Charlie Mitchell

When you boil it down to the nub, every citizen of Mississippi except bona fide members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, is an immigrant or descended from an immigrant. Even the Choctaws weren’t here when what the Weather Channel once called “the land mass between Alabama and Louisiana” was formed. That’s why staking out this turf as “ours” is a shaky proposition.

In any event, this state is not among those in a panic about being overtaken by outsiders. Candidates do try to whip up people on the topic of aliens, largely because fearmongering works so well. Actual census numbers, though, prove there has been no onslaught. The Hispanic population (not the same as immigrant, but comparable) rose from 2.9 percent to 3.1 percent in Mississippi from 2012 to 2015. Compare that to 25 percent in Florida, 31 percent in Arizona and 39 percent in California.

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There are probably plenty of reasons why people from other countries don’t choose to relocate here, but one of them may be language. Mississippians tend to know grammar and proper usage, but we set our English books on the shelves long ago. Our communications are far more colorful, far more accurate, far more descriptive.

Take, well, “boil it down to the nub.” It won’t be in any textbook a person from Asia, Central America or Europe is used to study English. The phrase contains wonderfully interwoven images. Boiling reduces the volume of a liquid. A nub is the part of something that’s left when everything else is gone. So, boiling to the nub is the same as cutting to the chase, which is our movie-centered aphorism for “summary of essential information.”

Picture a class full of people learning English. If the instructor asks them to translate “summary of essential information,” they can handle it. If the instructor asks them to translate “boil it down to the nub,” they’re lost.

There are loads of linguistic puzzles to keep interlopers at bay. When one Mississippian says to another, “He’s as happy as if he had good sense,” we know what we mean. A person relocating from Tokyo would be hard-pressed to figure out. (Hard-pressed might present a challenge, too, given that hard means both “difficult” and “inflexible.” So would “figure out.”)

I once worked with a man who, if feeling sad, would not say, “I feel sad.” He would say he was, “lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut.”

Non-natives could process “sad.” The snake-belly version would be far more challenging.

“Crack the window,” is also something we say that gives people learning English some difficulty.

The dictionary defines “lazy.” We tend to say, “He won’t hit a lick at a snake.”

Our rural roots have given us other animal images: “Frustrated as a stump-tailed cow at fly time.” “Happy as a dead pig in the sunshine” and “Grinning like a possum with a sweet tater.” A visitor from France might well ask, “What’s a tater?” The proper reply would be “pomme de terre,” but “Grinning like a possum with a sweet tomme de terre” doesn’t quite have the cache.

Think about it. We Mississippians are constantly making statements to each other that defy literal, word for word, translation. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?” “They need to mend fences.” “I have no ax to grind.” “Don’t fly off the handle.” “He’s barking up the wrong tree.” “That takes the cake.”

For some reason we use copious amounts of swine imagery (in addition to dead ones in the sunshine).

“Holler like a stuck pig.” “Go whole hog.” “Even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then.”

There are shorter retorts that are challenging to people who might be trying to understand us. We say “tight” when we mean “frugal” or to describe a level of friendship. We talk about “piddling,” meaning wasting time; “falling out” meaning argue; “sorry,” meaning low-quality; “directly,” meaning in a little while; “aim to,” meaning intend.

Progressive people have translation apps in their smart phones. Just for kicks, if you have such an app, ask it to how to say, “Hand me that do-hicky over there,” into Spanish.

It’s a wonderful world and one of the things that makes it wonderful (and challenging) is that even when people speak English, they don’t always speak the same English.

With no disrespect to those who struggle to master life and language in a new land, may we always cherish our peculiarities.

And if tempted to be mean to an immigrant, check yourself — don’t act like you ain’t got no raisin’.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at